For the last three years, I've studied masculinity in the context of very public instances of sexual violence, collecting newspaper articles, tweets, documentaries, and books that detail allegations of sexual violence against famous, rich men. How does masculinity as a practice of dominance react when challenged by subordinate subjects? How do men re-assert their dominance when it is challenged by allegations of sexual assault specifically?

BoJack Horseman has been a companion series to my research. But its depiction of masculinity in crisis has given me pause. Is it complicit in the reassertion of masculine power? Does it repeat the traditional male angst performance but make it palatable in the current stage of social justice discourse?

Masculinity in Crisis On Screen and Off Screen

When I tell people I study masculinity, their first response, often, is about men's mental health and the alleged crisis in masculinity that results in high suicide rates for men. While those numbers are real, I grimace at the notion that it is a result of masculinity in crisis because, like many scholars before me, I struggle to find evidence that the crisis is a real social problem.

Discussions around masculinity in crisis can be tracked back to the 1970s and 1980s, when feminists started foregrounding men as the dominant gender, rather than keeping men in an invisible role of default dominance. The premise of the "crisis" is that, because feminists are challenging men, they are losing power and struggling with the sense that they are no longer providers, or heads of the household, or they aren't on top of the hierarchy like they were told they would be, or they are struggling with mental health and cannot open up. But evidence for this crisis is scant even in masculinity studies literature. Tim Edwards characterizes the literature on masculinity in crisis as a "ragbag of partly theoretically informed and partly politically prescriptive assertions," which he goes on to mercilessly discredit and discard.1 He  argues that there is little empirical evidence to characterize a material crisis and suggesting that, perhaps, masculinity is partially constructed as a crisis, or has inherent crisis tendencies.2

In practice, the notion of white masculinity in crisis gives space and credence to the wounds of white and male privilege, arguing that white masculinity can represent itself as victimized in the sphere of identity politics. Men's liberationist perspectives, as well as more traditional depictions of wounded white masculinity, concern themselves with equating liberation to release, rather than moving toward the dismantling of patriarchy itself. Tania Modleski warns that "however much male subjectivity may currently be 'in crisis,' as certain optimistic feminists are now declaring, we need to consider the extent to which male power is actually consolidated through cycles of crisis and resolution, whereby men ultimately deal with the threat of female power by incorporating it."3

BoJack's Wounded Masculinity

When we meet BoJack Horseman, he suffers from meaninglessness, addiction, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. His crisis is founded in irrelevance; he once was a big shot in Hollywoo, but he is now an older drunkard trying to find his place. It's difficult not to care for BoJack despite his glaring faults; he's charming, his self-hatred and negative cycles are relatable, and his drunken behavior, when harmless, is funny. Even though BoJack is a depressed, problematic horse, his struggles for meaning, love, relevance all things we crave, all things that have slipped through our fingers one time or another feel human.

BoJack longs for a time when he played a benevolent patriarch on TV; his Horsin' Around character hearkened to a common representation of fatherhood in the 1990s, similar to the men in Full House who took on child-rearing as a shared, full-time job. Masculinity in the 1990s was in a state of reconstruction, responding to feminist demands for emancipation. Full House masculinity was a softer masculinity, the stay-at-home dad, a figure who was and continues to be lauded as progressive; men taking on housework and child-rearing by choice or by force provided the public with a collision between hegemonic masculinity and the feminizing nature of women's work. Despite claims of progressivity and more leisure time for mothers, these representations pose no challenge to the nuclear family, and reassert heteronormativity.4 That BoJack longs for that period of his life is doubly about power and family: he misses being culturally relevant, lauded as progressive, and having a family, however fake that family was.

BoJack's crisis and the harm it causes people around him provide the show its tension. His present life is empty of family, but full of material wealth. He spends his time emotionally numbing himself with alcohol, sex, and Horsin' Around viewings sometimes at the same time. We witness how his behavior hurts friends, family, lovers, and acquaintances. He nearly commits statutory rape, fails to intervene when a friend's overdose leads to her death, and assaults his girlfriend and coworker on set.

