Spoilers for the sixth episode of BoJack Horseman’s current (third) season.
It wasn’t all that long ago — maybe until just last year, really — that tabloids and even reputable but clicks-seeking news outlets foisted a can’t-win game of gotcha on female celebrities. “Do you identify as a feminist?” singers, actresses, and other famouses were asked, their answers then producing “stories” that amounted to little more than yet another opportunity to demean yet another woman. Headlines screamed no matter how those celebrities responded: “So-and-so says: ‘I AM A FEMINIST / I AM NOT A FEMINIST.’” A woman’s identity is still an object to be scrutinized, nitpicked, and judged.
Shailene Woodley was the last big star to be shamed for her refusal to embrace the F word. That was only in the spring of 2014, when she was on a press tour for Divergent, but it feels like a whole cultural movement ago. Since then, the biggest female stars on the planet have mainstreamed conversations about gender equality: Jennifer Lawrence spoke up about the pay gap, Beyoncé introduced black feminism to the masses via Lemonade and her Super Bowl performances, Amy Schumer launched herself into stardom by being one of the sharpest satirists around about women’s issues. Google “Taylor Swift feminist” and the top articles aren’t about whether she believes men and women are equal, but whether she’s intersectional enough.
There used to be a time I’d wince when a female star came out as a feminist during the prime of her career. It didn’t happen very often, but when it did, it meant I’d have to hear from acquaintances and strangers how dumb or bitchy or just not likeable she’d suddenly become. Those days are waning, I think and I hope, as more celebrities embrace gender equality in the abstract and in calling out industry sexism in specific.
But should the celebrity-fication — and thus the inevitable corporate appropriation — of feminism bother us? That’s the uncomfortable but necessary question asked in “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew,” the abortion-themed sixth installment of BoJack Horseman’s new season. It’s a precise parody and an intelligent stunt of an episode, in which Diane (voiced by Alison Brie), the ghostwriter turned celebrity social media manager, accidentally tweets in a moment of distraction that one of her clients, teenage pop star (and dolphin) Sextina Aquafina (Daniele Gaither), plans to end her pregnancy. In fact, it’s the unhappily married Diane who’ll wind up undergoing the procedure with her canine husband Mr. Peanutbutter’s (Paul F. Tompkins) full support.
Sextina’s knee-jerk instinct, naturally, is to fire Diane. Arriving even faster, though, are the kudos from other celebrities and the cheerleading press: “Taylor Swift just said you were ‘brave.’ Nicki Minaj tweeted at you a face with heart eyes. And BuzzFeed just posted a list of top 15 celebrities who should have had abortions like Sextina,” Diane tells her. Despite Sextina’s clear idiocy in every other aspect of her life, the singer is too savvy to waste the free round of publicity. So in the perfect confluence of capitalism, (fake) oversharing, and political grandstanding, Sextina releases a single called “Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus” (the episode’s title, “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew,” takes its name from the gunshot-mimicking chorus), then monetizes her fraud pregnancy further by exhibiting her abortion on pay per view (with Eddie Redmayne playing the fetus, natch).
There’s much to admire about Joanna Calo’s script, which doesn’t pull its punches on the ridiculous hostility facing women considering abortion. “Has the concept of women having choices gone too far?” asks one news pundit. And Diane’s OBGYN informs her in a spot-on lampoon of anti-termination laws that she needs to look at the ultrasound and listen to the fetus’s heartbeat before going forward with the procedure: “By law, I have to tell you that at one month, your puppies have a favorite color, and that color may be blue.” But it’s also surprisingly compassionate about the effect that celebrity feminism — even one as inauthentic as Sextina’s — can have.
A-list stars and singers have lives that couldn’t be more different from those of ordinary people. And yet, it’s hard to deny how much our feminist concerns are based on cues from celebrity culture and the entertainment industry. “I don’t really think about her all that much,” says Diane in Season 1 about Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), a child actress who grew up to be another pop tartlet, in one of the show’s most memorable monologues. “I mean, obviously, I’m a fan of her early work, which both satirized and celebrated youth culture’s obsession with sex. But I do wonder as a third-wave feminist if it’s even possible for women to ‘reclaim’ their sexuality in this deeply entrenched patriarchal society. Or if claiming to do so is just a lie we tell ourselves so we can more comfortably cater to the male gaze. On the other hand, I worry conversations like this one often dismiss her as a mere puppet of the industry, incapable of engaging in this discussion herself, an infantilization which is itself a product of the deeply misogynistic society we live in. But like I said, I don’t think about her that much.”
But Diane and her onetime love interest, washed-up sitcom actor BoJack (Will Arnett), are people who make themselves miserable with their obsessions with purity and authenticity. Diane understandably takes offense at Sextina’s exploitation of a pregnancy she doesn’t even have, yet the episode doesn’t end with censure but empathy and faith in consumers’ intelligence. “I gotta go on talk shows,” Sextina declares when she first hatches her plan. “If I can make one woman feel a little less alone, then it’s all worth it, right?” In that early scene, it’s a cynical line that points a giant finger at the talking points so many celebrities use to exchange biographical details for another 15 minutes in the spotlight. But as it turns out, even lyrics as misguided as “I hope and pray to God my little fetus has a soul / Because I want it to feel pain when I eject it from my hole” can comfort the teens and 20-somethings that Diane sees in the clinic’s waiting room. One wavery-voiced young patient tells Diane, “Sextina’s music makes me feel strong, like I can do anything,” interpreting “Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus” as a joke. “Getting an abortion is scary,” she adds, “and when you can joke about it, it makes it less scary, you know?” It’s an important reminder about how inconsequential authenticity in pop culture can be. Audiences take what they want from culture — and in this girl’s case, Sextina’s celebrity feminism, however much of a horror show it is in Diane’s fault-finding eyes, is exactly what she needs at the time that she needs it.
Celebrities are people, but they’re also mass-appeal brands, and the first part of that formulation — the access into living rooms that fame can facilitate — shouldn’t be discounted. After her procedure, Diane and her feline boss Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) watch Sextina’s sham “scoopity doopity” on TV. “I actually learned a lot about abortion, and I just had an abortion,” concludes Diane. The “patient” reports that she feels “a little queasy, but on the whole, wonderful” in a matter-of-fact reaction that feels revolutionary for the progress of abortion on TV, even though we’re talking about a cartoon dolphin getting a counterfeit abortion for attention. Such is the connection we can make with strangers through screens and stories, whatever their motivations.