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‘Bojack Horseman’ Shows Why Art About Abortion Is Failing


For years, abortion advocates have complained about the lack of film and TV storylines in favor of abortion. Millions of women have abortions each year, they argue, so why can’t movies and TV shows feature characters having abortions, much less having them survive as protagonists afterward?

The first time the unborn child of a TV character was aborted was in 1972, and it’s happened intermittently since then. It’s never considered a great way to advance a plot for a major character on account of the stigma attached to killing humans. This stigma remains, despite the well-funded communication and lobbying efforts of those who support abortion practices.

Art tends to celebrate life, as the somewhat recent movies “Juno” and “Knocked Up” demonstrate. Both movies surround women who get pregnant outside of healthy relationships. And the plots of both movies are built around the women carrying the human life they created to term. The movies wouldn’t exist in any recognizable, much less comedic, sense if the female leads had snuffed out the baby.

This is profoundly frustrating for abortion activists and their agents in the media. The media, the courts, and artists themselves couldn’t be much more supportive of abortion. Some abortion activists have put out studies funded by the abortion lobby trying to shame Hollywood into more positive abortion storytelling. Strident abortion supporter Katha Pollitt wrote the book “PRO,” part of which is devoted to getting abortion-positive storylines in the media.

‘Finally, a Romantic Comedy about Abortion’

But popular opinion continues to regard abortion as a tragedy, not something to be celebrated. So they were elated by last year’s release of “Obvious Child.” So subtle and nuanced a treatment of abortion that it was marketed by NARAL and supported by Planned Parenthood and National Organization of Women, it could not have been praised more by critics activists. “The most winning abortion-themed rom-com ever made,” a critic from an unknown website quoted on the movie’s poster announced, an honorific akin to “least dirty rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike.”

Finally, a romantic comedy about abortion,” gushed the Los Angeles Times. “Someone finally made an honest abortion movie,” enthused Slate abortion enthusiast cum film critic Amanda Hess. To round out the Slate opinion, Dana Stevens praised the movie as perfect before saying, “I have the feeling this modest little 83-minute comedy will reverberate like a gunshot in our national conversation about abortion.”

The New York Times gave it repeated attention, including a 1,300-word tribute. Another New York Times piece encouraged mothers to watch the film with their 14-year-old daughters to get them comfortable with having an abortion. Cosmopolitan said it was an abortion fairy tale, the summer’s most important movie. NPR said “A Momentous Film Of Small, Embarrassing Truths.” Media outlets gave out free passes to see the film and drum up excitement. Variety said it was a “fresh and funny chronicle … quickly racking up some of this year’s best word of mouth.” It said it was going to be a huge hit. It was promoted on all the late-night shows.

The filmmaker was so agenda-driven that she asked Planned Parenthood to vet the script. Yet the actress who played the abortive mother claimed “Our film is not an agenda movie in any way,” before saying the point of the movie is that there is nothing wrong with abortions.

Even after all that promotion and the combined efforts of Planned Parenthood, NARAL, NOW, other abortion lobby groups, and a generally liberal critic class, the movie was a clunker. As in, all the promotional efforts in the world couldn’t get it to gross more than $3 million. That other indie film “Juno,” by contrast, grossed $231,411,584.

So if all the resources of the abortion lobby couldn’t generate excitement around an abortion rom-com, what about all the brilliant talent of the “Bojack Horseman” writers?

The Best Show on TV Takes on Abortion

Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” is a top-rated show about a humanoid horse, an alcoholic who hates himself. During the 1990s, he was the star of the popular sitcom “Horsin’ Around,” playing the adoptive father of three orphaned children. It was a huge hit, financing his subsequent decades of unfulfilled but high living in Hollywood.

Bojack wants meaning and dignity in his life, and the show is about his failed attempts to gain those things. It is heartbreakingly depressive, beautifully written, and the best show on television. The third season was released in late July. This trailer sums up where we are:

Bojack’s former ghostwriter/current social media guru Diane Nguyen is a human married to a complex but good natured golden retriever named Mr. Peanutbutter. They’re experiencing marital difficulties but love each other very much. Diane accidentally takes some hallucinogenics that enable her to finally express to Mr. Peanutbutter just how much she loves him and wants their marriage — his third — to work.

Just as that happens, she finds out she’s pregnant. Both immediately announce they want her to abort the child. An episode built around abortion should be perfect for the writers of Bojack. The show is about death, dying, growing old, bad decision-making, self-hatred, depression, and failure — and somehow milks poignant comedy from it all.

Instead, the abortion episode was a huge disappointment. Here are three ways that the writers of Bojack filed their own show.

