BoJack Horseman’s greatest character truly steals every scene in the fifth season of Netflix’s hit tragicomedy
“Being a woman is not a hobby or a pet interest of mine. You get to drop in and play Joss Whedon and everybody cheers, but when you move onto your next thing, I’m still here.”
This succinct truth is uttered by Diane Nguyen, a character who has to explain the frustration of living as a woman whose voice rarely gets a large platform, to a male colleague. Her relatable, frank statements are a rare breed on TV. What makes them all the more surprising is the fact that she does not appear in a live action feminist drama – in fact, she’s a supporting character in a cartoon about an anthropomorphised horse.
In Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s absurd, serialised tragicomedy BoJack Horseman, set in Hollywoo (a heightened and damning version of the modern entertainment industry), Diane is a character who could have easily slipped into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Considering she is introduced into the story as the ghost-writer of famous actor BoJack’s memoir – observing his behaviour, getting caught up in his escapades, and having deep and meaningful chats with him – it’s a miracle she hasn’t fallen into that trap. Thankfully, her Daria-esque attitude quickly becomes apparent towards the end of season one, in the episode “One Trick Pony”, where it is revealed she has written an unflattering tell-all biography, which she leaks online to spite BoJack’s arrogance. She refuses to tell him he’s a good person to flatter his fragile male ego.
In their animated universe, animals and humans co-exist – and the complexity of the human condition is laid bare and picked apart. Diane is a third-wave feminist, Vietnamese-American woman (voiced by white actress Alison Brie – a choice that was recently addressed in this Uproxx article) in her late 30s, and a published writer who openly admits she finds it difficult to articulate her feelings. She impulsively takes flight when her personal life runs into problems, and procrastinates, eats pizza, and gets wasted when her marriage falls apart.
While lesser shows would have relegated her to a side character, it’s Diane who utters some of the most important words ever spoken on BoJack, in the very first episode:, “You’re responsible for your own happiness.” It’s a mantra all the main characters live by, as they keep making the same mistakes over and over again, while trying to make sense of their existence. The happy-go-lucky dog (and husband to Diane) Mr Peanutbutter is often distracted by passing fancies, as is couch-surfing 20-something Todd Chavez. Meanwhile, agent Princess Carolyn persistently struggles with her work-life balance. They each go on their own, personal wacky misadventures, with their backstories shaded in more thoroughly across each season, and the structure of the long-running jokes biting back hard for laughs and dramatic chills.
She’s not a perfect character, though. One of the best examples of Diane’s growth, and one of the most hilarious episodes of BoJack, involves the subject of abortion. When Diane accepts a job ghost-writing tweets for celebrities, she accidentally tweets about her abortion from pop star Sextina Aquafina’s account, and has to spend a lot of time enacting damage control. However, when Sextina releases a song about it (sample lyric: “I'm a baby killer!”), Diane starts acting self-righteous. But by the end of the episode, ideas about role models and empowerment through pop music are exquisitely explained to her by a young woman in an abortion clinic waiting room. Diane is open to listening, and this moment provides an understated turning point in her growth as a person. BoJack Horseman allows its characters to evolve and to change their perspectives in a nuanced way that rings true – a rare phenomenon in TV.
Diane’s journey is one on which her feminism and integrity are continually tested, with many of her episodes highlighting the extreme misogyny and double standards of the industry. In “Hank after Dark” (season two), she calls out beloved family entertainer, Hank Hippopopolis, who has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, but is yet to be punished for his actions. She’s usually the voice of reason who starts conversations about disgusting practices that others have wilfully ignored.
She often falls on deaf ears, though; the show conveys just how frustrating it can be for women to get their voices heard in Hollywood, and how harmful it can be to their careers and mental health when they do speak out. In season five’s masterstroke, “BoJack the Feminist”, Diane is exhausted by the vicious cycle of female mistreatment and unbearable male feminists who don’t get it and jump on the bandwagon.
Season five gives us a perfect Diane episode, encapsulating the depth of her character, and her willingness to grow. She flies to Hanoi to research an article, and, as she tells herself, to get to grips with her identity. But really, she’s once again running away from her problems. The episode closes with an emotional knock-out conclusion about heartbreak, loneliness, and survival. In a season that plays out as a kind of thorny investigation of forgiveness, Diane reconciles not only with her ex-husband, but also herself, as she decides to live alone, and start again. This show is all about depression – the opening credits depict BoJack numbly sleepwalking through life. This episode recreates that sensation, with Diane doing the same thing on her trip to Hanoi – until finally, she’s honest with herself, and makes a brave move for her own happiness.
One of the reasons Diane is drawn to BoJack is because his TV show genuinely affected her as a child. It provided 30 minutes of escapism from her horrible childhood, and gave her hope for a functional family. The power of entertainment on the cultural landscape, and on a personal level to enact change, is a recurring theme, and in BoJack, Diane is often the one shouting for a revolution. Though it may take her some time to find a solution to her problems, she continually struggles towards personal growth in all aspects of her life including her career, friendships, and relationships. Her tireless efforts and genuine compassion ultimately provide the emotional heart of BoJack. As he hopelessly self-destructs season after season, she’s the one on an arc of self-discovery and self-improvement, constantly striving to be better even as she fucks up along the way. And yet – in an injustice she herself would wearily point out – BoJack is the one who gets his name in the title of the show.