Himpathy for a Horse

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You feel a lot of guilt because you were the only father figure she ever had and when she came to you for help… you had sex with her and then when she was sober you took her on a monthlong bender and then she died and she is dead now and you are still alive with a girlfriend, who is also alive, and a TV show and that’s been really hard, for you, the main character in this story. – Diane Nguyen, BoJack Horseman

Have we come to bury the antihero, or to praise him? Is he totally dead because Jane the Virgin killed him with, I guess, kindness? Are we now in a new golden age of television that is not the Trumpian golden toilet of the early aughts and 2010s but instead one that is gilded like a unicorn horn made shiny with the tears we cry during This Is Us? Is it true that we have tired of the tortured Tony Sopranos, Don Drapers, and Walter Whites and are ready for “difficult” men to take responsibility for the harm they do to others?

The state of the antihero is very much the center of Season 5 of the Netflix series BoJack Horseman (mild spoilers ahead). BoJack is a brilliant, hilarious, anthropomorphic meditation on living in pain or, as it is more commonly known, being human. This season has rightly been praised for looking the gift horse of the “peak TV” antihero straight in the mouth and creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has spoken about the show as a response to the antihero phenomenon: we are not supposed to valorize, or want to emulate BoJack. Season 5 in particular suggests that where we once rooted for Walter White and hated on the wife who stood in his way, we now understand that the men who do bad things are not the heroes of their stories and that the women they hurt are victims rather than narrative roadblocks. BoJack’s addictions and depression are an invitation to judge, not celebrate.

But the compelling backstory and the insights into BoJack’s inner demons the show provides remain a compelling call to sympathize, and therein lies the problem. I may have had an easier time buying into the progress narrative of television protagonists BoJack is selling had I not been watching it concurrently with another antihero show called The Brett Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings. That extremely dark comedy reminded me that the whole phenomenon of the TV antihero hinges on what philosopher Kate Manne calls “himpathy.” We didn’t root for Walt, Don, or Tony because they were bad, we rooted for them in spite of their abhorrent behavior, because they were written in a way that humanized them.

You know how when your kid bites your other kid you’re not supposed to say, “you’re bad” but instead say, “you did a bad thing”? That’s how we’ve treated the men who populate our favorite TV shows. As in, “Walter, I’m very disappointed in how you just let that young woman die when you could have saved her from choking on her own vomit but chose not to because she was going to blackmail you and bring down your whole meth operation. No, no, of course you’re not bad, you just did a bad thing.” It is something of a national pastime to humanize bad men and, as Manne argues, the sympathy those men elicit comes at the expense of their victims, who are often women. This is how we get to that place where we imagine that investigating allegations of sexual assault and thinking twice about granting the alleged assailant a lifetime job on the highest court in the country is tantamount to ruining his life. This is how women become villains when they stand in the way of the plot lines of powerful men, no matter how unsavory those men may be.

Unlike Justice Kavanaugh, BoJack is open about his drinking problem and is deeply aware of the hurt he has caused the people in his life. What they have in common is that they both see themselves as the main character in their respective stories and, importantly, other people see them that way, too. Being the main character is different from being the hero; you don’t have to believe that Brett Kavanaugh was a knight in shining armor bestowing clerkships on damsels in distress to engage in the kind of “himpathy” that spends more emotional capital on the man who has to explain his high school yearbook than to the woman who was locked in a bedroom, to think of male advancement as a birthright rather than unearned grace.

When we do these things as a culture, we reveal who is the protagonist in the story and who is merely playing a walk-on role. And if Justice Kavanaugh made one thing clear during his hearing, it was that we were watching a story in which he was the main character, rattling off his female friends by first name only—Amy, Julie, Kristin, Karen, Suzanne, Moira, Megan, Nikki—as if everyone is of course familiar with them because they are the other characters in the series about him. Remember that episode where he stayed at the Garrets’s (surely you know the Garrets!) with Pat and Chris? Classic. It is “well-known” that he has a weak stomach. His daughters have prayed for “the woman.” He has been a minor character exactly one time, in the literal book written by his friend Mark Judge about the main character Mark Judge. It is easy for us to see him this way, and to see Dr. Ford as “the woman.” The core of the antihero problem is not just that we have become accustomed to excusing the bad behavior of male protagonists; it is that we have been conditioned to think of protagonists themselves as male.

