Bojack Horseman and the Legacy of Misogyny

by thethreepennyguignol

“Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf/ Get out as early as you can/And don’t have any kids yourself”. If there’s any quote that sums up the latest season of the inimitable Bojack Horseman, it’s the final lines of Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse – an indictment of inherited misery and the way pain echoes down generations of a single family. But more than that, season four of everyone’s favourite depressive show about an ex-sitcom star who’s more horse than man (or is he more man than a horse?) is a tirade against historical misogyny – and how it, above all else, has inflicted horrendous physical and emotional pain on three generations of the lead character’s family. Spoilers for season four ahead.

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The second episode of the season follows Bojack’s grandmother Honey Sugarman and her family. Her son, Crackerjack, is shown to have an affinity for music and the arts, but is shipped off to fight in the war nonetheless – and, of course, meets his end of foreign soil. His loss sends his mother spiralling out of control, as she exhibits symptoms of PTSD, mania, and depression. Her husband, not knowing how to deal with the sudden explosion of messy, explicit emotion, chooses to have his wife lobotomized in response to her breakdown.

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I don’t think the patent misogyny of this kind of reaction – of responding to a woman in mental health crisis by performing a useless, dangerous, crippling operation on her brain, an operation that many real-life women went through around this period without their consent – needs explaining. The show says it better than I ever could, with Joseph, Honey’s husband, announcing “As a modern American man, I am woefully unprepared to manage a woman’s emotions. I was never taught and I will not learn”. It’s easy to identify the badness here, the sexism, the cruelty; I still respect the show for going this unapologetically far with the lobotomy storyline, but it’s what it does with the next generation of the Sugarman family that really fascinates me.

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Honey has a surviving daughter, Beatrice, who goes on to become Bojack’s mother. We see the major milestones in her life through a number of flashbacks across the season, but nothing is perhaps more important than the moment she sees her lobotomized mother for the first time; here, she is being presented with the answer to the question “what happens when women don’t act like they should?”. And that answer is sitting right in front of her, her personality all but removed and a husk of a woman (who is only depicted in silhouette, the only discernible feature a lobotomy scar, in flashbacks after her operation). As a woman, if she misbehaves, she will be punished. And so, what does she do?

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Despite her prodigious talents and intelligence, she finds herself forced – by her family and by society as a whole – into the role that she as a woman is expected to fulfill. She takes “diet pills” that have her functioning in a tweaked-out haze, but keep her thin. She eventually rejects her father’s choice of husband for her, but finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage with a man woefully unprepared to deal with the real world, including her. She is outwardly, utterly miserable, even though she became a wife and a mother and stayed thin and beautiful like her family hoped she would. In her frustration at the limits her gender has put on her, she lashes out at her husband and her son, irreparably damaging her relationships with both of them in the process. But at least she’s been allowed to hold on to her brain – by acting, at least to the people that matter, like she “should”, she has escaped the fate that was inflicted on her mother. She’s miserable, but at least she’s kept a handle on what made her, her – at least, until she’s stricken with dementia.

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This is where we come into the story, where we pick up, as Bojack – who viscerally detests his mother for the appalling ways she took out her own misery on him over the years – takes in his severely ill mother after she’s booted from her nursing home. The show allows itself one “fuck” per season, so the word actually has impact, and this time it comes as Bojack announces that he wants to tell his mother “fuck you” to her face. That’s how much he hates her.

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And she proves why he should, at least in his eyes. His ostensible long-lost daughter, Hollyhock, is also staying with Bojack at the same time as his mother; Beatrice makes a number of comments about Hollyhock’s weight, until it’s revealed that she has been secretly drugging her granddaughter with the same “diet pills” that she used her entire life. Even as Hollyhock is removed from Bojack’s care after the overdoses and lands in hospital, Beatrice is sure that she’s helping her granddaughter – because she’s helping her fit into the societally ingrained ideas of what a woman “should” be, she’s keeping her safe from the punishments that Beatrice saw the world dole out against her mother and, in other ways, her as well, for not being what she should be as someone of the female gender. But either way, Hollyhock is taken from Bojack, and he angrily dumps his mother back at another nursing home. Just before he leaves, she finally recognises him as her son for the first time since they reconnected, and he is faced with a choice.

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Does he tell her “fuck you” as he’s so long dreamed of doing? Because in doing so, he’d be continuing to treat her the way the men in his family have constantly treated the women – with lack of comprehension, with cruelty, with dismissiveness. He doesn’t. In the end, he shares with her a moment of compassion that’s rare for both characters. He rejects the patriarchal constraints that tell him he should punish this woman for not being the mother she should have been to him, for not being the “right” kind of woman (and make no mistake, the way she treats her son, as shown in this season, is truly abominable), and instead offers her kindness, however brief. It’s pretty much the final scene of the season, and does a beautiful job putting a cap on this cross-generational story about the legacy of misogyny, with Bojack refusing to take on the role so many men in his family have with the woman who have acted out before this. It doesn’t fix what has happened to the women of Bojack’s family or Bojack himself as a result of it, but it goes some way to breaking the cycle that institutes this awfulness on yet another generation.

So, yeah, this show about a cartoon horse goes far deeper than any show about a cartoon horse has any right to. Did you watch this season of Bojack? What did you think of this story? And what are your interpretations of this arc? Let me know in the comments below!

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