If you’re reading this article, the likely reason is that you’ve seen the name BoJack Horseman and clicked on a link somewhere out in the wilds of the internet or social media. You’ve recognised the name and it’s peaked your interest. Why have you heard that name? Simple – because since BoJack Horseman was released in 2014, it has gained critical and popular acclaim – showered in praise for the way it skilfully probes existential anxiety, interweaving zany, offbeat comedy with sometimes sly humour, as well as intensely sad or ‘dark’ moments. It’s popular, in other words; and for good reason: it’s real.
That a cartoon show about a substance-abusing middle-aged horse feels like the most real thing many people have seen for so many years says more about our current cultural malaise than we might like to admit. But it doesn’t make it any less true.
One of the factors that makes BoJack feel so real – so relatable – is the fact that the characters in the show must face the consequences of their actions. No character is “too big to fail” (in the way the banks that crashed the global economy were allowed to carry on Scott-free while the average person has had to shoulder the burdens and crises they created). As Arielle Bernstein writes in an article for The Guardian:
“Throughout the series, we see child BoJack, eager and wide-eyed in his little sailor suit, being verbally abused by his mother and father. But while the series encourages us to see BoJack’s own self-absorption as a response to a traumatic childhood, it also insists that BoJack not be given a free pass. In his heart of hearts, BoJack is never a “bad guy” per se, but his thoughtless choices often have very real impacts on everyone around him.”
Yet, while this is an admirable aspect of the show – that it has created extremely well-rounded characters who we can relate to – the true ‘realness’ of the show comes from the way it counters other aspects of our current society.
The power of the image
Firstly, we must consider the use of images in both the show and in our culture – and the way in which BoJack Horseman subverts what Lacan would term ‘natural’ images with referent – or ‘signified’ images. At its very basic, this is ultimately a joke about the fact that we are all animals – the playful humour of seeing a golden Labrador wearing a v-neck t-shirt, rocking aviator sunglasses and being obsessed with the skunk from next door is funny and surreal. There is also a clear use of Lacanian mirror imagery between BoJack and his ‘inverted mirror’, Mr. Peanutbutter. Mirrors can also be found between the ‘real’ BoJack and his TV personality on 90s sitcom Horsin’ around, as well as his TV detective character, Philbert – and during this portrayal the mirror line blurs completely in Episode 11, “The showstopper”, in which we all witness a very real “crossover episode”, to coin a favourite line from the show. Once again, visual and symbolic mirrors abound in series five episode 7, when we meet not BoJack, but ‘Bobo the Zebra’.
Yet for all BoJack’s surrealism and superficial escapism, the heart of the show carries messages that, simply, resonate with audiences. The escapism that BoJack and his cohorts pursue is the same that we ourselves seek. That it feels ‘honest’, and ‘true’ is often conflated as being ‘dark’ – as though the idea of a person who doesn’t quite feel that everything is okay within themselves, despite being rich and famous, and takes actions that are nearly always morally ambiguous or questionable, is in someway only explainable if we describe it as “dark”. Doing this, however, otherises such concepts and thus fails to recognise that the real reason the show has such an avid following and has picked up such critical acclaim is because the ‘dark’ aspects of the show aren’t dark at all – they are in fact extremely relatable, particularly for anyone who has ever found that their entire construct of societal expectations has been built around lies meant to satisfy shareholders; not to satisfy our egos or our real natures or purposes. Indeed, when faced with this realisation and reality, the actions that BoJack pursues, the depression, the anger, anxiety, denial, etc. – these become not only normal or relatable, but actually natural reactions to an extremely unnatural world and society.
In an excellent documentary series, The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis explains how, since the 1960s, there have been attempts by both psychiatrists and those in power to make us feel as though certain natural human responses to life are the symptoms of serious psychological or mental disorders. This is partly because the financial, marketing and operational models on which capitalism – and particularly consumerism – relies, have been built on the ideal of human beings as rational, self-serving, individuals. This, of course, flies in the face of evidence that suggests human beings are quite often irrational, altruistic members of communities, tribes and societies as a whole.
