Those of you who follow me on my social media (links below and you totally should), you know I’m a bit obsessed with my television. I watch Star Trek, all Star Trek, on a bit of a perpetual loop. I’m a giant nerd for Doctor Who. And I re-watch the entirety of Bojack Horseman. A lot.
Bojack Horseman, absurd as it is, has become a pretty huge part of my life. Not in that I’m always watching it, or that I’m cosplaying as the characters on a daily basis (although I would kind of love to be Celestina Awkwafina for Halloween sometime). It’s that as a television show, it’s pretty damn unique, and has given me opportunities to have a lot of conversations with my kids I might not otherwise.
Let me take a step back and say, I do not watch Bojack Horseman with my kids. I cannot fathom watching it with children. If you have children, do not watch Bojack Horseman with them. In fact, that’s how most of these conversations start.
I like to have the TV going while I fold laundry, and most of the time, the kids aren’t interested in hanging out while I fold laundry. They’ve got better things to do. Once in a while they feel like spending the time with me, and we watch Star Trek or The Great British Baking Show or She-Ra together. But most of the time they don’t want to hang out, and often, particularly if I’m in the midst of a psychological crisis (and when aren’t I?), I put on Bojack. Without fail, on these days one of the kids will pop their head in somewhere around my fifth episode in a row, right after I tell Netflix to stop judging me and let me binge the show that Mike refers to as, “Pure distilled sadness.”
“Mommy? Are you watching TV?”
“Yeah, sweetie, but you can’t watch with me.”
“Is it Bojack Horseman again?”
“Yup, but I can turn it off if you want to watch She-Ra?”
“No, you go ahead, Mommy.”
And they leave, and I watch, and I feel seen by a television show in ways that can be really, really hard to articulate.
But over dinner, because it’s always over dinner, one of the kids might ask, “Mommy? Why aren’t we allowed to watch Bojack? Is it because of the language?”
And because I’m always trying to be honest with them, I answer.
“No, honey. It’s not the language. I know you can hear some inappropriate words and not repeat them. It’s not the language.”
“Is it because of, like, kissing stuff?”
“Sex? Well, yes, there’s a lot of sex stuff in there that’s really not appropriate for you, but not because sex is bad or gross. It’s because…”
I don’t say, “It’s because when there is sex, it’s in the context of adults trying to understand why their drive for sex is compounded with their need for compassion and vulnerability. Or because they’re using sex to avoid their discomfort with their changing relationships. Or because it’s a stand-in for meaningful communication.”
Instead I say, “It’s because Bojack is a really, really sad show. Not sad because of people dying or something, although that’s in there, too. But sad because sometimes, adulthood is sad, and adults don’t usually know how to talk to people about the things that make them sad.”
“Well, like there’s an episode where one the character’s mom dies. And he’s confused because he’s sad, but he doesn’t think he should be sad because he didn’t like her very much, because she was always mean to him. He doesn’t think she even loved him. And he doesn’t know how to talk to anyone about it, because probably everyone he knows has parents who did love them, and even if they didn’t, he doesn’t know if he wants to know if they didn’t. He doesn’t want to have to feel sad for other people when he’s feeling so sad for himself, and so confused about his sadness. And the thing is, a lot of adults feel a lot like that kind of frequently. And a lot of adults are afraid to say these things to people because it’s hard to tell people how sad so many parts of adulthood can be.”
“Oh. They should go to therapy.”
“YES. They should go to therapy. And why I don’t want you to watch Bojack is because I don’t think you’re old enough to really understand that kind of sadness, and I don’t want you to have to try. Adulthood is also awesome, and you can do amazing things, and I don’t want you to have to grow up with the burden of all the things that can go so wrong weighing you down.”
And then we talk about something else.
The creator of Bojack has a new show, Tuca and Bertie, and that has been my latest binge-watch. The first few episodes were rough, establishing the utterly absurd universe of this show, which is not the same as the Bojack Horseman universe, but has a lot of similarities. But suddenly, near the end of the season, Tuca and Bertie does something that no episode of Bojack ever has.
It shows a hurt, sad adult, learning how to heal.
If you’re not interested in the spoilers, go ahead and skip down to the end so you can follow me on social media and hear more of these observations in real time, because here comes the spoiler.
One of the main characters, as it turns out, was sexually assaulted as a child. She doesn’t share the details. The details aren’t important. What’s important is that she’s been repressing her hurt and confusion so long that she just can’t anymore, and it’s beginning to affect her life in ways she hadn’t even realized were happening. She’s beginning to see how many patterns in her life were formed by what she had to do to feel safe in a frightening world.
And she doesn’t want to confront that. She doesn’t want to have to face that she may have learned some very toxic coping mechanisms, or that the ways she protects herself might be harmful to other people. But the first step in her self-healing isn’t changing her behavior. It isn’t apologizing to the people she’s wronged, or telling the adults who should have protected her back then what happened.
Her healing begins when she lets herself sink into the sadness of that experience, and in a place of literal darkness (again, it’s an absurdist show and the laws of nature and physics do not apply), she finds her twelve-year-old self, hurt and scared and confused. And she, the thirty-something woman, still scared and hurt and confused, embraces her. She becomes the adult that she needed twenty years before. In a silent moment of pure vulnerability and strength lasting no more than ten seconds of animated screen time, she steps up to her childhood self, and hugs her.
And both of them are able to move forward into the futures they wanted.
I’ve been crying basically non-stop since I watched it. This is inner-child therapy, this is a real thing. This is a visualization technique therapists genuinely use. This is actual, real-life healing.
On screen. In a fucking cartoon. With talking plants.
Right now, my kids aren’t allowed to watch Tuca and Bertie, either. But I think it will be allowed much sooner. When they are beginning to understand not the sadness of adulthood, but the crushing weight of your gender making you vulnerable. I try so hard not to fixate on it, but my children are on the cusp of the time in their life when all of their friends are going to begin experiencing these indignities. Sexual harassment, sexual assault; soon their peers will all show up to school with cell phones in their pockets and the non-stop barrage of demands for nudes will begin. Whenever I sigh at their pre-teen attitudes, or roll my eyes at their tantrums, a thrum of warning throbs in my head.
There is nothing I can do to protect them. Nothing.
There is nothing I can do to stop strangers from ogling them as they grow breasts. There is nothing I can do to stop teachers or coaches or friends’ parents or doctors or anyone from hurting them. The only thing I can do is tell them over and over and over that I will believe them, that I will trust them, that I will help them, and to show them whatever models I can of survival.
All of us, we are all only surviving. Whatever that looks like. We are all making our peace with our experiences, doing our best to parent ourselves where our own parents failed. I know I’ll fail in some areas. I know it.
I have daughters. I have three daughters in a country where one in three women is a rape survivor. That never escapes me. Never.
I have told the children they’re not allowed to watch Bojack until after they’ve been grown-ups for a while. Maybe when they’re old enough to rent a car, I tell them.
But Tuca and Bertie, that one I’m filing away for those teen years, when they look like women to creeps on the street, and maybe they feel like adult women, but inside, they are still trying to figure out how to treat their frightened inner child, and whether they have to bury her to become the adults they must, or how to embrace her.
It’s not pure, distilled sadness. It’s something else. It’s the sadness of confronting the inevitability of change, even when that change is for the better.
And for all the crying I’ve done today, I do feel better. And I do feel changed.
Read more about sexual assault in America here: The Difference You Don’t Know Between ‘Normal’ and ‘Right’
Read my most recent post here: The Joys of Being a Big Kid Mom
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