Reflections on Bojack Horseman, the Middle-Classes and Indian Mothers

In the incredibly confusing year of 2020, I moved back in with my parents and my grandmother. It’s been good and bad in equal parts thus far. It was also in the first part of this year that I finally got around to watching Bojack Horseman, a show that I’d heard rave reviews about for years but had never really got around to watching. Life’s crazy enough without having to deal with knowing about every pop cultural sensation that people produce.

For anyone who like me finds it difficult to keep up with shows, Bojack Horseman is one of a slate of adult cartoons that have come out in the past 5-odd years that deal with themes that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with cartoons. Sure, they’re funny, but the medium that they use allows them to explore themes with far more depth than traditional Saturday morning cartoons ever could.

The show sets you in a version of Los Angeles that is populated by anthropomorphic animals and humans. The show’s protagonist (antagonist?) Bojack, is an actor who hit it big with a show called Horsin Around in the 90’s, and almost 2 decades later is still living on borrowed glory. A classic Narcissist, Bojack watches reruns of his show while neck deep in alcohol and pills. On his journey over 6 seasons, he is joined by Princess Carolyn, Todd Chavez, Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane Nguyen, and a cast of semi-major to minor characters, who the show uses to explore themes of depression, anxiety and substance abuse, amongst others.

From the very beginning, Bojack is a very painful character to watch develop. He’s frequently awful to others around him and uses them to get what he wants. Like the song (originally by the Hollies, but the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Live version does it for me) goes, Bojack is King Midas in Reverse – everything he touches turns to dust. Bojack doesn’t seem to have problems, Bojacks seems to BE the problem.

He, like most of the characters on the show, aren’t really lovable. The show switches out lovability for complexity. Instead of easy laughs, you get richness. You don’t love him, but you do root for him to do the right thing. Instead, he goes around and round in an ever-shrinking spiral that eventually ends with him trashing his old house in a drunken haze and almost killing himself. This puts him in jail and effectively ends his career as the Horny Unicorn, and alienating most of his closest friends. There’s plenty of meat in each character’s story arc, but the one that shone the brightest to my moving-back-in-with-my-parents jaded eyes was the one that features Beatrice Horseman, the mother of Bojack Horseman.

It’s established pretty early on that Bojack has a difficult time dealing with his relationship with his parents. We’re introduced to Beatrice and Butterscotch Horseman mainly through Bojack’s own introspections and the dialogue that he has with others. Beatrice is the inheritor of the Sugarman fortune, the only surviving child of her parents and the first part of our tale. When Bojack goes to his grandparents’ house in the boonies to get away from the death of Sarah Lynn (who OD’s on a brand of Heroin that is named after him), we see for the first time, how events conspire to create the person (horse?) that is Beatrice.

Soon after Beatrice’s brother crackerjack is killed in WW2, her mother Honey Sugarman suffers a severe breakdown. Her husband Joseph Sugarman does not know how to process her grief and instead has a lobotomy performed on her. As a shell of her former self, Honey cannot express herself very well but does manage to warn Beatrice that she must not love anybody like Honey loved Crackerjack. As one of the earliest memories of Beatrice that we are introduced to, parts of her future self, start to make a little more sense. Her father’s stoicism and inability to deal with her mother’s grief shines through. This along with the lesson that she is taught – look at what love earned her mother.

Butterscotch manages to crash Beatrice’s debutante ball and seduces her with his auteur personality. They hook up in his car that night and Beatrice ends up pregnant with Bojack. Left with no choice, she turns up at Butterscotch’s doorstep and they decide to get married and have the child. As Butterscotch says, he will write his Great American Novel and she will raise the child. Effectively robbed of her youth at 18 years of age, Beatrice spends the rest of her life in a loveless marriage raising Bojack.

Three Generations

My earliest memories of my mother aren’t filled with recollections of physical affection. I remember running up to her as a child with a scrape that I had managed to get while playing outdoors. Her response to this was to give me a bottle of Dettol and a roll of cotton and asked me to clean myself up. My mother just finds it difficult to give children the “motherly” concern that we associate with being a parent. When I was a kid, I didn’t find this odd. I just figured that’s what mothers were like. This feeling also takes a strange valance in a country whose head executive refers to states, countries and goddesses as mothers in various contexts.

My mother described to me what meeting my father’s family was like. She was surprised by the fact that the children in the family were being shown overt physical affection. This didn’t align with how she was raised either. She’s the eldest of two daughters and was educated at a convent, which is where you send your children to if you want them to have the best chance at the job market later on in life. It was the middle-class thing to do.

My Grandmother with my Mother (Image Credits: Anirudh Rangarajan)

My grandmother was married away young (at 16) and she tried to raise my mother how she thought a daughter should be raised. Her experiences as a child informed what she taught my mother to believe in. This involved the expectation that my mother would one day have to cook and do chores for a mother-in-law. My mother hated every minute of it. She hated the idea of being made to do things for another person. Then, as now, my mother has always struck me as a fiercely independent person.

The Wedding Day of my Grandmother and Grandfather (Image Credits: Anirudh Rangarajan)

My mother believes that coddling a child beyond a certain point makes them soft. To push your children to achieve what they can achieve is to her, as it was to my grandparents, the cardinal duty of a parent. To love too much would be failing in your duties. To ration love, and to withhold it when it was necessary, is to make love conditional. It’s a hard-knock version of parenting and one that I think a lot of us are familiar with.

There’s a version of this that has to do with middle class values of a life well lived and how success is defined. We talk of these values as being largely positive, but that doesn’t take into account how it makes us treat our children. Being a part of the middle-class fosters a sense of insecurity. It is a status that you are not born with, but instead that is “awarded” to you as a result of being part of a particular socio-economic bracket and must be “earned” generation after generation. A natural consequence is that there is this insecurity that comes from a fear of losing that status, regardless of the fact that many members of the middle class have generational wealth as a result of, well, generations of relatively high-income earners being part of a family.

