How BoJack Horseman (and Men) Heal From Trauma At The Expense of Others
BoJack could easily be replaced with a number of men who are continually allowed to be violent as a mechanism for “healing” regardless of who they hurt.
TW/CW: This essay contains discussions of drug and alcohol addiction
By Gloria Oladipo
The T.V. show, BoJack Horseman, is the slapstick, anthropomorphism version of how trauma and mental illness map themselves onto relationships. The show centers BoJack Horseman, a former sitcom star, and his various experiences navigating life in Los Angeles and fame while “managing” a debilitating addiction and, what appears to be, several mental illnesses. As the show wraps with its sixth season, we observe BoJack approach the world with his newfound sobriety and desire to make amends. While this is a refreshing and somewhat positive change in BoJack’s life trajectory, the show’s final season isn’t entirely optimistic. Throughout the first half of the season (the second half comes out on January 31st, 2020), as we bear witness to BoJack’s healing process, everyone around him who has been affected by his instability is forced to reckon with how BoJack’s problems have completely altered their lives.
BoJack healing from his own trauma at the expense of…literally everyone else is grossly similar to the ways in which (human, not horse) men “grow” while leaving the victims of their actions to sit in the wreckage they leave behind. Throughout the series, BoJack knows he is an asshole, a compulsive liar, and generally a chaotic person. Yet, even with the perceived self-awareness that BoJack exhibits, he repeats his actions over and over again, witnessing all the ways the people around him are damaged and broken by his actions. Maybe BoJack is mindlessly living in a cycle of trauma further padded by his addiction; he knows that he is hurting the remaining people in his life, but is powerless to stop the pain he causes. Maybe he is just an asshole, someone who recognizes his abusive relationships with people, but chooses not to act because it’s more comfortable for him.
While the jury is still out, here are 3 ways in which men (human and horse, this time) heal from trauma at everyone else’s expense:
1. Men Always Need Accomplices for Their Destructive Behavior
Ever notice how when a woman is doing self-destructive behavior, she maintains a cult of secrecy around her misdeeds and poor decisions? Think Penelope hiding her depressive symptoms and behaviors on One Day at A Time or Emma Nelson concealing her eating disorder on Degrassi: The Next Generation. Even in BoJack Horseman, as Sarah Lynn, BoJack’s former co-star, grows more entangled with her addiction or Princess Carolyn, BoJack’s former publicist/lover, struggles with her work-life balance, we only receive snippets that hint towards their descent. They never breakdown in public (even with Sarah Lynn’s forthcoming overdose, she is presented as generally maintaining sobriety).
Conversely, BoJack Horseman is constantly in chaos all the time and never in it alone. Whenever we see BoJack in crisis, it is never a solitary capitulation, but a domino effect that usurps the well-being of his friends and family. There are smaller, more comical examples of this: BoJack repeatedly calling Princess Carolyn to ask for help on a basic task or BoJack badgering Diane Nguyen, his ghostwriter, and friend, for advice. However, BoJack’s mechanism of roping others into his demise grows more sinister as the series continues. In Season 3, after encouraging Sarah Lynn to go on an “epic” month-long bender with him, she overdoses. This is a stark contrast to the bubbly shenanigans of BoJack Horseman; instead of bringing Sarah Lynn along on an episode-long devilment, we see another side of BoJack: one where he pushes Sarah Lynn off the wagon and enables her bender until she dies.
2. Others Rarely See the Full Magnitude of the Wreckage Men Cause
One purpose of BoJack Horseman was to continually reveal the mayhem BoJack causes. Whether that be Sarah Lynn’s overdose or the firing of Sharona, a hairdresser whom BoJack threw under the bus for leaving alcohol around on set, BoJack is really good at ruining lives. However, within the show, there is an acute lack of awareness of just how damaging BoJack is. A smaller example of this is early in season 6 when, in an attempt to get one of his housemates, Jameson, to return to rehab, BoJack inevitably damages her home, specifically her father’s car. When BoJack and Jameson are discovered by Jameson’s father, BoJack is able to project the blame onto Jameson even though his own traumatic flashback caused him to destroy the car to Jameson’s horror.
An even darker reminder of BoJack’s ability to destroy others but never be held accountable is the story of Gina, BoJack’s former co-star; while BoJack was abusing prescription pills, he suffers hallucinations causing him to strangle Gina during a take of the show they work on together, Philbert. Gina begs BoJack to lie about the choking so her career is not defined by BoJack’s misactions. However, the trauma associated with being choked by BoJack continually impacts Gina’s future performances, causing her to be evasive of physical touch and suspicious of her other coworkers. Ultimately, Gina’s “outbursts” on set negatively impact her career, causing directors to reject her from future roles. Gina’s breakdowns are assumed to be character defaults compared to the result of severe trauma.
3. Men Get to Act on Their Trauma
BoJack Horseman further illustrates the continual privilege men have to lash out as a trauma response. An obvious example is BoJack’s relationship with his mother, a woman who caused him great pain. BoJack continually acts out in response to the harm she caused him: institutionalizing her in a deteriorating nursing home, berating her in all their interactions, and throwing her beloved doll off the side of his balcony. In contrast, even as Hollyhock has trauma of her own—having a family member (BoJack) with an addiction problem and not knowing her biological mother, her responses vary greatly. In response to the harm caused by BoJack and his family, Hollyhock is willing to engage with them, resisting bitterness in favor of understanding her family’s legacy. Approaching her traumatic past with curiosity and forgiveness compared to the misguided rage of revenge enables Hollyhock to make strides in her healing process whilst BoJack continually implodes and explodes.
As a show, BoJack Horseman is so successful because of its ability to illuminate truths about our trauma and healing and how these processes differ based on positionality; the use of humans, animals, and characters in between reflects the universality of these experiences. BoJack could easily be replaced with a number of men who are continually allowed to be violent as a mechanism for “healing” regardless of who they hurt. Using this show as a mirror to reflect on who we excuse in our society only allows us to do the contemplation necessary to stop problematic cycles.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @glorels.
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