BoJack Horseman: Still Good, Still Has a Representation Problem

by Elisabeth Cook
Diane and Guy in Season 6 of BoJack Horseman. Photo: Netflix

Since its debut, BoJack Horseman has wowed us with its singular vision and oddball animated universe, where upright-walking animals share their lives with humans and Olympic-level wordplay shares priority with socially conscious drama. The first half of Season 6 shows the series still going fairly strong as it follows BoJack on a shaky path out of rehab and pans to his friends in their day-to-day joys and struggles: Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) juggles motherhood and a career, Diane (Alison Brie) gets a boyfriend and a book contract, and Todd (Aaron Paul) is, well, Todd. Unfortunately, it also shows the creative costs of poor racial representation.

The casting of Alison Brie, a white actress, in the role of Diane Nguyen, has been addressed by creator Raphael Bob-Waksburg, who has expressed regret for his initial decision to hire an all-white voice cast and made efforts to diversify. Recent seasons feature Aparna Nancherla as BoJack’s horse-daughter Hollyhock, Hong Chau and Julia Chan (in Seasons 5 and 6 respectively) as Pickles, Mr. Peanutbutter’s (Paul F. Tompkins) pug girlfriend, and Lakeith Stanfield as a buffalo named Guy, Diane’s new love interest. It’s understandable that Brie has been kept on as Diane, a major character with a (literally) distinct voice. However, fixable problems with Diane’s story remain untouched.

While BoJack Horseman continues to be incisive in its treatment of trauma sustained from violence and abuse, cultural and racial trauma have largely gone ignored. We’re given to understand that the damaging parental dynamic BoJack experienced as a child contributed to his feelings of worthlessness and toxic entitlement, but while we see that Diane’s brothers made her life hell at one point, her chronic dissatisfaction with her work and love life has stayed relatively detached from her family history as a whole.

In Season 6, Diane is no longer just dissatisfied; she’s straight-up depressed. We know she doesn’t get along with her family, and that she has tried (unsuccessfully) to explore a connection to Vietnam. Just as the subject of childhood always comes up in therapy, it’s near-impossible that her parents’ and her own experiences with racial and cultural politics don’t form part of the complicated web of her psychology. When these subjects have been raised, though, they’ve generally been treated as a joke about just how white-assimilated Diane and her comically Bostonian Vietnamese family are.

In an article for Wear Your Voice last year, Linh Cao pointed out that the degree of Diane’s assimilation is highly unlikely for a Vietnamese American. (This article also generously gave the show writers suggestions for moving forward.) As a second-generation Korean American with a white parent, I find some aspects of Diane’s story relatable, but that itself demonstrates part of the problem, and I still think she lacks a believable relationship to even the most white-adjacent of non-white experiences. On a shallower show, we might not get close enough to her to see these flaws in the first place. BoJack Horseman, however, reaches into its characters’ psyches, revealing emotions the characters themselves try to mask, and so the continued erasure of Diane’s feelings about race and ethnicity is obvious.

Technically, there’s time to address her identity in an appropriate way, though I’m not holding my breath. I know I’m not alone in being a fan who is dismayed by this issue but still looking forward to the last season’s final half regardless of what it brings. BoJack Horseman is still a daring and one-of-a-kind series. Moving forward, it can also serve as an example of how unsatisfactory representation limits greatness.

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