Living in a world in which we are told that to feel sad is a sign of a serious mental disorder; in which we are told we can only ever aspire to satiate our own desires by buying more and more things, despite the fact that we are ultimately just searching for real, meaningful connections with other people, places us all in an existential crisis that is vividly and expertly portrayed in BoJack Horseman.
Again, images are important here. In both societies (that of BoJack’s Hollywoo and our own world), materialism – and the images that go with it – run rampant. Consumerism is the order of the day; and both TV show and our reality are subject to the fact that consumerism as a socioeconomic is fundamentally built upon the engineering of desire through psychological manipulation, which is achieved by using images – including advertising and peer pressure – to make us inclined to purchase more and more stuff.
Why does this matter? Being bombarded and overwhelmed by images that are not real – that lack any substance beyond activating something in us that makes us feel empty and fuels our desire to consume, ultimately creates a genuine emptiness and aching for reality. As David Shields notes in Reality Hunger:
“Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we year for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real. We want to pose something real against all the fabrication.”
The problem with materialism
BoJack lays bare the problem with materialism and consumerism in a way precious few TV shows have dared to do.
An impressive body of academic research suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project“, is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.
Depression, anxiety, broken relationships; socially destructive and self-destructive. Remind you of anything?
There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. What’s more, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, we become more selfish, and more likely to act and behave in the ways large corporations need in order to make continual disgustingly large profits.
The irrationality of society
For years, then mainstream cultural programmes have adopted the use of imagery and story narratives to support and reinforce the myths that keep them in power and maintain the status quo – to help the consumerist models function; and to keep us spending money, buying more things – all in the ultimate pursuit of our supposed individual happiness.
There are obviously numerous problems with this – not least from a moral perspective. Yet events in recent years have markedly laid out some of the flaws in this approach.
In the first instance, the collapse of the world financial system (triggered in part by massive acquisition of unsustainable personal, individual debts) and subsequent global recession has forced millions of people in Western Society to live in times of extreme austerity. Among many other (perhaps more pressing) issues with this – such as child poverty, rising crime, inequality, – the era of low wages and job scarcity or insecurity that has been created by the austerity model has made it impossible for people to actually exist and function within the previous consumer system as they had been told to. In other words, they had been denied the means with which to participate in the consumerist culture. How can you buy the latest deluxe car when you can’t afford to heat your own home or pay your rent?
Without the means to participate in consumerism, people have started to recognise that the society in which they live, and the dreams they have been told to pursue, are in fact not recogniseable, achievable, or real. The reality of their situation is that the entire system has been broken – and so a world which continues to expect them to accrue personal debt in order to buy the latest fashion trend is not a world in which they can be rationally expected to live.
Beyond the fiction of reality
This all, ultimately, leads us back to BoJack – a world in which to be self-aware is often to become self-destructive. To recognise the faults in the world can lead to despair (because you can’t hope to change things); but also in which ignoring reality and going along with societal pressures is to sacrifice any true sense of identity. Indeed, those characters which lack depth or sense of realness are those who lack any self-awareness – a ‘Ryan Seacrest type’, for instance; a character with so little identity he is only a trace (again to use a Lacanian term) of somebody else. In this world, the most natural response is one that does not seem ‘natural’ – as the system would like you to believe – but rather, to respond to a system that is entirely broken by becoming broken yourself; or reacting to the impossibility of the ask placed upon us as individuals by coming to impossible conclusions (see any of Mr Peanutbutter’s whacky ideas for starters here). The show feels real because the characters are negotiating a broken society that mirrors our own. As Slavoj Zizek has noted: “beyond the fiction of reality lies the reality of the fiction.” We are drawn to the reality of the fiction (in this case, a television show about a celebrity horse) because it is what Lacan would describe as the signifier of something we inherently lack in our own world: reality and realness. We experience so few ‘real’ images, that ones that signify truth – the reality of our situation – become precious and to be treasured.
Ultimately, this helps us more effectively bond with the characters and empathise with them. This is important – particularly in a world in which reports of loneliness are skyrocketing – because it illustrates how BoJack Horseman becomes nourishing, even redemptive; we become less alone inside because we recognise that our reaction to the impossibilities of the world is not confined to our own skulls. BoJack Horseman, then, helps us become less alone inside.
And that’s why we need it.