The Case for a Black Princess Carolyn

Princess Carolyn of BoJack Horseman (Photo credit: Netflix)

BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s animated series about an ex-TV star horse who’s navigating life after stardom, has never shied away from exploring tough subjects, including addiction, mental health, feminist politics, and asexuality. However, aside from briefly touching on Diane Nguyen’s (Alison Brie) Vietnamese heritage, the show has been hesitant to delve into racial politics—possibly because many of the characters aren’t human. “I didn’t want to cast a show with all white people, [but] I was surprised by how easily it happened,” show creator and showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg told Slate in 2018. “For a long time, because we cast a white actress to play Diane, I was afraid of this conversation happening. And because of that, we really downplayed her race and her cultural heritage. We’ve treated her basically like a white woman.” Though BoJack Horseman has shied away from tackling race directly, the issues faced by fan favorite Princess Carolyn (played by Amy Sedaris, a white woman), can still be seen through this lens.

BoJack Horseman is not the first cartoon to cause controversy over its so-called colorblind casting. For centuries, animated series, including Big Mouth, have been misrepresenting or appropriating Black culture and narratives for dramatic or comedic value. In 1931, the (later censored) Looney Toons cartoon “Hittin’ The Trail For Hallelujah Land included to offensive portrayal of Uncle Tom, a doglike creature who runs around with dancing skeletons, as a depiction of a superstitious Black man. Like BoJack, this series also used animal portrayals and animation to mask its use of racial stereotypes. In 1943, “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves” also utilized offensive stereotypes of Black jazz musicians for comedic effect. While Princess Carolyn’s storyline in BoJack Horseman is not a racial stereotype in the same way these cartoons clearly were, a look into the character’s narrative still adds to this discussion.

There are several reasons why we tend to assume many cartoon characters—like Bugs Bunny, Elmo, and Goofy—are Black. Elmo is voiced by a Black actor (Kevin Clash), leading some viewers to assume that the character itself is also Black. In other cases, however, a lack of representation in television may cause Black viewers to project their own experiences onto animated characters. “I’ve always thought that Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) on Steven Universe is Black for a bunch of reasons,” Black cartoon enthusiast Farhia Osman tells Bitch. “Visually, her purple skin makes her one of the darker characters on the show. Also, I remember relating to her as she learned to love herself. Her story is a sad one, but Amethyst has a way of brushing it off and trying to look strong—and that’s an experience I know Black women face, too.”

Similarly, Lena Stevens, a Black woman from Hawaii, relates to animated characters. “A character that I always thought of as Black is Bambi,” she says. “Though he is not explicitly coded that way, I interpret his need to constantly be alert and aware of the dangers of his surroundings to be inherently Black. He is forced to grow up quickly and harden himself in order to survive a world that threatens his existence everyday, in ways that he has no control over.” Like Bambi and Steven Universe, BoJack Horseman carries the tradition of coding race in animation through the character of Princess Carolyn (also known as PC).

In several flashback episodes, including “The Amelia Earheart Story,” we learn that she was born to a single, alcoholic mother in rural North Carolina and raised with 11 other siblings in a small attic. When PC is a teenager, she is impregnated by the son of her mother’s rich employers, but quickly loses the baby in a miscarriage. And once she moves to Los Angeles to become the first person in her family to attend college, she refuses to return to her hometown. While the show doesn’t explicitly mention the impact of race on PC’s past, the show’s class commentary helps flesh out her backstory and status, one that is especially obvious given the great wealth of its main character.

Later seasons offer a more textured look into PC’s identity. Season 3 follows Princess Carolyn’s on-again, off-again relationship with her anthropomorphic mouse boyfriend, Ralph Stilton (Raúl Esparza). From the very moment Princess Carolyn and Ralph meet during a blind date, there’s a tangible tension between them. When Princess Carolyn looks up from her menu and sees that her dinner companion is a mouse, she proclaims, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!” The show continues making jokes about the cat versus mouse trope, and, while the riffs seem completely innocent, a deeper look into Ralph’s life reveals a hidden meaning.

We later learn that Ralph comes from an extremely wealthy family; he and his sister, Stefani, are heirs to the Stilton hotel fortune and grew up in a mansion with all the perks that come with wealth. As Ralph and PC’s relationship continues, tension begins building between PC and his family, especially around important events, like PC’s decision to have a baby. When Ralph brings PC to his childhood home to meet his parents and celebrate “The Feast of Saint Squeaky,” a Stilton family tradition, the visit quickly turns uncomfortable when PC discovers that the holiday is extremely anti-cat. Small children dress in offensive cat costumes and the Stiltons sing a song about cats being cruel and unclean. Although Ralph assures PC that the holiday is ceremonial and not meant to offend cats, the feast still ends with Stilton’s father screaming, “Death to all cats!”

