It almost seems inappropriate to discuss serious themes through a cartoon series. After all, an over-generalized view of animation regards the medium as one for children. Yet through its cartoon nature, BoJack Horseman tells one of the most inspiring and responsible stories on mental health to date.
At first glance, BoJack Horseman could be mistaken for a children’s show; the initial appeals of the series lay in its psychedelic artistic style, niche pop-culture references, and clever humor.
While these appeals remain at the forefront of the series, as the show progresses it takes on narratives surrounding a variety of mental illnesses, severe life events, and the human condition.
The subject of mental illness should not be taken lightly when explored through media, cartoon or otherwise. That’s not to say the subject should be avoided, rather just addressed responsibly.
BoJack Horseman proves that the endless creative depth offered by animation makes it an extremely useful tool to tell such stories.
At its core, the series tells the story of BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) trying to overcome his demons. We watch him endure peaks of euphoria and depths of depression. He struggles with severe anxiety, addiction, and troubled relationships.
While the series revolves around him, audiences also get an in-depth look at the psyches of many other characters. Some mental illnesses explored during the series include, but are surely not limited to, depression, trauma, and dementia.
In perhaps the most untraditional means, BoJack Horseman’s wacky visuals provide a level of psychological depth to some of the sad truths these illnesses embody.
While a good chunk of the humor is dark, every episode’s script is almost entirely comprised of wordplay. This wordplay is generally comprised of puns, alliteration, and rhymes.
“Wait, you’re telling me your dumb drone downed a tower and drowned Downtown Julie Brown’s dummy drum-y dum-dum-dum-dum, dousing her newly-found goose-down hand-me-down gown? … I’ll be right down.”Amy Sedaris as Princess Carolyn, “A Horse Walks into Rehab”
As a cartoon, BoJack Horseman prompts a level of distance between its highly sensitive themes. The show’s playful creative nature dissociates its grim circumstances from reality, making the subjects easier to swallow.
Visual advantages of cartoons
BoJack Horseman is praised for being one of the most visually captivating and accurate depictions of mental health on television. The Netflix series is set in a fictional representation of Hollywood where animals share human characteristics.
Using animals as main characters establishes a subtle child-like wonder that makes learning about their harsh lives significantly more palatable. If it were not for these more-lively aspects of the show, I truly believe BoJack Horseman would be too difficult to watch.
The series illustrates the absurd through vibrant color palates and creative depictions of animal life.
This is best seen in “Fish Out of Water,” a mostly-dialogue-free episode about a film festival that takes place completely underwater. Not many shows can rely on visual storytelling to completely carry the weight of a narrative.
A change of course
It’s hard to think of BoJack Horseman as separate from its psychological themes.
But the cartoon actually didn’t start with a deep focus on mental health.
BoJack’s struggles are evident from the start, but the shift to such morbid themes was surprising; even the series’ cast admits to having no idea that the show would get so dark.
Since The Sopranos reshaped standards for television through Tony Soprano – the most notorious antihero of our time – audiences began to prefer flawed characters over unrealistically perfect ones.
Such faulty characters seem significantly more human and are a lot easier to relate to.
BoJack is clearly an antihero from the show’s start. And his course of action only deepen his flawed nature, further enticing viewers.
Considering all the things BoJack Horseman initially had going for it, it was an exceptionally bold move to shift the cartoon show’s focus onto mental illness.
After all, doing so runs the risks of 1. being so specific about particular illnesses that general populations can’t follow or 2. being insensitive by not depicting mental illnesses in responsible ways.
Our deep relationships with characters
The cartoon aspect of BoJack Horseman grants audiences a unique perspective into mental health and the human psyche. Many episodes don’t just give examples of mental illness. They use evocative visuals to walk us through what goes on in the minds of struggling characters.
Any show could define a character by their reprehensible behaviors. But BoJack Horseman challenges that by reminding us that people are products of their environment.
BoJack Horseman‘s in-depth perspectives of characters reveal their thought processes and the traumas that led them to where they are.
This doesn’t excuse disgraceful behaviors that characters commit, rather it explains a potential course of action for mental illness and severe life events.
A key example of this is seen through episodes revolving around BoJack’s mother, Beatrice (Wendie Malick) who suffers from dementia in her old age.
Initially getting to know her, Beatrice is extremely unpleasant and rude. However, in the episode “Time’s Arrow” her condition worsens and we see clips of her internal state.
The access to her psyche is reflective of the types of memories and cognitive distortions that an individual with dementia would experience.
“We had a lot of conversations about how to represent the mind of someone who’s going through dementia and is having painful memories, and what the combination of those things looks like visually.”Kate Purdy, BoJack Horseman writer. (Cred: Vulture).
Responsible depictions of mental health in cartoons and other entertainment
Over its six-season run, BoJack Horseman depicts the realities of living with mental illnesses in ways that are both extremely informative and creatively thought-provoking.
At many points in the series, characters seek different modes of help, which grounds the show in morality and reality.
Now, more than ever, it’s become easier to responsibly explore mental health through media.
Many prominent public resources outline basic techniques on how to safely discuss mental illness. Yet highly-funded entertainment still often irresponsibly depict mental illnesses.
This not only promotes stigma, but leaves individuals in the dark about how to seek help.
BoJack Horseman reminds audiences that mental illness can not only affect anyone but can manifest in a multitude of internal and external ways. There isn’t a blueprint on how internal struggles are supposed to look and be treated.
The psychology behind entertainment and mental health
Comedy has been studied by psychology as a means of intervention when treating anxiety. The nature of humor often involves relaying surprising information that contradicts the expectations of an audience, thus catching them off guard and prompting laughter.
BoJack Horseman effectively does this through its animation. It stuffs so much humor into visual settings that even in dark moments you can find several puns in the background.
The show is inspiring for appropriately informing audiences on mental health at the intersection of humor and art. I finished watching it with refreshing perspectives on mental illness and my own internal states
I could only hope that BoJack Horseman instigates a wave of articulate discussion on mental health in media through such beautiful visual lenses.
If you or someone you know has a mental illness, is struggling emotionally, or has concerns about their mental health, there are ways to get help. Use these resources to find help for you, a friend, or a family member.