Far From Horseplay: Bojack Horseman’s Chinese Fanbase

Young Chinese audiences have embraced the turbulent and often emotional story of the American adult animated comedy Bojack Horseman. Recently, Chinese fans are going crazy over the series, and a Bojack ‘screenshot hype’ has conquered Chinese social media. Among the online praise and endless screenshots, what is drawing such a devoted Chinese viewership to this hard-hitting comedy-drama?

It has been dubbed as the frontrunner in the rise of the ‘ultimately optimistic sadcom.’ Now, the American animated comedy Bojack Horseman (马男波杰克) has found a new fanbase on one of the world’s largest networking sites, China’s Sina Weibo.

“Bojack Horseman is one of the most subversively sad shows on TV.”

Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Bojack Horseman first premiered on Netflix in 2014. The animated comedy-drama follows the often heart-breaking journey of the show’s titular character, an anthropomorphic horse living in a city where both animals and humans coexist.

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Bojack portrays a familiar show business trope of a washed up actor living off the long gone success of 90s sitcom Horsin’ Around, with plotlines often revolving around his friend circle and his struggles with alcohol and self-loathing.

Stephen Kelly of The Guardian recently described the show as “one of the most subversively sad shows on TV.”

“The desire of Chinese fans to understand the meaning behind Bojack goes beyond wanting to improve their level of English.”

Considering China’s high consumption of emotional Korean dramas and weep-worthy ballads, appreciation for the tough emotional realism of Bojack Horseman might make sense.

China’s heavy control over the influx of Western media can make the country a difficult playing field for hard-hitting adult comedies, however Bojack has steadily accrued a firm Chinese following, achieving online ratings as high as 9.6/10.

Online acclaim appears to be the main avenue for Bojack’s success, with Chinese netizens posting anything from episode links to discursive articles. 

Some have even leapfrogged from the show’s success to teach English based on the show’s content. The online group Good Morning English posts English phrases organised by episode, while an online article explains the implications and offence caused by certain terminology (for example, the difference between using ‘handicapped’ and ‘disabled’).

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However, the desire of Chinese fans to truly understand the meaning behind Bojack’s scripts extends beyond wanting to improve their level of English. In fact, sites such as Weibo are home to fervent discussion and reflection over the characters’ heart-to-heart talks and the lasting quotes that have also drawn in Western audiences. From this, Chinese netizens have formulated somewhat cathartic outlets in the form of posts, links to the show’s music, and most importantly, screenshots.

“I really think I’m like Diane from Bojack Horseman.”

Screenshots, complete with subtitles, make up a majority of Bojack-related posts on Weibo, and also appear on other social media platforms such as WeChat. China’s Phoenix News characterised the trend surrounding the cartoon as “living for screenshots,” whereby Chinese viewers are using Bojack images to illustrate their feelings or personal experiences.

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Despite the cultural differences between modern China and the US, it seems that the subject-matter of the show often resonates with the experiences, hopes, and fears of young Chinese people.

Chinese text says: "Hello, I am your horse brother. You might not understand me, but when you do, you will definitely love me."
Chinese text says: “Hello, I am your horse brother. You might not understand me, but when you do, you will definitely love me.”

On one Weibo fan page, a netizen posting under the name of @我是马男Bojack added that her followers would “see their own reflections” if they watched the show.

In addition, after posting a screenshot reading “If you can’t find a way to let off some steam, you’re going to explode,” alluding to Bojack character Diane’s internal rage, one netizen (@竹裁雀念) added: “I really think I’m like Diane from Bojack Horseman.”

“The show’s refreshing honesty with life’s difficulties has struck a chord within China’s usually squeaky-clean entertainment industry.”

While netizens’ lives might not directly emulate Bojack Horseman’s internal battles, it seems that for some, the show’s refreshing honesty with life’s difficulties has struck a chord within China’s usually squeaky-clean entertainment industry.

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Previous popular dramas in China, such as Korean hit My Love From the Star, have tackled the emotional roller coasters of love, family, or illness. But rarely have they addressed issues such as mental health and societal pressures, which are particularly relevant in the midst of China’s rapid economic development and social change.

One set of screenshots featuring character Princess Carolyn, a pink cat and Bojack’s ex-girlfriend, reads: “Carolyn, you’re a single woman in your 40s, can you really afford to be picky?” Affronted, Carolyn responds, “I’m not afraid of being alone.”

Commenting on the interaction, one Weibo user (@我是少先森) described the realism of Bojack’s content as “really depressing.”

“More than just a cartoon, Bojack is used like a diary to express netizens’ innermost thoughts.”

China is no stranger to Carolyn’s frustration at the pressure of being a single woman. Recently, skincare company SK-II released a viral video featuring the stories of ‘leftover women’, those in China who are nearing their 30s and remain single.

In the video, various women were tearful at the stigma associated with their lives, despite their confidence and career success. It seems that the struggles of Bojack’s characters are animated portrayals of many home truths.

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One analysis of the SK-II was that it addressed an issue that had previously been swept under the rug. In turn, Bojack’s fearless and deep discussion of similar topics is embraced by Chinese netizens, with screenshots and quotes laying out in-depth commentary previously unseen on social media sites. More than just a cartoon, Bojack is used like a diary to express netizens’ innermost thoughts.

“Try watching Bojack calmly – experience it, understand it..no need to pick out every single sentence!”

Not everyone agrees that screenshots are the right use of Bojack’s material. One Weibo user (@直儿儿儿儿) posted: “Damn Bojack Horseman screenshots and quotes trying to get followers, even if you have that much self pity, or are that much of a narcissist, or even hate yourself, who needs that much validation?”

Others have expressed frustration at the screenshot trend’s increasing online presence, with another comment reading: “Try watching it [Bojack] calmly, experience it, understand it..no need to pick out every single sentence, please!”

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Protest on the Bojack screenshot hype mainly stems from the feeling that users who post screenshots do so for online attention, rather than criticism for the show itself. Essentially this backlash against the trend could strengthen the argument that Bojack’s content deeply resonates with the Chinese audience – something that shouldn’t be sullied for the sake of reposts and likes.

The popularity of Bojack Horseman in China shows no signs of slowing down. Screenshots are posted almost daily on social networking sites, either to entertain followers or illustrate someone’s innermost feelings.

It appears that an unlikely cultural bridge has formed between an anthropomorphic horse navigating the sea of show business to the homes and keyboards of China’s metropolitan youth. It could be a sign that Bojack will be the crux of a new viewing appetite in China for more hard-hitting and gritty television offerings in the future.

By Cat Hanson
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Author

Cat Hanson is a U.K. graduate of Chinese Studies now teaching and living in China. She swapped Beijing for Anhui, and runs her own blog on China life: Putong Press.