My mother eventually went on to become a doctor. I happened to her in the middle of her MD exams. She actually failed her first try because of all of the extra effort you had to make if you were dealing with a child in the middle of it all. She says that if she had to do it all over again, she would have waited for another year to have a child. 39, instead of 29. Although she doesn’t actually put it in those words, being a mother is something that she is very ambivalent about and there is a part of me that thinks that it’s a condition that was hoisted on her. It’s what people expected of you. Those were not questions that she could ask.

My Mother and I (Image Credits: Anirudh Rangarajan)

Resentment and Grace

In the incredible monologue that he delivers at his mother’s funeral, Bojack says that he was always surprised that the moments of grace that he experienced while his mother danced at the dinner parties that they hosted. There are memories that I have of my mother where some of the purest joy that she could express happened because of cinema. If anybody remembers the early 2000’s, it was the era when Star Movies and HBO played some incredible content. Some of my happiest childhood memories are watching India Jones and Star Wars with my mother. Somehow, they made her seem less cold and more of a giggly child. It wasn’t something that I was used to, but those are moment that I still cherish to this day. She isn’t a fan of Star Wars Episode 7, 8 and 9, but she did like Rouge One.

Honestly, Bojack is heartbreaking to watch. At first, I understood the resentment that he had towards his mother. I still do.  Then, there’s the redemption arc that both Bojack and his mother share, and that’s the bit that really got me. As some people have commented, time and generational trauma truly is the antagonist in Bojack Horseman. In the truly incredible Free Churro episode in Season 5, Bojack laments the fact that life and relationships cannot be managed or solved with grand displays, but instead rely more on doing good daily.

Dementia is a funny thing. Beatrice suffers from it, and so does my Grandmother. There are no grand displays with dementia. There’s only the everyday repetition. There’s also a morbid fatalism to all of this. As Hollyhock, Bojack’s half-sister, reminds him, Dementia is genetic. It robs of you of the ability to communicate information to a person. As a doctor, 2020 has been a really difficult year for my mother and my grandmother’s inability to really be present has been a loadstone around her neck. I also have instructions to put a bullet between my mother’s eyes if she ever ends up the same way. If her genetic lottery comes through, she will end up the same way. As will I. I’m not sure what gun ownership laws in India are like, but it sounds like it would involve too much paperwork.

When I was talking to my mother for the purposes of this article, she often brought up the fact that my grandmother had raised her and her sister with the fact that they had to be self-sufficient. To be able to stand on your own two feet was what would help you in life. The particulars of loving a child just as they were seemed secondary to the task of raising a child who could do better than the previous generation did. From Salem, to Coimbatore, to Chennai – over a period of 100 years. Taken in this context, rationing love as a means to incentivize performance makes sense.

My grandmother has never told my mother that she loves her, and presumably she never will, and while my mother and I do attempt to tell each other this in all our new-born-calf-like awkwardness, she will never have that with her mother. In the Free Churro episode, Bojack mentions that Beatrice looked at him and said, “I see you.” He wonders if that means that his mother meant that she “sees” him, finally, after all these years. The gag is that she was in the ICU and that she was just saying I-C-U. Even in tragic death, Bojack presents you with a gag. I get to be seen, but my mother doesn’t have that option. Dementia robbed her of that.

Bojack Horseman wasn’t cathartic in the regular sense. There wasn’t a character that had an arc where they ended up figuring it all out. There’s no closure. In fact, the show ends with allusions to the fact that Bojack and Diane will really not be friends anymore. It ends with a moment of silence, with the both of them framed against the night sky. Instead, it made me feel seen. Growing up in a culture of silence, families never speak truth. Divorces, substance abuse and familial strife aren’t spoken about. Bojack Horseman screamed it from the rooftops.

The Beatrice-Bojack storyline revolves around the march of time. It contrasts you as an autonomous individual who can make decisions with the fact that the early childhood experiences determine the person you become in so many ways. The show also uses some of the flash-backs in really creative ways. As this Youtuber pointed out – Butterscotch, Bojack and Hollyhock are shown having the same nervous tick. They all rub their left arm with their right hand in moments of stress. A detail that reinforces the point that the show is trying to make, that we always carry some of that old stuff with us. It made me think of my mother not just as my mother but as a person who carries the weight of her upbringing and made choices based on her experiences. We want to think that we are capable of these moments of forgiveness and transformative grace. The show reminds us that real life is so much messier than we give it credit for. As humans, we really are cursed with free will. We take the decision to be good. Consistently. Every day. It doesn’t present you with the pretense of shortcuts. It’s honest, and for that, I’m grateful.

Mothers are Human

Bojack Horseman reminded me of a simple fact that often eludes us – the fact that mothers are just as human as we are. Raising a child is an incredibly difficult task to perform right, and it is thankless in many ways. Mothers, mine and yours, are all imprinted with so much of the pain of their own childhood. In a sense, to embrace the idea of possessing free will is to develop a radical sense of empathy for those who we feel wronged by. Bojack is an incredibly flawed human and though he tries really hard to do the right thing, he often fails miserably.

While his place in the familial memory of the Horseman-Sugarman lineage places severe constraints on his ability to have moments of grace and forgiveness with his mother, the only way for him to resolve that trauma is to do the work that is required of him to not pass it on to the next generation. In a perverse way, the fact that he is constrained by painful circumstances is what makes the choice of empathy so radical. We don’t choose those circumstances, but we can still choose to embrace those moments of grace, and that is the cathartic core of the Bojack Horseman.

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