Uniquely, unlike other male main characters in cartoons like Peter Griffin or Homer Simpson, BoJack doesn't get away with the harm he causes. The people in his life who suffer the most are women and non-hegemonic men, friends who challenge his behavior. His actions are colored by his dark past; the show is partly about generational trauma and passing down toxic behaviors and patterns. And while that's important, the show is also decidedly against using these past traumas as an excuse for current bad behavior, with BoJack's friends coming to a breaking point and demanding accountability routinely throughout the show:

BoJack: Todd, I'm sorry, alright? I screwed up, I- I know I screwed up, I

Todd: Oh great, of course! Here it comes! You can't keep doing this! You can't keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself like that makes it okay! You need to be better!

BoJack: I know, and I'm sorry, okay? I was drunk and there was all this pressure with the Oscar campaign, but now that it's over, I - I - I

Todd: No! No. BoJack, just . . . stop. You are all the things that are wrong with you. It's not the alcohol or the drugs or any of the shitty things that happened to you in your career or when you were a kid, it's you!

BoJack's relationship with Todd is complex because of how they are indispensable to each other, but also because of the power differential between them and how that shapes their friendship. Although Todd's asexuality only becomes apparent to the viewer in later seasons, his masculinity is undoubtedly not hegemonic throughout. Todd doesn't have the ambition of a businessman beyond running a fake David Boreanaz home tour and failing upward with Mr. Peanutbutter. He doesn't have the looks or the ambitions of a movie star, he lacks any brutality or meanness. He doesn't have a salary or a future, and is almost always technically homeless. BoJack oscillates between admitting he needs Todd as a friend and sabotaging Todd's professional life so he is more readily available to serve BoJack's emotional needs. Todd reaches a breaking point with BoJack several times throughout the show, calling BoJack's power over him and their unequal relationship into question, but salvaging their friendship and rebuilding a rapport.

BoJack is an animated show that is funny, but takes dark, serious, fucked-up turns when you least expect it, making us ask hard questions about our own lives. The story of ghostwriter-turned-friend-turned-estranged-acquaintance Diane Nguyen, for example, explores the difficulties of trauma, writing, and existing in the world as a feminist biracial woman who attempts to advocate for herself and others despite social and personal obstacles.5 Similarly, Princess Carolyn's narrative depicts the loneliness and hardships of being a career-minded woman who also desires a family and companionship, sparking an article in Bitch Media making the case for her Blackness.6 I am fascinated by the push and pull of class and gender in BoJack's family history in Season 4, watching the evil mother trope being humanized and given systemic context.7 Even Todd, who is mostly (delightful) comedic relief, explores his relationship with his asexuality and the confusing terrain of compulsory heterosexuality, eventually coming out as one of the first canon asexual characters in television. (As an aside, I think this is Aaron Paul's best work in television, not Breaking Bad). BoJack Horseman is a show about the interiorities of complex lives that are sometimes contradictory, negotiating trauma, mental health, and systems of power. That's where the magic of the show lies, within the depth of characters you did not expect to have depth.

But BoJack's crisis, unlike the other struggles we follow in the show, is part of a system that asserts patriarchal and masculine dominance in Hollywoo. He is an emblem of toxic masculinity. And he is the main character. The show doesn't recognize this as a problem in the first couple seasons, but it increasingly especially after MeToo becomes the core of the show and its intractable problem.

The show makes several attempts at addressing BoJack's toxicity. For example, it presents the case of another toxic masculine Hollywoo actor, Vance Waggoner, whose public apologies are a performance of crisis resolution that have the potential to re-establish the power of a man accused of sexual violence:

Princess Carolyn: Thank you so much for meeting me.

Vance Waggoner: Of course!

PC: The Apology Tour can be a hassle, but you've been handling it perfectly. What do you have lined up next?

VW: Well, I'm getting the lifetime achievement at the We Forgive You awards.

PC: You're getting a Forgivie? Damn, your publicist is good."

It's a cynical exchange that reveals the reality of power and bad behavior in Hollywoo, where public apologies are used to take control of the narrative and reassert power. As Karen Boyle argues, the moral duplicity of public men can be repackaged and resold in Hollywood, and is sometimes partly why certain men are famous in the first place, a lá Grindenwald/Johnny Depp.8

The show also addresses post-MeToo toxic masculinity through BoJack's character in Philbert, who is a morally ambiguous detective disturbed by addiction and an unsavory past. Through Diane, who struggles with her role in making Philbert and Philbert just acceptable enough while continuing to center its bad man, BoJack grapples with itself. Philbert is, for BoJack, so close to his own reality that, helped by his own addiction and drug use, the boundaries between himself and the character dissolve, resulting in his violent choking of his co-star Gina Cazador. His guilt over this assault sends him careening on a trajectory that lands him in prison.

