What Bojack Horseman Gets Right About Mental Illness

Netflix's animated comedy understands the complex psyche of those affected in a way other shows don't.

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What Bojack Horseman Gets Right About Mental Illness

Rebecca Lorenzo, Copy Editor

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On September 14, Netflix aired season 5 of its hit animated comedy, Bojack Horseman, which delved into some of the show’s darkest and funniest moments yet. While Bojack seems like another edgy satire on the surface, avid fans know that Bojack has many layers beneath its jokes, and portrays mental illness in an accurate, uniquely-its-own way.

The show follows anti-hero Bojack Horseman, a depressed, washed-up actor who uses drugs and alcohol to cope with low self-esteem years after his 90’s sitcom, “Horsin’ Around,” ends. Bojack dwells on not having accomplished everything in his career that he had wanted to, and is shocked when he is still not happy even when he achieves goals he assumed would bring him long-lasting happiness, like his dream role in the movie “Secretariat.”

In the media, characters with mental illnesses are either somehow demonized or are 2-dimensional examples of textbook symptoms of depression. Bojack takes a different approach by journeying the viewer through the complex, self-damaging mental framework that varies from person-to-person, and shows how individuals manifest depression in many different ways.

Like many, Bojack is haunted by his own negative narrative and uses whatever he can to feel instant gratification. He regularly self-medicates with booze and drugs, sex, food and more to escape himself and fill a void, but is instead filled with more self-hatred when his poor decisions negatively affect those around him. This eventually cycles back into his psyche and confirms in his mind that he is as useless to others and washed up as he feels. He chooses cheap thrills over long-lasting happiness as he cannot deal with his negative thoughts long enough to invest.

Often, a person’s actions and behaviors are shaped by their self-narrative, which is formed based on influences in early life. Someone with a positive narrative will see the world in a positive light, while someone with a negative view will see the opposite. Bojack’s upbringing shows how negative influences early in life can greatly affect us well into adulthood. According to Youtuber Lockstin & Gnoggin, this is Bojack’s schema.

Bojack’s parents neglected and blamed him. His father was an abusive misogynist, while his mother told him he was useless and a burden throughout his childhood. Youtuber Meghan Smith points out the following quote by Bojack which indicates his negative self-view:

“I come from poison. I have poison inside of me and I destroy everything I touch…I have nothing to show for the life that I’ve lived and I have nobody in my life who is better off for having known me.”

It is evident that Bojack’s perception of everything in his life is filtered through the belief that he is poison. While the self-narrative vastly varies from person-to-person, we often perceive the rest of the world based on how we perceive ourselves. Even if our self-doubt is undeserved, the mind is powerful enough to convince us that we are what we believe we are.

Still, as dark as the show sounds, the viewer laughs almost the entire way through. The show is filled with irony, satire of mass media stereotypes and a dark humor that relates the viewer to the show and keeps them from leaving the show upset. A Buzzfeed-style news article titled “5 Celebrities That Look Like Soup” and a gossip reporter named “A Ryan Seacrest-type” are two of many running gags that poke fun at mainstream media. Even in the shows darkest moments, Bojack remains hilarious while making damning statements about society.

Bojack raises the bar for how media should depict mental illness as there is something for anyone to relate to in the wide variety of characters in the show. Bojack does not tackle mental illness through stereotypes and shock value because viewers have seen enough of that and television doesn’t need more of it. Instead, the raw view inside each character shows how complex mental illness is, and how we are not alone in our suffering even if we tell ourselves we are.