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Banerjee: ‘Bojack Horseman’ and toxic masculinity

The newest season of Netflix’s original comedy, Bojack Horseman, forces its viewers to reconsider the role of an anti-hero and should be taken as a lesson for writers and content creators across mediums.

David Harmantas

David Harmantas

Anna Banerjee, Opinion Columnist

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It is difficult to explain what exactly is so engrossing about “Bojack Horseman.” While the show’s misadventures are entertaining in and of themselves, there is something stronger at work when it comes to its impressive success. “Bojack” stands out, especially when positioned against the comedies that did well in the early 2000s, such as “Parks & Recreation” or “The Office.”

But with the release of the show’s fifth season, the question of Why “Bojack”? has been replaced with Why Bojack? as the show begins to ask the world why it has allowed its eponymous lead such monumental success and whether it should have.

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Satirical and nihilistic, the show offers little in the way of friendly humor; the writers of the show seem to focus on causing an active viewing experience based on philosophical, ethical, and moral questions. Many of the problems stem from the moral complexities of its main character, whose various actions lead to discussions on issues including drug abuse and sexual assault.

After the Season 4 finale, as a viewer, I was left wondering whether Bojack deserved a redemption arc and whether, if he received one, it could be acceptable.

Regardless of how self-aware the show may be, Bojack, himself, is horrifically and critically not.

Regardless of how self-aware the show may be, Bojack, himself, is horrifically and critically not.”

Maybe this is where the appeal of the show lies — the show’s seeming acceptance and portrayal of terrible men. The antihero has become a staple of television recently, beginning in part with the critical success of “Breaking Bad,” because it appeals directly to the machismo of toxic masculinity but in a seemingly “subversive” manner.

But Bojack takes this narrative trend in a far darker direction. Many of the character’s actions in the past three seasons have fully breached dangerously abusive, toxic, and manipulative territory, yet parts of the fanbase continue to glorify it all the same.

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Bojack is different, fans thought, because Bojack knows what he is doing and can’t fall into misogynistic tropes. You can’t be sexist if you’re subverting stereotypes.

But that’s not true. As Bojack says about “Philbert,” the show he stars in within the season, “It doesn’t glamorize anything. But maybe it normalizes it.” Creating gritty male characters that abuse and hurt their female counterparts is not inherently progressive; the knowledge that “sexism is bad” isn’t good enough when portraying tricky subjects like domestic violence and violent misogyny. By giving a platform to scenes of misogynistic violence — verbal or physical — it allows or, at least, doesn’t stop this from continuing to happen on-screen and off.

“Philbert” functions as a critique of “Bojack” as a whole, forcing the viewers into realizing the faults in their own logic. Diane, Bojack’s friend brought into script-edit, describes how the show seems to be “posing as a deconstruction of the edifice of toxic masculinity, but it’s just using that as an excuse to relish in its own excesses.” Quite directly, this line describes the functioning of “Bojack” itself.

Season 5 refuses to allow its audience to be comfortable. We are complicit in allowing the titular character to get away with committing horrible actions in the name of “grit.” In our attempt to enjoy our entertainment, we actively ignored the darker questions behind our favorite character. (Being “so well-written” doesn’t absolve a character of his actions.)

Dark comedies are allowed to go further than most other genres because of that implicit understanding that this is fictional commentary meant to shock and appall us — but is that enough? In light of changing world politics, it seems like we have an obligation as media consumers to do more than quietly allow the male lens — and its blinders — to stay in power.

The new season of “Bojack” is a critical season of television in that it addresses its own problems in an honest manner. Show-runners and writers of all genres and media should look at this season in order to fully understand exactly what responsible television entails. It’s not being nominally aware of your flaws and playing them off as “smart” or “edgy” — it’s ensuring that your viewers, many of whom will be women or targeted minorities, are safe. As compelling as an antihero can be, its role is entirely defunct if it only serves to fall back onto the destructive tropes it seeks to dispel.

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