BoJack Horseman and the Pro-Choice Movement

On July 22, Netflix released the third season of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s animated comedy, BoJack Horseman. And amid the titular character’s struggle for an Oscar nomination, the writing team took time to tackle the controversial issue of abortion in an episode written by Joanna Calo and Amy Winfrey.

(Spoilers for the first half of the new season)

In the final minutes of the episode preceding the one we will be covering, Diane Nguyen (voiced by Alison Brie) and Mr. Peanutbutter (voiced by Paul F. Tompkins) find out Diane is pregnant. 

"Brrap Brrap Pew Pew" (I promise the title will make sense in context) picks up immediately afterwards; in fact, in the middle of Diane’s swear word she shouted in reaction to the news. On the drive home the couple talk around the issue, but they both unanimously decide that an abortion is the best course of action for them.

Later Diane is doing her job as a ghostwriter of celebrities’ tweets in Princess Carolyn’s (voiced by Amy Sedaris) agency. Well, tries to, as BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) continues to pester her, and in frustration she informs him that she’s getting an abortion… and simultaneously tweets the same from pop star Sextina Aquafina’s (voiced by Nicole Byer) Twitter account. Oops.

Naturally, this leads to public controversy and Sextina herself is furious, until she learns that other pop stars applaud her bravery and she’s trending like crazy on Twitter. As Diane explains it to her, abortion is a horribly stigmatized procedure and most women keep it to themselves to avoid backlash (you know, more so than women usually do when saying anything publicly). The newfound attention makes Sextina decide to become the face of the pro-choice movement and promote her new single along the way.

Diane decides the best way to prepare Sextina is to take her along for a trip to a Planned Parenthood (or, because this is BoJack Horseman, Planned Parrothood) clinic where Diane herself will have the abortion. And here the episode begins tackling the hysteria around women’s choice of whether to have an abortion or not. From the angry protesters…

…to idiotic laws that are designed to discourage women from undergoing the procedure. In BoJack’s world of comedy these laws include: 

  • having to look at the ultrasound and heartbeat/s of the foetus. 
  • the doctor being forced to tell the woman that at one month her child has a favorite color which may be blue (not because it’s even close to the truth but because the law obligates him) 
  • and Diane having to watch 20 hours of baby (well, puppy in their case) videos to the sound of Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You.” But only Diane. When Mr. Peanutbutter offers to do it with her, he’s told only the pregnant woman is allowed watch those videos.

This is obviously a satirical exaggeration but the fact remains that the pro-life movement has led to a huge number of laws across the world that aim to prevent or discourage women from undergoing abortion. Just this March, Trump’s current VP candidate and Indiana governor Mike Pence passed a horrendous bill in his home state. And the laws presented in the episode are not that far from reality. In January, North Carolina passed a new law demanding doctors to turn over ultrasounds of abortions performed on or after the 16th week to state officials went into effect. You can learn more about similar laws from this clip from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight episode from earlier this year.

Sextina starts going on talk-shows to talk about her non-abortion… and promote her new song. “Get Dat Fetus Kill Dat Fetus,” where the title of the episode comes from (it’s part of the chorus). It’s… something else. Imagine if Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” video was about a dystopian hunt for unborn fetuses, mixed with one of Lady Gaga’s weirder music videos, and then the producers turned the Gaga weirdness factor up to eleven.

Diane is obviously unhappy with how Sextina is handling the situation. Meanwhile, recurring TV anchor and professional butt-kisser, MSNBSea's Tom Jumbo-Grumbo (voiced by Keith Olberman), assembles a diverse panel to discuss the controversy.

Yep, everyone on the panel is an older white man with a bowtie. Going from left to right we have a guy who wrote a book called “But What About the Boys?”, claiming that if he were pregnant, he’d put his life on hold to take care for child he didn’t want (and because this will never happen, he’s unbiased); a self-appointed youth expert from the Washington Post who claims millennials glamorize abortion and consider it “N.B.D.” (Not B.D. Wong, who is a big deal, and thus anything that isn’t him, isn’t a big deal); and an “actual doctor,” who claims that a woman’s body can break down an unwanted fetus into gas particles and fart it out (he doesn’t remember where he read it but probably the Bible). They represent the loudest portions of the actual pro-life movement: older men who’ll never have to decide whether to have an abortion and seem to think they’re the only ones allowed to make that decision for women; the people that claim millennials consider abortions something fun that can be done on a whim; and idiots spreading myth and misinformation (like the idiotic claim that a woman’s body has safeguards against rape-inflicted pregnancy).

Diane gets through to Sextina that if she doesn’t treat the whole situation seriously, she might regret it in the future. And it seems like she takes Diane's advice to heart: when she’s invited to Tom’s panel, she’s acting surprisingly calm and serious. Until she announces she’s going to undergo an abortion on live television.

Princess Carolyn finds a solution to that problem (film an abortion, claim its Sextina’s and slap “LIVE” somewhere on the screen), but Diane has enough and practically quits her work after an argument with her boss. Later in the clinic, she considers blowing the whole thing wide open – until she has a conversation with a young girl who overheard her talking about Sextina. The girl tells her that the singer’s music makes her feel stronger and treats Sextina’s outlandish statements as what they are: jokes. She tells Diane that with all the protesters and laws designed to make women feel bad about the procedure, a little joke, even a slightly inappropriate one makes it a little more tolerable.

Later, Diane and Princess Carolyn, newly reconciled, are watching Sextina’s abortion video which is surprisingly tasteful and informative. Diane is feeling bad; physically, that is (it is a taxing procedure). She doesn’t regret it. And she starts explaining why she did it, but Princess Carolyn stops her, telling her that she doesn’t have to explain it to anyone. Aw.

Their bonding is interrupted by a call from Sextina, who just found out she actually is pregnant, and would like to keep it. And Diane and Princess Carolyn don’t berate her or push her to do anything; instead, they start working on how to handle the situation so it doesn’t look bad in the public eye.

The strength of the episode comes how delicately and sensibly handles the abortion controversy. We are given two female characters: one who decides to undergo the procedure, and one who chooses to give birth to the baby. Neither of them of demonized or glorified, and neither is the abortion itself. It’s treated as a choice that each woman considering undergoing this procedure has to make for herself; nothing more, and nothing less. If anything, it’s more focused on presenting the hysteria of the pro-life movement and the absurdity of laws that aim to prevent or discourage woman from making that choice, all under the guise of a fake concern for women’s health.

Not bad for a show featuring a talking horseman with a substance abuse problem. 

Dominik Zine is a nerdy lad from northeastern Poland and is generally found in a comfy chair with a book in hand.