This education in who gets to be a main character starts so early. The delightful anthropomorphic world of BoJack is diverse in all sorts of ways that books for babies and young children are not. The majority of animal and inanimate object characters in those books are gendered male: the caterpillar who is exceedingly hungry in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the bunny who wants to escape his helicopter mother rabbit in The Runaway Bunny, the bunny and his father rabbit in Guess How Much I Love You; famous bears like Corduroy and Paddington and less famous bears like Bear (and his entire menagerie of friends) of the Bear Snores On series, even bears based on girl bears like Winnie the Pooh. All of the construction vehicles in Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site.

Before we can even speak we are inundated with narrative landscapes that are mystifyingly free of women and girls. I am a feminist mom who thinks about this all the time and I still find myself referring to stuffed animals as “he.” Our default gender continues to be male in part because so many of our main characters are boys and men. It’s no wonder men think women make up rape accusations just to destroy them; they have always been the main character in the story. We keep making them the main character. How do we stop doing this? How do we, as women, stop being relegated to supporting roles?

The creators of BoJack know this is a problem. After BoJack, high on pain pills, accidentally on purpose strangles his costar Gina, he wants to come clean to the media. But Gina knows that “everyone needs to know what I did” is sometimes just another way to keep being the center of a story. Her response to BoJack’s description of what he did as “pretty bad” suggests that she knows that becoming the main character in her own story requires her to pretend that she was never the victim in his:

Yeah, I’ll say it was pretty bad. It was assault… you physically overpowered me and if there were any justice you would be in jail right now… but my career after so many failed attempts is finally starting to take off. I am getting offers and fan mail and magazine columns about what a good actor I am. People know me because of my acting. And all that goes away if I’m just the girl who got choked by BoJack Horseman… I don’t want you to be the most notable thing that ever happened to me.

In exploring BoJack’s relationships with the women around him, the show does a good job illuminating the central concerns of the #MeToo movement but it stops short of fully coming to terms with the problem of the male antihero. Diane, the show’s feminist conscience, calls BoJack out on seeing himself at the center of the tragic story of his former costar. But that’s what the world has taught him to expect: BoJack has only ever been the star of the show. Diane, of all people, should know; she wrote a book about him. His newest show, Philbert, exists because it bears the same name as the baby Princess Carolyn miscarried in Season 4. When she sees the name on the script, she takes it as a sign that the show must get made. This comes after an episode, the heartbreaking “Ruthie, in which she gets to be the main character in a story told by her great-great-great-granddaughter. But one episode is all she gets, and in Season 5 her trauma becomes just a footnote to BoJack’s renewed celebrity.

BoJack is the main character of Philbert and he’s the main character of BoJack. “I don’t understand why you’re being so nice to me, after everything you know about me, all the shit I put you through,” BoJack remarks when Diane drops him off at rehab at the end of the season’s final episode. Diane gives a long answer involving a story about a high school friend who abandoned her for the cool kids sophomore year. It’s a moving reply that speaks to the complexities of relationships, the way in which we can feel deep love and absolute hate for the same person. But I couldn’t help thinking, cynically, that the real reason she takes him to rehab, the reason she wants to help him get better, is simply that BoJack is the main character of this story; without BoJack, there is no BoJack Horseman. “The show,” as Bojack remarks in eulogizing his mother, “has to keep going.”

With a show this smart, one that is aware of its predicament in a way The Brett Kavanaugh Show never will be, maybe there’s hope yet for some forward movement. Each of the previous four seasons ended with a scene, set to music, of BoJack looking contemplative, but Season 5 ends with Diane in the driver’s seat, riding off into the sunset to the tune of The War on Drugs’ “Under Pressure” (“Better come around to the new way / Or watch as it all breaks down here”). And in a recent interview, BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg noted that the new shows he’s developing “are about women, which is really fresh.”

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Feature image © Netflix.


Sara Fredman is a writer living in St. Louis. She holds a PhD in medieval English literature and is a prose editor for december magazine. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Tablet, and Lilith. More from this author →