NOTE: Like many of my friends, I was overjoyed to learn Bojack Horseman’s fifth season was released today. I’ve binged seasons 1-4 many times over, and I’ve seen the famous “Under the Sea“ episode more than a doctor might recommend. And so I write this with mixed feelings, after having considered not writing it at all. I greatly admire the show, especially the way it realistically betrays mental illness, depression, and the loneliness of modern life. It’s witty, intelligent, heartbreaking, end yet somehow still hilarious. Its depiction of dementia is one of the best in media, and its unwillingness to compromise truth for broadness is inspiring toall screenwriters who have ever suffered the phrase “yeah, but how do we make the scene wackier?” I greatly respect the creators, and Alison Brie, whose work I follow and admire. Yet (and maybe it’s just the Asian me) I feel that to truly love a work, you must not be afraid to criticize it. So with all that said, let’s begin…
The second episode of Bojack Horseman’s fifth season (“Dog Days Are Over”) is a beautiful and breathtakingly simple story. After divorcing her husband, Diane Nguyen, a second-generation Vietnamese woman, takes a spontaneous trip to Hanoi. We’re made privy to elements of Diane’s childhood that will seem familiar to many diasporic children: Diane’s father being too distracted to talk about heritage, or Diane’s discovery that she looks different from her classmates. In Vietnam, Diane expects to feel at home, surrounded by people whose faces and names reflect her own. But instead, she finds herself even more of a stranger. A good friend once told me that such is the plight of the immigrant and her children- to only feel ‘at home’ on the plane ride back. Because once you arrive at your destination, you’ll find the place you knew (or never knew) no longer exists, and you’re a foreigner no matter where you go.
Diane visits tourist spots, buys a rice hat, and takes unapologetic selfies. But when she runs into a family of white American tourists, her attitude changes. They refuse to accept that she’s an American, or that she speaks English- reminding her why she came to Hanoi in the first place. Incensed, she learns basic Vietnamese, wanders off the beaten path, and spends a night wandering with an American tourist who is convinced she’s a local. When at last she reveals who she is, she is rebuked for not being authentic- for not “really” being Vietnamese.
The story’s beautiful conclusion is that of Diane staying still, while the scenery changes behind her. Whether in LA, or Asia she is adrift, lost, and alone.
|Diane Nguyen is played by Alison Brie|
Growing up, my strong sense of belonging (freckles and buckteeth aside) was a credit to my parents. They only spoke English at home, and only watched Western TV. As a kid, I knew Tagalog was reserved for when my Dad took the last cracker without throwing out the empty box- or for when my mom accidentally backed the family car over a very tall curb and got stuck. Tagalog was for arguing. And it was irrelevant. Many of my classmates’ parents felt the same. They were in Canada now, and their kids would be Canadian.
Years later I lament never having learned Tagalog. My sisters and I watch our parents, friends, and family talking, laughing, gossiping, and crying. But we’re on the outsides of those moments. We don’t understand them.
Watching Diane try to communicate with the first woman she meets in Hanoi sent my own heart surging. Her practical frustration was obvious, but as a second-generation Vietnamese woman there was another layer to the exchange. Diane must have been thinking: I should be able to speak to her. I should be a part of this. I should belong. I felt a sense of kinship with her. And then my stomach turned; I remembered I was listening to a white woman pretending to live my experience.
Bojack's whitewashing controversy makes Diane's later harassment by the American tourists intensely troubling. We're essentially watching a white woman pretending to be an Asian woman who's sick of racism. Ironically, public dismissal of Diane's whitewashing is deeply steeped in the kind of racism the tourists show Diane- that being 'American' has a very narrow definition, whether in speech or appearance. However, it's the opposite- with posters insisting that its only necessary to cast a diverse actor if the character has an accent- that otherwise there's no need.
|Message board comment|
This is only one moment where I’ve felt the heaviness of my own contradiction- an Asian face with a Canadian mouth. It’s a moment upon hundreds of others- small ones, big ones, some as big as your head. These moments upon moments form our experience as second-generation people- shape us into who we are. Being mistaken as a foreigner by men with fetishes for submissive stereotypes, or repeatedly told that your face means you don’t belong here- these are all-too-familiar to us.
That’s why this episode of Bojack Horseman is so conflicting. As an advocate for diversity in the industry, I’ve always argued that only we can authentically tell our own stories. But this episode is so truthful, so real, and so relatable. The fact that there are no Asian writing staff on the show- that the Vietnamese-American protagonist is voiced by a white woman- leaves me hollow. Its seeming authenticity almost makes it worse, because it feels like something truthful was stolen from me. From others like me.
How many of us would be given the trust to tell a story truthfully like this? How many of us would have the ‘star power’ to be offered a role like Diane? How many of us would be given support to distribute something as wonderful as this show? How can we ever make that number more than zero, when the most intimate moments of our lives are made fodder for the old club’s creativity?
Once again, we are outsiders. But this time in our own story.
The show’s creators have apologized for whitewashing Diane. And I do believe this episode as a concerted effort to make things right. But backlash over the choice to tell an Asian-American story with white voices, should not be a surprise. Any person of colour working on their staff could have told them it would happen- could have told them that telling this story, this way, with this white woman’s voice, would be another kick to a community already beaten down. That if they could not recast, not dwelling on Diane’s heritage would have been more welcome. But there were no warnings, because there are no Asian writers here. There are no Asian voice actors. There are only white writers, white creators, white voices, pulling the strings on marionettes that look like us, but will never be us.
Note: The creators have apologized for whitewashing the show, and have stated that Alison Brie would not take a role like this if offered it today. As an industry we have a long way to go, but there is progress being made, and people ARE coming around.