Diane Nguyen and the Myth of the Tortured Artist
Socially and culturally, we hang onto the belief that the more you suffer for your art, the more valuable it is. Diane’s experience dismantles the myth of the tortured artist.
By Rebecca Wei Hsieh
If I were to distill Diane Nguyen into a few words, they would be: Vietnamese American, woman, feminist, depressed, writer. Since I’m also a Sad Asian American Writer, you can imagine how much I relate to her. When I described the character to my therapist, she even asked me archly, “Did you write this?” So when Diane finally decided to go on antidepressants after a lot of resistance, I was over the moon. Her health vastly improves in episode 6.10 of BoJack Horseman, “Good Damage”. But there’s just one problem:
She’s unhappy with being happy.
More accurately, Diane is struggling to write her memoir, and she attributes that to the antidepressants taking away the pain that she deems integral to her work. She even straight-up says it herself in 6.7: “My best stuff comes out when I hate myself.” Except nothing is coming out. As her boyfriend Guy points out, her medication hasn’t changed her productivity, at least not on the writing front, but after Princess Carolyn argues that “sad is the new fun,” Diane stops taking her meds cold turkey in an effort to feel the anguish that supposedly fuels her art.
It’s a narrative we’ve heard countless times since forever. Van Gogh, Hemingway, whichever Oscar-frontrunner of the season is going to extremes to stay in character. Even the titular BoJack. Socially and culturally, we hang onto the belief that the more you suffer for your art, the more valuable it is.
In a way, it makes perfect sense that we’d hold onto such a concept. We want our meandering lives to make sense, to be worthwhile, and that especially applies to our pain. As Diane puts it, if she doesn’t do something with her damage, then it won’t be “good damage,” and all the abuse she suffered will have been for nothing.
To top it all off, Diane feels the additional burden of representing her marginalized communities as a semi-public figure. Princess Carolyn—hardly the healthiest person/cat herself—pounces on that stress to persuade her further. If Diane writes this book of essays, then maybe she’ll help all the kids with broken homes like her feel less lonely! They’ll see their stories on shelves and on the silver screen, represented and reminded that they exist and they matter! The intent is sweet and noble and very Diane. Yet, in a way, she has also unwittingly internalized the white male gaze that she so vehemently fights—buying into the narrative of dangerous, neverending self-sacrifice in service of others’ happiness.
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After all, as Karen Shimakawa contends in her book National Abjection, our media is rife with images of “beautiful(ly) dead Asian women.” How could Diane not have absorbed that toxicity? Especially given that her abusive family denied her access to her Vietnamese heritage, Diane unwittingly grew up as a descendant of texts like Miss Saigon and The Toll of the Sea, narratives that are nothing more than perverse white male power fantasies. They all follow the same basic racist and sexist premise: Asian women’s pain is beautiful. In fact, pain makes Asian women more beautiful; pain is what makes Asian women beautiful at all.
As Diane says, “I just wanna be a beautiful salad bowl,” one that breaks but whose cracks “get filled with gold and then they’re even more beautiful.”
But then Diane does something surprisingly radical: she chooses to write her Ivy Tran book instead of her memoir. Rather than repeatedly trigger herself in some misguided attempt to make sense of her trauma, she embraces the whimsical charm of an edgy teen detective who gleefully tackles any and all mall-related mysteries. Oh, and Ivy’s also Vietnamese American.
Of course, mental illness can’t be pushed aside by “choosing” to be happy. That’s just ableist bullshit. But allowing yourself to feel the happiness you do experience instead of punishing yourself for it in a world that seems to be on fire? Fully embracing these stolen moments of euphoria in a society that fetishizes your trauma as a marginalized person? That’s *chef’s kiss*
That’s not to say that there is no value in stories about trauma. There absolutely is. I can’t recount all the memoirs about depression, abuse, and OCD that have helped me through the lowest points in my life. But there is a difference between recounting the stories behind your scars, and scratching at a fresh scab until it bleeds again and again in the name of “art.”
Diane can revisit her hard-hitting memoir further down the road from a safe, healthy place with ample support. She can dig deep when it no longer saturates her soul with dread and despair. To quote a casting director I once worked with, “It’s just a fucking play.” It’s just a fucking book, and no art is worth hurting yourself for.
And the thing is, Ivy Tran is a good book. It’s an inspirational book that delights middle schoolers and prompts them to flock to book signings. It’s no less valuable because there’s no abuse in it, just like Diane’s life is no less meaningful when she’s out watching Baby Humans baseball games and eating Chicago-style baked potatoes. She can be buoyed and bright and still be critical like she is about how way too much single-use plastic comes with said potato. The only difference is that she won’t be tearing herself apart over it.
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One lesson I’ve learned from therapy is to try to be okay with where we are, and if where we are is our happy place, that’s okay too. We are not our trauma(s) or hardships. We are not whatever harm that was inflicted upon us when we were too little to know anything different. We are the choices we make, not the ones made for us, forced on us, taken from us.
So in a way, what Diane says to BoJack in the very first episode rings true: “You’re responsible for your own happiness.” Now that she’s grown into a strong, independent woman, Diane chooses to embrace her joys as well as her sorrows, in spite of a world that says her hurt is what makes her matter as a human.
And there is no better lesson to teach all the little Diane Nguyens of the world.
Rebecca (she/her) is a Taiwanese American actor, writer, translator and authenticity reader based in NYC, and holds a BA in theatre and Italian Studies from Wesleyan University. Having grown up across several continents, her writing focuses on the interplay between Asia and the Asian diaspora, gender, queerness and mental illness. She’s currently co-writing a memoir about Chinese-occupied Tibet. You can find her nerd rants on Twitter and her properly edited work at her site.
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