BoJack, borderline, and self-forgiveness

A still from BoJack Horseman, where the title character - a brown horse with a black mane and white blaze - stands with other human and animal characters. Festival Annecy

Are we men or are we horses?

“You’re BoJack Horseman; there’s no cure for that.”

            “You are all of the things that are wrong with you.”

            “You ruin people; that’s what you are.”

Before I started watching BoJack Horseman a few weeks ago, the essence of what I knew about it was that “you’re not supposed to relate to BoJack .” He was introduced to me as one of those central characters – like Rick and Morty’s Rick, or the alcoholic writers at the centre of nearly every Stephen King novel – who often speak to people in a way that is less a comfort and more an indictment of their own character. If you see yourself in BoJack , as I was told by most of the people who recommended the show to me, that’s a red flag. Now that I’ve seen the show, I’d say that yes, it probably is a red flag, but also that there’s more than one way to react to flags of that colour. When I did find myself, in many ways, understanding what BoJack was wrestling with through six seasons with himself, I also realized that I was responding to the “red flag” it raised in a way that is so different than I would have years ago.

BoJack Horseman tackles a lot of topics through a lot of characters, but the story of the character BoJack is focused on the judgment he passes on himself. In turn, the judgment that we as viewers pass on BoJack is part of the watching experience, too. The show intentionally challenges the viewer every time BoJack does something harmful to think critically about how he (or they) should respond, to what degree we should condemn him. What’s more – we are challenged to decide if it’s productive or helpful to assign BoJack permanent shame for his repeated mistakes. The questions we’re encouraged to ask often challenge our ideas about justice, about how to deal with interpersonal harm, and about who deserves forgiveness and what that means. Sometimes the viewer sees themselves in Diane, someone often desperately trying to get BoJack to take accountability, but there is no simple perpetrator/victim dichotomy in BoJack and Diane’s relationship. In fact, as Diane points out, such a dichotomy is not realistic: “there are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ We’re all just ‘guys.’”

There’s a lot of meta-commentary around this; the book Diane writes and the movies and shows BoJack stars in all act as metaphors for the Netflix series itself. We’re always supposed to be thinking: should we be glorifying people like BoJack by investing in their emotional turmoil? Is that just making excuses for what they do, and silencing the people they hurt? They are difficult questions, but ultimately, we have to realize that BoJack is the main character of his own story (not to mention that we can’t hold a fictional horse accountable) and that he has to find a way to live with himself. And if we do unfortunately relate to BoJack – that is, realize that we are capable of hurting the people around us or have done so before – eventually we are invited to realize that we are our own protagonists and have to find a way to live with ourselves, too.

It was very hard for me to watch a character like BoJack struggle through the assumption that he, on some fundamental level, was a “poison” to those in his life. It was hard for me to watch other people believe that and tell him that too. This had a lot to do with the way it became increasingly apparent that he was living with borderline personality disorder (BPD), and that the things people told him (in the beginning quotes of this article) were so emblematic of the way people with BPD are treated like unsolvable problems. Over the years, I’ve lived with that same stigma. I’ve heard and deeply believed that it was wrong for me to be around others, to love others, or to foolishly think that I was capable of change – even many psychiatrists believe as much about people with a personality disorder. I found myself reminded again that even if BoJack were to understand he fit all the criteria for a BPD diagnosis, people with BPD often receive biased care or are refused treatment altogether. My frustration with the constant refrain of “go to therapy” reignited, and I remembered again how awful it feels to be expected to change your whole life when nobody believes you can – when you don’t believe you can either.

It wasn’t that BoJack and I had the same life or made the same mistakes; the details of what BoJack does are not meant to be the focus for viewers, but rather the way he can’t separate his actions from his essential self. Like BoJack’s string of failed relationships and personal endeavors, every time I failed for a long time, it felt predestined – as he illustrates after his breakup with Wendy: “same thing that always happens. You didn’t know me and then you fell in love with me. Now you know me.”

This is a useful narrative for people who are trying to live with constant abandonment and disappointment. It assigns cosmic significance to every screw-up and whisks away responsibility like it did for BoJack so many times. Like all defense mechanisms though, this black-and-white thinking is a convenient and attractive lie. BoJack did not lose girlfriends and hurt other people because he was a toxic beast. Each of those mistakes were comprised of decisions he made, decisions that could have been made differently and can be made differently in the future. Sometimes, as in BoJack’s case, it is a lot easier to just believe that we are monsters instead of sitting down with our emotions and the wounds of our past, the things that are really driving our behaviour. At the end of the series, BoJack finally arrives at the base of that understanding – that you have to grant yourself humanity before you can improve as humans do.

There are so many other things I can say about my BoJack Horseman binge, most of them about that really messed up episode with the chicken, or how funny all of the jokes about Mr. Peanutbutter are, but the most important thing it gave me was this refreshingly earnest message of the ability to forgive ourselves. It is not the same as deserving forgiveness from everyone – many people don’t forgive BoJack, and the people we hurt do not have to forgive us either – but we can control whether or not we hate ourselves for the rest of our lives. So maybe you do feel a little bit like you relate to BoJack Horseman – that’s not the end of the world. What are you going to do about it now?

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