[minor spoilers for Bojack Horseman]
Content warning: mention of depression; weight gain
From Lisa Simpson to Hermione Granger, I’ve always connected with smart, nerdy, introverted female characters. But many became less relatable to me as I grew up and found my academic performance in decline, along with my mental health. In adult media, the nerdy woman would either be overly sexualised, turned into a punchline, or would slowly lose their initial spark to become more passive love interests.
That was my concern when I started watching Bojack Horseman and was introduced to the character of Diane. How pleased I am that the show proved me wrong. Through the course of the series, we get to know Diane Nguyen, an Asian-American ghostwriter and third-wave feminist who navigates trauma, mental health issues and complicated personal relationships.
Naturally, as an aspiring writer, I’m going to be pulled towards characters that write. Still, the show doesn’t try to glamorise Diane’s profession. Rather, she struggles to get recognition and gets minimal credit for the projects she works on. She gets minimal credit as a female writer, faces crushing bouts of writer’s block, and her stint as a war correspondent traumatises her. Simultaneously, she is also fighting to maintain integrity in a field increasingly based more on clicks and profits than holding power to account. For part of the series, she works at ‘Girl Croosh’, a satire of clickbait pop-feminist websites like Buzzfeed, which later gets bought up by a mega-corporation. It’s a conversation that needs to happen, considering the dominance of media moguls like Rupert Murdoch.
As well as critiquing journalism under capitalism, Bojack Horseman adds to current debates on sexism and gender politics. Often a punch-line in other shows, Diane’s dedication to her feminist politics is treated as admirable. Through her character arc, the series navigates topics like abortion and female gun ownership with nuance and style. It goes to places that remain uncomfortable topics in the #MeToo era, such as how to hold the men in our lives accountable when they do wrong.
By far, the aspect of her storyline that resonated the most with me was her experiences with depression and trauma. I can count on my fingers the number of films and TV shows with good representations of women with mental illnesses. Intentionally or not, so many shows resort to romanticised narratives: a woman lounges around with perfectly smudged eyeliner, sipping red wine in matching underwear, lamenting some great tragedy (the ‘sexy french depression’ song from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a great satire on this). What Bojack Horseman does is pay attention to how mundane depression can be: avoiding responsibilities, never cleaning up, wearing the same pyjama pants countless days in a row. This is the side of depression that I’m most familiar with.
We also get a balanced look at what recovery looks like – both physically and mentally. The weight gain Diane experiences from her medication – a common side-effect of antidepressants – is treated by the other characters and by the show without judgement; it is just another part of her recovery. I can’t remember ever seeing a TV show – especially a comedy – treat weight gain in women as something normal or even healthy, rather than a punchline or a sign of decline. What matters is that she is in a better place mentally.
Then there’s the mental maze depression takes you through when you try to dig yourself out of a depressive spiral. When debating whether to use antidepressants, Diane worries that “you just flip over the nothing and underneath there’s more nothing.” In another episode, she becomes fixated on the idea that to be a good writer she must use her ‘damage’ and return to a dark place. It took me a while to get myself to seek help because depression had been part of my identity for so long that I was unsure if there would be anything to me beneath the depression. But the character of Diane is never defined by her depression and trauma; treatment puts her in a better place personally and creatively.
In this vein, Diane is an inspirational character for me. She’s troubled and doesn’t always make the best decisions, but she consistently takes agency over her life, career and relationships. She puts herself in uncomfortable positions and takes a stand against powerful forces because to choose the easier route would go against her principles.
Aside from the recent criticism around Allison Brie voicing the half-Vietnamese character – a conversation that deserves better coverage than what I can provide here – I was surprised to find that the character wasn’t popular with all of the show’s fans. Maybe that’s because she didn’t fit into the pre-established role of the typical female love interest – she challenged the men in her life and had a personality of her own. This is far from the first time a female character has received vitriol from a TV show’s fanbase for challenging the powerful male protagonist; Skyler White from Breaking Bad is a frequently-discussed example.
More power to the writers, then, for choosing to challenge the perspectives of male audiences. Diane is not the only well-written female character; Princess Carolyn (an industry agent), Kelsey Jennings (a lesbian indie director) and Gina Cazador (an actress and love-interest) are all fleshed-out characters dealing with an industry that still heavily favours cisgender heterosexual men. I also want to give a nod to the show having a main character come out as asexual. The only other example of a mainstream show with asexual representation that I can think of is Sex Education (though this is relegated to a minor character).
Diane Nguyen is the soul of Bojack Horseman, and one of my favourite fictional characters of all time. After rewatching the show with my brother, he has taken to teasing me by calling me ‘Diane’ every time I bring up my writing. And no, we’re not quite the same, but I’m taking it as a compliment.
Image courtesy of Georgia Hunt