Bojack Horseman and the Narratives of the Abused

by thethreepennyguignol

What does life look like for a victim of abuse after the abuse is over?

That was one of the main questions I was left with after finishing the latest season of the fucking exquisitely brilliant Bojack Horseman (spoilers ahead, of course), a season which dealt abuses in many forms and through many characters. With a show that explores pop culture and especially Hollywoo(d) with the sharpness that Bojack Horseman does, I fully expected the show to delve into the #MeToo movement (which it does, to traditionally hysterical and also guttingly accurate effect), but what really interested me was the arc that the titular character went through, alongside his love interest for the season, Gina (played just so well by Stephanie Beatriz. Can you tell I love this show? I really do).

The plot in the final two episodes revolves around Bojack spiralling out of control on an opiod-facilitated psychotic break that leaves in struggling to separate reality from the TV show he is working on. This culminates as his love interest, Gina, who is also his co-star in the show, discovers his addiction and confronts him over it, and, while the two of them are later shooting a scene for their show, Bojack violently chokes her out of character in front of a set full of people. He is restrained before he can kill her, but there is no doubt that he assaulted her in a very public setting.

Now, the show deals with Bojack’s attempts to work through his role as an abuser in an interesting way: he approaches his friend, Diane, a journalist, and asks her to expose him for all his wrongdoings over the course of his life. For him, this is a chance to exorcise his demons – he can decant his guilt on to the public and allow them to bear the brunt of the punishment for him. This is something we’ve seen play out a million times in the real world over the last year or so, with dozens of apologies and treatises and promises to go away and think about what they did while the public (rightly) chews them out for their behaviour. Diane refuses to write the story, and this leads Bojack to an apparently more positive path as he attempts to address some of his personal demons in rehab – he himself is a victim of abuse, and the show explored the impact of that abuse in the previous season to great effect.

But it’s the way the show deals with Gina’s story following the assault that I find particularly interesting. Before an interview after video of the attack is released, Bojack and Gina share the following exchange, after Bojack tells her he wants to take responsibility for the assault:

Bojack: Gina, what I did to you – I saw the video and it looked pretty bad.

Gina: Yeah, I’ll say it was pretty bad. It was assault. You physically overpowered me and if there were any justice you’d be in jail right now. (…) But my career, after so many failed attempts, is finally starting to take off. I am getting offers, and fanmail, and magazine columns about what a good actor I am. People know me because of my acting and all that goes away if I’m just the girl who got choked by Bojack Horseman (…) I don’t want you to be the most notable thing that ever happened to me. I don’t want you to be the question I get asked in interviews for the rest of my life.

And I think this really captures something that we, as a culture that is coming to terms with the pervasiveness of abuse across so many industries, are struggling with right now. We know what the narrative looks like for people who have committed abusive acts – acknowledge, repent, wait, come back, changed – but what about the people who have been abused?

I think this is a question that many people have after they experience abuse, or come to terms with the fact that they have experienced it. As I’ve written before, popular culture likes to depict intimate violence as a life-defining event, and that’s how we treat victims of abuse in the real world, too.

Many victims of abuse who’ve come out as part of the #MeToo movement have become synonymous with their accusations, and we haven’t yet really come up with the arc that allows them to move on from the abuse they suffered. The best we have is the notion of someone heroically rebuilding themselves from their misfortune, which still centralises their abuse as an inherent part of their story. Of course, this kind of abuse can be a life-altering and the potential impact of that shouldn’t be underplayed. But for a lot of people, it isn’t, and foisting that narrative on them normalizes the ideas that, once you are abused, everything you become is a product of that abuse, everything you are is that experience. Victim is a hard label to shake: maybe even harder than that of an abuser.

Gina’s speech is depressingly accurate – the only way she can personally find a way beyond the abuse Bojack inflicted on her is to cover it up, which both of them eventually agree to.  Being honest about her experiences lands her as a victim, and that’s a title that many people choose to avoid identifying with because of the implicit knowledge that taking on that mantel means accepting people building a story around you that centralises your abuse.

How do we move on from their abuse as a culture? Is coming forward as a victim of abuse tantamount to agreeing to being a figurehead speaking out against it, or should it be? Do people have a moral imperative to speak out publicly about their abuse, when they know that their lives moving forward could be defined by it? I don’t have the answers to these questions – and neither does Bojack Horseman. Moving forward, with the #MeToo movement coming up on a year old and the dust beginning to settle, we seem to have the “redeemed abuser” narrative down. But what happens to the people who have been abused? Where do their stories go from here?

If you enjoyed this article and would like to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon. And if topics of abuse and the stories of people who have suffered it interest you, I would love it if you took a look at the promo for my upcoming debut novel, Rape Jokes.

(header image courtesy of ANITH)