On Challenging Narratives: What To Do When a Show Hurts

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I did the one thing I promised myself I wouldn’t do. I watched an entire season of BoJack Horseman without a break. I’ve talked about the series plenty of times over on my blog but I wanted to bring a special sort of take here, for you all.

For the record, I’ll be talking a lot about the show that centers around a depressive anthropomorphic horse so a strong spoiler warning for all seasons is in effect.

Today, I want to talk about when a show, movie or book challenges you in a way that hurts. Realistically, all media should challenge you. We read books to expand our worldview, we watch television shows to help us learn more, we (even without meaning to) ingest media that makes us see things from a new perspective (most of the time). If you’re anything like me and have had a less than ideal past…sometimes, it’s a very hard reality to stomach.

This season of BoJack centered around several things that hit so close to home I had to check my windows for holes in them. Themes of what to do with problematic male actors, the issues of feminism that only seems to be heard when spoken through a male perspective, what to do when your love life is a mess, the importance of listening to partners, substance abuse for those who have experienced trauma both physically and emotionally and most of all, what to do with the feelings left behind when a not so perfect parent dies.

I joke often times that the show is written about me. Every season has had at least one episode that has brought me to shallow, haunted tears of being so painfully aware of a television show echoing a feeling I’ve had locked inside for years without form or reason. And then waltzing across my screen is a strange drunk horse of a man who speaks so clearly the feelings I had exactly upon burying my not so perfect mom.

Season 5 was a perfect encapsulation of the world’s current issues and it’s raw and gritty and emotional. There’s a scene towards the end that centers around a survivor of assault demanding to have the whole thing swept under the rug because she didn’t want to be remembered only as a person who survived assault: she wanted to be more than a girl who was choked and there in that moment, in the last episode of the season my already heavy heart broke some. There was no cutaway gag. No song. No dance. No joke. Just the words of a survivor desperately trying to move on from something monstrous: a conversation I’ve had and too many of us have likely had with ourselves.

BoJack hurts me every single season. I cry at least once, it makes me worry about society and myself at least two or three times and it makes me seriously look at myself and how I respond to the world and all of that from an animated show about a washed up actor. We all have our narratives that challenge us. I know before I found BoJack, the biggest one for me was The Killing Joke: having The Joker so clearly say that it only takes one bad day to separate the good from the bad in a person was haunting because I understood like so many do what it is like to have one catastrophically horrible day.

And these narratives leave us raw and emotional, sometimes without much optimism or direction. One of the reasons so many of us escape in superhero narratives is because most of them wrap up their stories in neat little bows: bad guys are bad, good guys are good. If I wanted something as random and arbitrary as the real world, I’d remain in the real world.

But every once in a while, it’s good to feel real again. It’s good to cry again because something touched me. It’s good to get angry if it stirs you to action. If watching The Handmaid’s Tale and it angers you how women are treated, do something. If you watch string after string of male actor be accused of something horrid without recourse, find a constructive way to express such feelings.

If a show leaves you haunted, hollow, unfulfilled because it refuses to give you a warm hug after gutting you and you have the proper outlets to process those emotions: continue to watch them. I know how hard it can be to face trauma regularly in media but it’s important to keep watching: for many without trauma, shows like this are their first times being exposed to such heavy topics and can be a good touchstone to talk about the things that are difficult to talk about.

But take a break, reward yourself for getting through something difficult. I almost always decompress those feelings later on so I don’t go to bed with a heavy heart. Find the ways that make it easier for you to to enjoy challenging media because it’s vitally important to do so: in moderation, of course.

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