Bojack Horseman Creative Team Talk Comedy’s “Male as Default” Problem on NPR
"If we can normalize the idea of women existing, that's the least we can do."
Back in January, a Tumblr post from Bojack Horseman series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg gained a lot of attention for its discussion of comedy’s tendency to automatically use male, white characters as the norm.
Specifically, Bob-Waksberg addressed a brief sight gag in which a dog slobbers on a nearby business human, and the debate that took place within the show’s creative team when head designer Lisa Hanawalt suggested the characters should be women. Bob-Waksberg was initially hesitant:
The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible […] The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it.
In a recent installment of All Things Considered, Bob-Waksberg and Hanawalt spoke with NPR’s Neda Ulaby about the now-infamous slobber joke and the value that representation can have, even in a context as surreal as the Bojack universe:
HANAWALT: Even though a lot of our story-boarders are women, a lot of the designers are women, a lot of the writers are women, all the, like, stupid throwaway gags were men because it’s just funnier if, like, a man is goofy or gross or ugly or weird. And your first thought isn’t to make that a woman. But I’m gross and funny and weird, and I slobber. Like…
BOB-WAKSBERG: (Laughter) It’s true. She does.
HANAWALT: (Laughter) …That should be OK – to show that in a cartoon, and it should be funny.
ULABY: Hanawalt won. They did the bit with a female dog and a businesswoman. It literally lasts a second, and it worked. Of course it worked, says show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg.
BOB-WAKSBERG: And it feels so dumb now. It’s what’s weird…
BOB-WAKSBERG: …I am also a feminist, and, like, I – you know, this is something that is important to me, but it’s so deeply ingrained, it’s like I wasn’t thinking about it.
ULABY: What was ingrained was the idea that men are the default – that women characters slow down the joke just because they’re women. Some people said to Lisa Hanawalt, the only reason why you want to make these characters female is because you’re a woman, too.
HANAWALT: But that’s not true. My first instinct is always to make characters male, and I have to challenge that and think, like, well, really, does this need to be a man and why and what is the problem if I change it? And then I have to do it. It’s like always an extra step.
ULABY: Hanawalt and Raphael Bob-Waksberg were struck by a recent study about the dismal state of women’s representation in the media that came out from an industry think tank.
BOB-WAKSBERG: How that like as audiences, you know, we see a crowd that’s like 15 percent women, and we see it like, oh, that’s like half men, half women.
According to Ulaby, “Bob-Waksberg says ever since he started telling the story, lots of people have congratulated him for learning a lesson. That’s not the point of the story. The point, he says, is that Lisa Hanawalt was right.”
Take note, people who can’t understand the desire for diverse creators–without Hanawalt, Bojack would likely have the same biased worldview as 95% of the content out there. And it almost definitely wouldn’t be on NPR.
You can check out the interview in full below.