BoJack Horseman’s protagonist is a model of male entitlement, even if that man happens to be a horse. An alcoholic former sitcom star who’s propped back up by Hollywood (or his agent-manager Princess Carolyn) every time he stumbles, BoJack’s frequent offenses—from insulting a service member to sexual impropriety—never truly impede his career or life. Despite his friend Diane’s efforts to steady his moral compass, he doesn’t reform, partially because he doesn’t have to—the world always forgives him. And forgiving men is largely the topic of the Netflix show’s current season, its fifth.
As Season 5 starts, BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) is making a conscious effort to be better. He’s agreed to star in the dark streaming TV drama Philbert as a favor to Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), and he stands up for Gina (Stephanie Beatriz), his new romantic partner and co-lead on Philbert, when she feels uncomfortable filming a gratuitous nude scene. But showrunner Flip McVicker (Rami Malek), determined to maintain control in a space that’s utterly new to him, invents a dilemma disguised as a compromise: Gina can stay clothed if BoJack gets naked in her place.
BoJack’s trapped: He doesn’t want to walk back the deal and let Gina suffer, putting an end to his newfound goodness, but he’s uncomfortable in the nude too, especially in the scene Flip envisions. The objectification of, and assault on, women inhabits much of the season; this is the only moment where male objectification and assault appear, and the fallout—or lack thereof—is quite different.
Early on in the “The Light Bulb Scene,” Season 5’s first episode, BoJack enters Flip’s office in only his robe, looking to reason with him and get out of filming the scene. Flip’s sitting on the floor, and the whiteboard offers possible plot points for Philbert, including “sexy violent sex,” “classy violence,” and “sexy twist (violent??).”
Flip manipulates BoJack from the beginning, insisting, “I have been nothing but a friend to you” and adding “I actually called my mom last night and told her I made a friend on set. Do you wanna make me a liar to my mother?”
That’s when the mood shifts from threatening to violent. He orders BoJack to take off his robe, and BoJack refuses. Flip lunges forward, hand reaching for the robe’s lapel. BoJack catches one arm and they start to struggle. Flip shouts, “Why can’t you act like a professional and get naked!” The lamp crashes to the ground and casts noirish shadows behind them. They fight in front of the couch—a casting couch, if you will—as Flip tries to disrobe BoJack, grabbing both of his hands.
BoJack escapes Flip’s clutches, but it’s strange that in a season rife with references to Hollywood sexual misconduct—including BoJack’s own fortunately thwarted attempt to have sex with a 17-year-old girl back in Season 2—this incident never seems to resurface. BoJack spends much of the season vocally defending women who were abused, with varying degrees of success, but never seems to realize that he was a victim himself. Instead, he puts it behind him, another in a series of repressions that stem back to his childhood. In some ways, it’s the perpetuation of a cycle of abuse: BoJack’s father was self-absorbed, and his mother projected her unhappiness onto her son. Perhaps it’s because he’s familiar with abuse that he pushes it aside without apparent thought.
Sexual crimes perpetrated against men are frequently overlooked and belittled, although about 10 percent of rape victims are male and 16 percent of men under 18 have experienced sexual abuse. Instead of talking about the attack, BoJack has an utterly BoJack-dealing-with-something reaction: He gets drunk and high and drives his car over a curb. Viewers and reviewers seem to have skimmed past that scene as well. Is it because BoJack is male? Do we view the danger differently or accept it as antic rather than assault? Sure, Flip is schlubby and sad, but that doesn’t make him less of an abuser, or his assault less of a crime.
We don’t clearly see how BoJack’s assault affects him, or if it does at all. In Season 5’s penultimate episode, “The Showstopper,” he suffers a psychotic break, losing track of the line between reality and the world of Philbert to such an extent that he physically attacks Gina. It could be a result of his opioid addiction, but BoJack also has a lot of the symptoms of PTSD—avoidance of the event, mood swings, and behavior changes.
After opening the season with it, it’s strange that BoJack doesn’t pay more attention to BoJack’s assault, although the revelation might take shape in Season 6. Maybe entering rehab will grant BoJack clarity, and the event will resurface to be fully reckoned with.
But for now, there’s no reckoning, and it’s unclear whether that’s intentional or accidental. Were we supposed to notice the incident was never returned to, or did the show itself forget? While the show’s female victims of assault don’t see justice, their struggle is at least discussed. BoJack’s remains unspoken.