This article includes spoilers of the Netflix series “Bojack Horseman.”
If you have spent any time around me at all, you would probably know that my all-time favorite TV show is “Bojack Horseman” which ran from 2014 to 2020, an animated adult comedy-drama series set in a humanoid, satirized version of Hollywood. The Netflix show follows washed-up star Bojack Horseman, a horse struggling with addiction and depression, as he tries (and fails) to regain his dignity after peaking in fame in his ‘80s sitcom. At this point, I’ve rewatched the show five times and am currently on the sixth.
The series holds a special place in my heart because of the way it so deftly approaches difficult topics like social and political issues, mental illness, modern relationships and even the Asian-American immigrant experience. Though the show is shrouded in an air of anthropomorphic absurdity and dark humor, “Bojack” tackles themes extremely personal to me in a very raw and relatable way. In fact, the show is one of the only pieces of media I’ve consumed that accurately encapsulates the decline of mental health and its detrimental impact on those around you.
Throughout the series, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg introduces a multiplicity of unique characters in Bojack’s life, each with a uniquely complex emotional relationship with Bojack. Of the show’s cast, one of my favorite characters by far is Diane Nguyen. She is voiced by Alison Brie, a human Vietnamese-American writer who, in all her actions, strives to make the world a better place and behaves according to her morals.
Diane is a misunderstood intellectual who is introduced in the show’s very first episode. Her character arc throughout the show was particularly compelling to me in that I resonated with her fragmented racial, ethnic and national identities. Diane’s confusion toward her racial and ethnic background in “Bojack Horseman” epitomizes a sentiment that second-generation Asian American immigrants experience amidst contemporary mainstream culture.
As she was one of the only main AAPI characters in “Bojack,” I felt like I was examining Diane’s story through a microscope, particularly because both of my parents also immigrated from Vietnam like Diane’s. This made me especially interested in Diane’s respective relationship with her own parents and how she, as an outspoken activist, would approach her fractured identity.
The writers of the show unfold parts of Diane’s upbringing bit by bit: in season one, episode five, Diane returns home to Boston for her father’s funeral. There, Diane’s family dynamic is revealed to be highly dysfunctional, as her mother and four brothers constantly belittle her and openly resent her for leaving home to pursue her dream career as a writer. Diane confides in Bojack that both of her parents were extremely neglectful towards her in childhood. In fact, both her parents often discouraged her happiness and in fact were “delighted in seeing her fail.”
In the very same episode, the “Bojack” writers introduce the concept that her AAPI identity was something she struggled with growing up. When Diane’s brother Artie nasally complains that “all the jobs are going to immigrants these days,” Diane points out that they are Vietnamese immigrants. To this, he responds, “Step off! We’re American as pho!” This alluded to the separation that Diane’s siblings felt from their cultural heritage.
Much later in the show in season five, episode two, this is reinforced when Diane goes through a divorce. She travels to Hanoi, Vietnam to escape from the melancholy surrounding her in LA, checking off “reconnecting with your ancestral roots” off her to-do list. In Hanoi, she gets into an argument with an American tourist family because they assume she doesn’t speak English based on her physical appearance. In this scenario, Diane’s frustration that she is being mistaken for a Vietnam native intermingles with an underlying disconnection from her Vietnamese culture as a whole – from the language to the customs.
This racial and ethnic bias gets reinforced at another point in the episode when Diane meets an American guy working on a film, and when he asks for her help to show him around as a “local,” she pretends not to know English for the whole day. Here, she plays into the stereotypes surrounding her Vietnamese identity, rather than rejecting them like she attempted to earlier. Ironically, throughout the entire episode, Diane is shown to be increasingly isolated from the very “ancestral roots” she sought to reconnect with. In fact, at every twist and turn, her American and Vietnamese identities are in conflict with one another.
Upon moving to the U.S., first-generation AAPI immigrants like Diane’s parents often experience a fracturing of their identity, split between assimilating to American culture and adhering to their heritage, in spite of publicly racist and xenophobic sentiment. The Americanization of media, beliefs and norms plays a big role in widening the gaping chasm between second-generation Asian Americans and their cultural identity. With Diane specifically, her character was split between two worlds: one consisting of superficial interactions in a whitewashed culture and another filled with meaning and connection to her heritage.
I think many second-gen immigrants in the AAPI community – myself included – resonate with Diane’s cultural disjunction. Growing up in a Cantonese-speaking family that only partially celebrated Chinese holidays while living and attending school in a predominantly white neighborhood created this same fragmentation of identity within myself. The pressure to assimilate was constantly lurking in the back of my mind, and I often found myself feeling simultaneously embarrassed to be Asian-American and ashamed that I wasn’t Asian enough. As Diane from “Bojack” often regretted not being in touch with her ethnic identity, I also experience this feeling of uncertainty due to growing up in a constant state of internal conflict.
Thus, Diane’s confusion with her own identity is exemplary of a more wide-ranging pattern in modern American society. As immigrants continue to settle and accommodate themselves to life in the U.S., the overpowering nature of the “American spirit” and the desire to fit into white Eurocentric spaces often pushes out expressions of one’s true cultural identity. Yet by exploring these conceptualizations in a mainstream American show, it almost becomes a form of resistance to erasure of identity and preservation of cultural identity.
Moreover, Diane’s character in “Bojack” indicates a step in the right direction with respect to representation of POC. I often find myself uncomfortable or sometimes even annoyed with Asian-American characters in TV series (see Lane Kim from “Gilmore Girls”) because it’s so obvious that the writers were just milking the characters’ AAPI identity to appear more “woke.”
But with Diane, she is notable by virtue of the fact that I didn’t feel like I had to like her just because she’s Asian-American like me. In fact, Diane was actually pretty unlikeable at times and made brash decisions regarding her future and career – and for that, I appreciated that the writers could shatter the model minority myth and mold an AAPI character without making her Asian-ness her only personality trait.
All in all, Diane Nguyen from the animated Netflix series “Bojack Horseman” embodies the experiences of a second-generation Asian American trying to grapple with their cultural versus national identities. Diane’s story reified the cycle of assimilation and discomfort that is so frequently expected of AAPI immigrants and their descendants, and I loved the multilayered intricacies of her character. She holds a special place in my heart because of the intimate association I made between her experiences and my own.
Furthermore, it’s important to note this crucial shift in modern television toward more realistic portrayals of the AAPI community. Now more than ever, we need characters like Diane Nguyen – just normal people like you and me who have their strengths and flaws, and still execute the ultimate goal of TV: connecting with the audience.