If you’ve been here before, you’re aware that I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety. Naturally, it rubs me the wrong way to see people making light of anxiety for the sake of jokes for likes on Twitter, because it undermines the real struggle I and many others have with anxiety that has at times been positively crippling for me.
Recently a host on one of my favorite podcasts bemoaned his exhaustion with the fad of “performative depression,” which sums up a fad that’s pervasive not only colloquially, but reflected in popular media these days. (Eli Yudin is great, and the podcast, What a Time to be Alive is a weekly treat).
I’ve been a fan of Bojack Horseman for its run, and I recently binged 13 Reasons Why. I finished the latter just before the premiere date for the fifth season of Bojack was announced, and since the announcement I’ve not felt as motivated to mark my calendar for another run with the bitter equine actor. I think my major issue with both, and many of the shows heralded for their unflinching honesty about depression is the lack of moral center that is reliable and offers the advice the characters (and people identifying with those characters) need to hear: seek help, it’s for your own good and the good of others around you and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
13 Reasons Why ended each episode with a PSA about counseling resources, but each episode also cynically tore down the efficacy and value of those institutions and resources because of deeper issues in society. While I agree there’s no “perfect system,” they’re doing more to undermine the valuable moral than to help the people who might be reached and helped by such a sympathetic message.
Bojack has spent four seasons now being a terrible person because of his depression, and some of the most poignant moments have been when people are finally fed up and call him on his unhealthy emotional cycles: Mr. Peanut Butter in S2 calls him out on national TV:
Even Todd loses it on Bojack later in the series telling him he can’t keep doing terrible things, that at a certain point he has to be better. We’ve seen Bojack hit rock bottom, dig through it, then find a new lower rock bottom year after year, and these two moments are the sole moments that could be considered anyone telling Bojack to seek help.
Yes, the advice is there, and when you pull back it’s clear that Bojack is no role model (an anti-role model if anything), but without a clear cut, steady opponent to his unhealthy habits representing healthier means of coping with his emotional struggles it runs the heavy risk of glamorizing Bojack’s depression.
“Glamorizing depression? How could that possibly happen?” Look at the ecosystem. Sure, we’re in a place where discussing mental health issues is being destigmatized, which is helping a lot of people with finding help for their struggles, but there are just as many people making light of real issues because they want to self-identify with the tortured, cool “hero” like Bojack, Rick (from Rick & Morty), or Clay.
A lot of ink gets spilled about the performative happiness of social media, which is irksome but a more predictable result of human nature and pride. What I’m done with though is performative depression. I’ll pass on the next season of Bojack until I hear how it addresses Bojack’s struggles.
Here’s the big secret for all of us who struggle with depression: most of your favorite celebrities/comedians/writers have struggled with it also. They didn’t wallow in or glorify it (except for Emily Dickinson, but there’s always an exception that proves the rule), they worked to temper it, overcome it, apply it- to foster their ability to produce the work we admire them for. We talk openly and destigmatize depression so that others can have an easier time after us finding help, and becoming healthy, productive, and happy- not to glamorize it as a static state of being.
A valuable, true story about depression? Someone who confronts the demon day after day to conquer it and improve the world around them in spite of it. Bojack’s story, where his depression causes him to consistently ruin the world around him and see only success and rewards for it? I’m over it, thanks.