1) It Was Too Simplistic

For being a cartoon show about humans and humanoid animals, this show has remarkable depth. As Rolling Stone put it in the preview above, it’s “emotionally hardcore.” The stories are complicated and tangled. Nobody is a good guy. Nobody is one-dimensional. The bad actions taken by the characters might break your heart, but they have understandable motivations. It’s a painful show to watch, not an easy one.

This episode was easy as pie. It was an uncomplicated exploration of how abortion was great and how there were no good arguments against it.

Or as cartoonist Seamus Coughlin mocked, “Bravest. Show. Ever.

I’m sitting there, my jaw nearly on the floor. Abortion is okay? Planned Parenthood is good? The issue is about women’s choice and nothing else? You can imagine my shock at hearing these kinds of messages from the mouths of Hollywood voice actors. And what’s this? They’re poking fun at pro-lifers? Not even seriously addressing a single argument from the other side of the aisle? Good for them! For years and years, Hollywood has been modestly tip-toeing around this issue, horrified of imposing their values on middle America, but not any more! They’re sick and tired of giving the pro-life movement their fair shake! No more dialogue with you right-wing bullies, everyone’s already familiar with your positions, Hollywood has been representing them for long enough! Now is the time to be blunt: if you don’t agree with abortion, you are backwards and you hate women. These and many other original, valuable insights made by BoJack and Co. make a welcome new addition to the already rock solid case for abortion on-demand and without stigma.

That may be what you expect from, oh I don’t know, Amy Schumer, but not from people playing their comedic A game week after week.

To be fair, even though this episode was disappointing in its shallowness, it wasn’t a complete trainwreck. It started out downright promising when Mr. Peanutbutter demurs about what he wants Diane to do by saying, “There’s no ‘I’ in uterus, there’s only ‘us.'” He adds, “And ‘u,’ and another ‘u.’ (But that’s the “u” that’s in ‘us,’ so I already said that ‘u.’)”

But in general, Coughlin’s commentary is right. There is a comedically unchallenging scene of a cable TV anchor (voiced by Keith Olbermann) interviewing “a panel of white men in bow ties to talk about abortion.” They each produce straw man arguments, such as “This is not just a woman’s issue. I’m a man, but if I got pregnant, would I put my life on hold for a child I didn’t want? Yes, I would. I can say that with confidence, because I will never have to make that decision, so I’m unbiased.”

Yawn. Another says his abortion conspiracy theory is rooted in “the Bible.” If one wanted the stupidity of a network sitcom, one would watch a network sitcom.

2) It Undermined Its Own Themes

The entire arc of the show is Bojack’s life being ruined because he is unable to accept responsibility for his actions or even tell the truth about himself. The repercussions of his failures in intimate relationships is a major plot driver. The meaninglessness and shallowness of entertainment is a frequent topic.

Diane, who was previously a love interest of Bojack’s, has a parallel storyline. She wants to be an empowered woman who finds meaning in her work, but she ends up in a stable relationship with a loving celebrity dog, and in an unfulfilling line of work. “You’re not good enough at this job to be too good for this job,” Princess Caroline tells her at one point. Like Bojack, she had a horrible childhood that messed her up. Also like Bojack, she’s horrible with intimacy.

HaramBWHe, a Bojack fan who blogged about the disappointing shallowness of the episode, noted that Bojack’s low-point the previous season was when he tried to steal an old friend from her husband, didn’t care about her feelings, and then corrupted her 17-year-old daughter.

Similarly, Diane’s reason for getting an abortion was simply ‘I don’t want kids.’ She doesn’t particularly care about the other two people directly involved in the situation (Mr. Peanutbutter, and her unborn child). She shows no real interest in how her actions affect anybody else. Rather than consider other people, both born and unborn, she makes an instant decision to do what she feels will make her happy. But instead of exploring the potential damage of her actions, the episode wraps up neatly and without any conflict between any of the main characters.

The fact that she is so averse to having a child is fertile ground for a fuller analysis of her character, from her background as a neglected girl in a family full of boys, to her current situation as a celebrity’s wife with a dead-end career. It is a shame that they did not take it in that direction…

The writers could have opened up the point to analyze how Diane’s abortion was an incredibly selfish act. She conceives a child with her loving husband, a man (well, dog) of means and stature. Then it could have been expanded to point out that the characters in this show are largely self-centered and miserable, and those two things go hand-in-hand.

They could have gone that direction, but they resolved the story without ever really exploring these topics. The story was wrapped up with a fairly neat ‘Diane has an abortion, ends up feeling okay about it. Also it’s good for women to open up and talk about abortion.’ This is a show where characters have relatively minor life events that inspire introspection. But abortion was NBD?

Also, what about the recurring theme of the meaninglessness of entertainment? In the trailer above, Bojack says something to the effect of, “If I win an Oscar, my life will have meaning!” Time and again the characters try to squeeze real-life meaning out of parts they played, only to find out that the fleeting nature of television and film is no match for the day-after-day grind of relationship building.