And yet: the show suggests that no matter how many people BoJack hurts, as a rich, straight, presumably white horse-man, he remains available for rebranding. In the end, he faces a future as the star of Horny Unicorn. (Think of Louis C. K.'s return.) This is why, although I love the show, BoJack and his journey bother me. That male power might be consolidated through cycles of crisis and resolution haunts my viewings of the show, even as I empathize with BoJack's depression and addiction.

What haunts me most is how there is no accountability for BoJack's victims beyond a flawed carceral system that doesn't quite deliver justice for most survivors of gender-based violence. Egregiously, the survivor of an almost-statutory-rape by BoJack barely makes an appearance, stating she doesn't want to tell her story, much like BoJack's co-star Gina Cazador who says "I don't want to be defined by what [he] did to me." Those are mostly fair depictions that reveal the hurdles of women who suffer gendered violence and how it can mark them for the rest of their lives. But I find it suspicious that there is so much focus on BoJack's crisis and almost no space for his victims. We all have shit in our lives that bring us to our knees, that beg to be excavated, removed, and healed, no matter what gender we are. But it feels too convenient not to show how BoJack's victims struggle post-trauma; is their crisis less interesting? Is it because their trauma and how it affects them in their day to day life would make BoJack's redemption difficult to achieve narratively?

What BoJack goes through over and over again is a typical cycle of gender dominance. What's new about the show is that BoJack's behavior is not okay, and this allows other characters to express their hurt and anger toward him. But I wonder whether this is a new assertion of masculine dominance; a self-aware masculinity that reasserts itself in knowing it is problematic, hurtful, and dominant. BoJack supposedly did his time, and he is allowed to live the rest of his life managing addiction, but the ending felt anticlimactic, unsatisfying. I am still deciding whether this dissatisfaction is a goal of the show perhaps it means that society hasn't found an appropriate response to gendered violence yet or whether BoJack's self-aware crisis is a reconstruction of masculinity that fits the current discourse around gendered violence. In at least attempting resolution, the show is marketable to a crowd of progressive viewers like me, but I have to always wonder if I am just being duped by masculinity in crisis once again.

Nicole Froio (@NicoleFroio) is a writer and researcher currently based in York, United Kingdom. She is working on a PhD on masculinity, sexual violence, and the media. She writes about masculinity, sexual violence, women's rights, Brazilian politics, books, and many other topics.


  1. Timothy C. Edwards, Cultures of Masculinity (Routledge, 2010).[]
  2. Similarly, in a historical evaluation of masculinity in crisis, Mary Louise Roberts argues that "gender crisis rhetoric" has outlived its usefulness. She points out that the abuse of the term "crisis" occludes the diverse and complicated historical experiences of masculinity, emphasizing that "crisis rhetoric" is heteronormative, and excludes non-normative masculinities that are usually positioned as a threat to normative masculinities. See Mary Louise Roberts, "Beyond 'Crisis' in Understanding Gender Transformation," Gender & History 28, no. 2 (2016): 358-366. []
  3. See Sally Robinson, Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).[]
  4. As Mary Douglas Vavrus argues, this type of representation claims the status of a counter-stereotypical discourse, naturalizing the nuclear family and paternal dominance within it, effectively achieving the "domestication of patriarchy." Mary Douglas Vavrus "Domesticating patriarchy: hegemonic masculinity and television's 'Mr. Mom,'" in Critical Studies in Media Communication 19, no. 3 (2002): 352-375.[]
  5. Rachel Charlene Lewis, "An Ode to Diane Nguyen, Depressed Feminist Writer," Bitch Media, February 10, 2020.[]
  6. Mary Retta, "The Case for a Black Princess Carolyn," Bitch Media, October 25, 2019. []
  7. Nicole Froio, "BoJack Horseman and the Complications of Motherhood," Splice Today, October 5, 2017.[]
  8. Karen Boyle, #MeToo, Weinstein and Feminism (London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).[]