Portrayals of abortion on television often lack nuance. Usually, they’re a grab for an emotional response from the viewers, a totem of despair for the character or, most often, a plain old cautionary tale. Jenny Slate’s film Obvious Child opened up what an abortion narrative can look like onscreen by being charming, funny, sweet and sad, but there are still so many more perspectives to explore—and it’s happened recently in an unexpected place. BoJack Horseman, the animated Netflix series about a washed-up ‘90s sitcom actor (voiced by Will Arnett) navigating its anthropomorphized world through his substance abuse problems, depression and questionable moral character, has scripted an abortion narrative in its brand new season that expands and complicates those we’ve seen to date.
Plenty has been written about the show’s relevance to other, authentic portrayals of ailing mental health on TV (like Mr. Robot and You’re the Worst, BoJack tackles it with disarming realism). But BoJack’s supporting characters are equally deft as tools to examine other complicated parts of, really, just existing. In its third season, which premiered in full last Friday on Netflix, the show took a full episode (“Brrap Brrap, Pew Pew”) to explore just exactly how many points of view go into being truly “pro-choice.”
Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), a writer, third-wave feminist and BoJack’s former biographer, is working a miserable job as social media director for a publicity agency when she discovers she’s pregnant. Explaining to BoJack that she is going to get an abortion—one she and her husband, Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), a golden lab who is also a washed up ‘90s sitcom star, have both agreed is the best idea—she accidentally tweets “I’m having an abortion” from the Twitter account of Sextina Aquafina (Aisha Tyler), her client and a dolphin “dubstep wunderkind.”
The mistaken tweet is a fireable offense, according to company head Princess Carolyn (a purple cat voiced by Amy Sedaris), but when Sextina receives praise for her bravery from Taylor Swift, Princess Carolyn decides to position Sextina as the face of the pro-choice movement—something that irks Diane, who still has her unwanted pregnancy.
If you’re a publicist, I don’t recommend this as a course of action. An easier, and more likely, plan would be to just grab on to the old “I was hacked!” excuse, glom on to Taylor’s support (#squad) and have your client make a statement that even though she’s not pregnant and having an abortion, she agrees it’s a brave choice to make and everyone should support a woman’s right to choose. (You’re welcome, publicists!) But in the BoJackiverse, Sextina indeed brands herself as the “voice of choice” and, in one interview, debuts a surprise trap-pop single “Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus.” Here are some of the lyrics:
“Aliens inside me / Gonna squash it like Sigourney… I’m a dolphin doll face / Bitches in my crawl space / Have abortions sometimes? / No, I’ma have abortions always… And sometimes I do have doubts and it’s hard to sleep / I think about my child’s heartbeat and it makes me weak.”
That last line, “I think about my child’s heartbeat,” is a reference to the “informed consent” laws in states like Texas and Pennsylvania, which mandate that patients must listen to the fetus’s heartbeat before the procedure. (Louisiana and Georgia require an ultrasound before going forward.) These twists on the fetal heartbeat bill that has been introduced in eight states in America are satirized much more effectively, though, when Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter set up Diane’s appointment. “At one month I have to tell you that your puppies may have a favorite color and that favorite color may be blue,” Diane’s doctor tells her. “Also, before your procedure you’ll have to watch 20 hours of cute puppy videos as Sarah McLachlan’s ‘I Will Remember You’ plays softly.” Mr. Peanutbutter offers to bear the burden with Diane, even on his own, but the doctor says she must complete those steps in solitude. It’s a brutal comment on the way state-level, anti-choice legislation preys on our empathy and conscience.
As the controversy around Sextina’s abortion mounts, Tom Jumbo-Grumbo, a blue whale news pundit who broadcasts on MSNBSea (heh, heh) and is voiced by Keith Olbermann, hosts a “diverse panel of white men in bowties” to discuss. “Has the concept of women having choices gone too far?” he asks. Sure, BoJack’s humor is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but it also highlights the very real variables that “choice” contains. It’s more than just having the option to terminate an unwanted pregnancy; these sorts of freedom-curbing laws often come with a not-so-subtle goal of dictating exactly what an adult woman’s life looks like.
The final stunt is that Sextina will have her abortion on live television. Since she is not actually pregnant, the procedure will be “Argo’d”—created by movie magic—with special effects by John Carpenter, and Eddie Redmayne cast in the role of the fetus, a slick-tongued joke about his biggest roles. Diane announces that Sextina’s stunt is offensive to women who actually have abortions, but, of course, it’s a constructed narrative under the smoke and mirrors of publicity — no one else is supposed to know that Sextina isn’t pregnant, so the only person it truly affects is Diane. “Stop making this about you. I am so tired of you creating problems,” Princess Carolyn tells her. “I’m sorry you’re so fertile and in a sexually active, loving relationship and you don’t want a family, I’m sure that’s really hard for you.”
When we talk about the imperative of choice, it’s often about women, or girls, who are in peril—rape and assault victims, teens who are not ready—and less so about women who are in committed, loving relationships. But under the umbrella of “choice” is the freedom to choose no matter one’s personal circumstances. In Princess Carolyn’s case, she’s sacrificing her personal life to have a career in Hollywood — one that is suffering, one that makes her consider her loneliness often—but it’s also part of the reason she’s fine with Sextina’s publicity stunt. Keeping the client happy keeps her in business and it’s her choice to live her life that way, even if there are dubious moral implications. It also helps to highlight the internal and external pressures still put upon women who privilege their career over making a family.
All of these notions coalesce when Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter, who is a good dog and agrees loyally with everything she says, are at the abortion clinic. Complaining that Princess Carolyn only complains about her company’s bottom line instead of the “very real damage” that Sextina’s “Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus” could do to its audience, Diane is confronted with a teen girl in the waiting room who is starstruck when she hears Sextina’s name. Diane asks the girl if she’s offended when Sextina sings, “I hope and pray to god my little fetus has a soul / Because I want it to feel pain when I eject it from my hole.” The girl wonders if Diane knows it’s a joke: “Do you actually think she wants to shoot her fetus with a gun? Getting an abortion is scary, with all the protesters out front and how you have to listen to the heartbeat, and all that. When you can joke about it, it makes it less scary.”
BoJack has dabbled in women’s issues before—Season 2 satirized David Letterman’s nefarious dealings with women Late Show employees—but this season is a little bit more issue-centric. (There is an ongoing bit about an on-demand safe-space car service for women passengers, driven only by women before it’s decided men deserve to feel safe in a space, too, and, well… you can guess where it goes from there.) But the abortion episode isn’t just a comedic minor plot point throughout the season—it allows for the gradation of choice to be examined in at least a few of its many modes. It is especially successful because some of these choices can be completely mundane.
When abortions happen on TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy or Parenthood, they are heartstring-tuggers; when it’s portrayed on Degrassi or Dawson’s Creek, it’s a cautionary tale. On BoJack Horseman, it’s just a completely possible thing that can happen; abortion doesn’t have to ruin a character’s life, and it’s a decision that anyone is completely capable of making, regardless of circumstance. This episode furthers the path on how women’s issues, especially the most taboo ones, can be more than just severe plot devices, but actual conversation-starters—and that it can all just be a joke, too.
Claire Lobenfeld is a music critic and culture writer living in New York. She is also an editor at FACT Magazine. Her Tiger Beat-style zine about the NBA, Swish, is forthcoming.