2020 has marked the end of a lot of beloved things, one of those being the Netflix adult cartoon, Bojack Horseman. The hit tragi-comedy premiered on Netflix back in 2014 and has since been considered one of the best adult-animated series of all time. I, personally, only got into the show approximately a month ago, and I finished it 2 weeks later in its entirety. From the first episode I was hooked in by its dark hilarity, its nuanced characters, and its funky themes.
The Netflix show follows the post-sitcom decline of a famous, self-sabotaging horse named Bojack (voiced by Will Arnett) and the changing lives of those around him- more pronouncely, the suffering writer Diane Nguyen (voiced by Alison Brie.)
Once described as the “Asian Daria,” Diane Nguyen is unlike the rest of her rag-tag counterparts. Her morbid, self-aware, and monotone nature stands out like a sore thumb in the middle of Hollywood’s A-list party. Her moral high ground is miles above the rest of her friends’, and that makes her not only the moral compass of the show much of the time, but it also gives her a condescending personality- one that she uses on others profusely, but rarely on herself. She is constantly talking down on her loved ones, simply because she expects more of them than they expect from themselves. This also means that no matter how insufferable others may find her, they all have gone to her at least once for self-improving advice, especially Bojack. His constant search of approval from Diane is just a mirror of her personality to expect more from him. However, this also means that Diane is always the helper and never the help-ee. Even when her life is at its lowest point, her highest priorities lie with helping Bojack’s self-discovery and saving the world rather than herself.
Diane is also a writer- a very good one, actually. At the beginning of the series, she ghost-wrote Bojacks memoir, and as the show carries on, she takes on more prominent writing gigs that solidify her career. Her main dream, though, is to write her own memoir/book of essays. Her desire is to take her experiences and document them in the hopes that she gets self-fulfillment and that she can reach and save another young Diane out in the world. Sound familiar? If you are a writer, like myself, you may be all too familiar with this unmovable need to narrate your traumas in order to save others from their own.
The tortured writer
It seems that creative people can be more inclined to be highly self and socially conscious and idealistic, therefore becoming a breeding ground for chronic sadness and anxiety. Diane has all the qualities of a “tortured writer.” She’s a chain-smoker, suffers from anxiety and depression, she’s deeply aware of everything, and well, she writes… even when no one cares what she has to say. She also has childhood trauma that she almost never goes an episode without mentioning.
For centuries, the “tortured writer or artist” has been a well-known phenomenon. It is the idea that you must live through your pain and trauma everyday in order to create meaningful art. It’s even ingrained in our history. Stories that surround writers of some of the greatest works in history are riddled with depression and suicide. Leo Tolstoy, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Wolf, Edgar Allen Poe, and Ernest Hemingway- all beloved, masterful writers with a dark history of depression and death. And this is not only limited to writers, let me tell you. The “tortured artist” follows all mediums- just look at Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, and so many more. Artists are told that we have to suffer in order for our work to thrive, and without pain, our art is meaningless. Heartbreak breeds the best love songs, and writers cant write about anything if they haven’t “lived.” And sure this may be true to a DEGREE. Yes, some of the most pained artists created some of the greatest masterpieces, but at what cost? At the cost of their lives and subsequently the lives of generations of artists after them who believe they have to follow the same path to stardom.
Diane shatters the myth of letting your trauma define you and your art
So what does the myth surrounding the “tortured artist” have to do with Diane Nguyen? Well, because she is it.. or so she thinks. There are plenty of episodes of Bojack that center on or at least accentuate Diane and her art form. When you first meet Diane on the show, she is a writer. She had already written a book on Secretariat, and she is immediately hired on to ghost-write Bojack’s memoir. Her talent is never a question, but what becomes more apparent as the show carries on is her damage. In season 1, episode 5, Bojack says that he doesn’t think Diane is “damaged” enough to write his memoir. Later, however, in the same episode he realizes she is not as put together as she seems. The rest of the show spends time delving into these hidden damages of Diane, bringing them all to light.
The writer’s of Bojack Horseman created thoughtful, nuanced characters that you grow to love in their own respect, but it was Diane Nguyen who break through the barriers of the television screen and translated to me the most. Diane felt the most real, and over time, she becomes so familiar that it’s almost like looking in the mirror. Her flaws seem to suspiciously mimic my own. The roller-coaster of her life’s highs and lows, and her entire writing career, all leads up to the season 6 episode- “Good Damage.”
Season 6, episode 10 titled “Good Damage” follows Diane on her quest to finally write that memoir she’s been talking about. Except now that she has the time and head space to do so, she just cant seem to. For five and a half seasons, we have watched Diane vent and moan over her childhood trauma. She never seemed to be at a lost for words then, but now, it’s crickets.. Throughout the episode, Diane’s inability to manifest her history on paper is cartooned through a segment of drawings that encapsulate the emptiness of her mind’s memory as she tries to pull free all that pain she has harbored. Diane’s inability to do so is assumed, by herself, to be the result of her anti-depressants. She believes she is “too happy”, “too relaxed” to write anything good now. Happiness and decreased anxiety has improved her health yet somehow ruined her talent for writing. She is deluded into the myth of the “tortured artist.” She believes she has to be romanticizing her sadness in order for anything good to come of her art form. So as you might guess, Diane stops taking her medication, and things only get worse.
Diane spends the entirety of the episode ruminating over this idea that her trauma needs to be captured and retold to the masses. If not, then it’s not “good damage” because nothing came out of it. One repeated line of the episode comes from Mr. Peanut-Butter, and it’s from a memory when he talks about the art of kintsugi- where cracks in an object are not fixed but instead filled with gold, because the cracks are a part of its history, and instead of erasing that history it is glorified and honored. Diane wants to apply the art of kintsugi to her cracks. And so do I. I mean, don’t we all? What is the point of all this pain and trauma if we can’t do anything with it? A lot of times, there is no point. Diane mentioned that she always believed that her trauma was THE thing that made her special, because it made her a good writer. And I’m not ashamed to say that I was mislead to believe the same thing. Writing became a form of therapy for me for so long, I had forgotten the time before it ever became that. I had forgotten the times when I was a child, and I used to write short stories just for pure entertainment and happiness. We believe that trauma is what gives us our talent, forgetting that we’d had it all along.
Diane was an accomplished writer before her memoir, and it was solely because of the fact that she’s a damn good writer. But she let her depression and trauma have the power to tell her she was nothing without them. It wasn’t true for her, and that’s not true for you neither. Your history does help shape who you become in many ways, but you don’t have to let it define you, and you sure as hell don’t have to let it define your art nor take your life one day.