The abortion episode features a pop starlet releasing an abortion single, which you can watch here:

She jokes in lyric and video about a targeted and violent killing of the life in her womb. Diane is worried that the song will hurt the abortion cause (more on that in a bit). Just before she kills her own unborn child, though, she talks to a human at the abortion clinic who insists the song is deeply meaningful.

“She is so cool. Sextina’s music makes me feel strong, like I can do anything,” the young woman says. When Diane protests, she says, “You get that it’s a joke, right?” And then she adds, “Getting an abortion is scary. With all the protesters out front, how you have to listen to the heartbeat and all that. When you can joke about it, it makes it less scary, you know? Yeah.”

Perfectly good writing for an after-school special about how abortion is totes awesome. But for Bojack, it’s a complete betrayal of the larger themes of the show. As one brilliant writer with a protected Twitter account Tristyn Bloom noted, “A major theme of the show is how sad it is that people rely on hollow entertainment to fill their lives and give them hope. So when the woman at the end says something earnest and reasonable sounding about the impact [the abortion song] had on her life, you wonder, is this a blind spot for the writers? Is entertainment sad when it’s glorifying suburban family life but important and beautiful when it flatters controversial moral stances?”

3) The Worst Part: It Was Not Funny Enough

Comedians can get away with anything provided they’re funny. Louis CK took some heat for his “Saturday Night Live” opening about pedophilia, but he would have been destroyed if it hadn’t been funny. The episode was fine, but it placed preachy politics over comedy. There were parts that were identical to Amy Schumer’s not-groundbreaking abortion sketches. There were parts that were identical to NARAL’s horrifically unfunnny “Comedians In Cars Getting Abortions.” It was almost as if the Bojack writers were operating from a Planned Parenthood playbook, as if there had been some ghoulish agreement to insert the exact same unfunny and untrue characterizations of pro-lifers in each bit.

To be fair, this general political approach was cheered by the A.V. Club’s Les Chapell, who wrote that it reminded him of the Planned Parenthood/NARAL vehicle “Obvious Child.” Of the Olbermann panel, Chapell wrote, “This entire scene is a straight-up glorious ‘f*** the patriarchy’ moment, presenting clearly defined models for everyone who’s taken a stance on a woman’s right to choose and showing just how callow and hypocritical those opinions are.” So if propaganda is your comedic vehicle of choice, you might exit now for the nearest “Funny or Die” clapback.

When Diane is preparing to get her abortion, a doctor is telling her she’ll need to look at an ultrasound and listen to the heartbeat of the child she’s about to abort. This is put in the show to mock informing women about what abortion does to an unborn child. The writers add silly things like, “Also, by law, I have to tell you that at one month, your puppies have a favorite color and that color may be blue.” and “Also, before your procedure, you’ll need to watch 20 hours of cute puppy videos as Sarah McLachlan’s ‘I Will Remember You’ plays softly.” NARAL’s pro-abortion propaganda had the same bit.

Diane is upset by the pop star’s abortion single for political reasons and political reasons alone! We get so little exploration of Diane’s emotions — about abortion, or about the single — that it’s bizarre. “My concern is that you’re actually giving the pro-life movement something to latch onto as an example of … I really think we have the chance to say something here, and all we’re saying is Pshew pshew pow.” She adds, “everyone’s listening to you now. Soon people are gonna get bored and move onto the next thing and you’ll hate yourself that you weren’t able to make a difference when you had the chance.”

The only introspection in a show that is otherwise known for intense emotional omphaloskepsis is when Diane says, “I know from the outside, it might seem like I should be ready for kids, but I can’t.”

Mr. Peanutbutter says, “Diane, you don’t need to explain anything to anyone.”

What a disappointment. The show writers didn’t need to write a pro-choice or a pro-life show. But they did owe it to their viewers to present Diane as a real person whose character is the same depressed, deeply conflicted, angst-ridden character battling demons as she is in each and every other episode. Bojack has previously been quite brave in taking on Hollywood values or the lack thereof. Bojack has previously been willing to hold up a mirror at our own selfishness, shallowness, and dangerous decision making. Why not now?

If “Bojack Horseman” writers can’t write thoughtfully about abortion, maybe it’s time for the abortion rights movement to give up on the goal altogether. It was obvious that good art about abortion couldn’t be done with one-sided preaching such as that from “Obvious Child,” NARAL propaganda videos, or Amy Schumer’s sketches. None of these give even passing consideration to the seriousness of ending a human life after it’s begun, or a culture that accepts such death as the price of sexual liberation.

If any show could pull this off, it’s “Bojack Horseman,” which is a rare combination of hilarious and elegiac. That they tried and failed isn’t just an indictment of how our culture treats lives as disposable; it’s a devastating pro-life argument, even when it’s unintentional.