Ralph smiles sheepishly and claims that he forgot about that part of the tradition. These awkward moments become even more uncomfortable if we view PC and Ralph as an interracial couple—a Black woman who grew up poor partnering with a white man from a wealthy family. Marginalized people in interracial relationships are all too familiar with uncomfortable and racist family traditions, and through these racialized cultural differences, the show is suggesting that Princess Carolyn is struggling to fit in with the white, wealthy Stiltons because of her Blackness and their ignorant anti-Blackness. Viewers can garner that the tension in their relationship is not just between a cat and a mouse, but between a white man and a Black woman.

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Throughout the series, PC’s love life ranges from upsetting to downright ludicrous, and it becomes clearer as the show continues she’d disappoint herself by expecting too much from the men she partners with. After dating BoJack Horseman, who treats her like a disposable sex object rather than a partner, PC is so excited about a man claiming to love her that she overlooks that Vincent Adultman is actually three young boys dressed in disguise. She also engages in a toxic relationship with her sleazy coworker Rutabega Rabitowitz (Ben Schwartz) who is married and using her for professional gain. While many women, including Black women, are disrespected by their romantic partners, the hypersexualization of PC and her struggle to be accepted by the racist family are scenarios unique to women of color.

BoJack Horseman further imbues racial overtones into PC’s complicated desire for motherhood. Through flashbacks, we learn that she had her first miscarriage as a teen and then had have five additional miscarriages, including one with Ralph. While miscarriages can be devastating for people of any race, they have particular implications for Black women, who are traditionally expected to be matriarchs, and who receive lesser healthcare regardless of wealth. In America today, Black women are up to four times as likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women, lack access to quality contraceptive care and counseling, and have lower access to abortion. Through Princess Carolyn’s story, BoJack Horseman is shining light on the maternal healthcare crisis that Black women are facing in this country. What’s more, for Princess Carolyn, who has wanted a child for years, the miscarriages feel like confirmation of her position as a failed mother.

We see the character’s internalized guilt at her failure to live up to societal expectations of Black motherhood in several instances throughout the show. For much of the fourth season, PC, who has been declared infertile, is actively trying to adopt a baby but struggles to juggle her career, personal life, and quest for motherhood. In the Season 5 finale, PC’s adoption agent Tracy (Jean Villepique) tells her that not every woman is supposed to be a mother and suggests that PC should free herself of this expectation and instead live the life she’d “clearly rather be living.” Princess Carolyn becomes flustered and defensive, telling Tracy that she “can’t deal with this right now.” Her response leaves us to wonder if PC truly wants a child or simply feels the need to start a family because she knows that is what’s expected of her, as it is expected of most Black women.

The character’s core traits—such as her strong maternal instincts, strong work ethic, and intense perseverance—are qualities that many Black women are intimately familiar with.

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This conflict comes to a head in the Season 4 episode “Ruthie,” which is narrated by Princess Carolyn’s great-great-great granddaughter. Throughout the episode, Ruthie (voiced by Kristin Bell) tells the tale of her incredible ancestor on one of the roughest days of PC’s life. We watch as Princess Carolyn loses a client, has a miscarriage, accidentally destroys a family heirloom, and breaks up with Ralph in a single day. It seems that PC has found a way to start a family—until she reveals to BoJack in the last scene of the episode that Ruthie is a character she invented because “it makes [her] feel better.” Through the use of Ruthie as Princess Carolyn’s coping mechanism for her loneliness, the episode is highlighting the importance of ancestry and bloodlines in the Black community, especially given the history of Black mothers being displaced from their families during slavery.

In many ways, Black women’s identities are intensely tied to their ability to bear children and raise families—in this way, Princess Carolyn’s struggle to start a family becomes much more nuanced. Through her longing for Ruthie, Bojack Horseman highlights the ways that society paints Black women as lonely or empty if they have not started a family—and the ways that Black women can also internalize this societal expectation themselves. Though Princess Carolyn doesn’t have biological children, she acts as a matriarch for most of the other characters, fussing over Diane’s career and BoJack’s love life. When Diane asks her why she’s so actively helping her find a job, PC replies, “Because my life is a mess right now and I compulsively take care of other people when I don’t know how to take care of myself.” This compulsion—to be in control, be intrinsically useful, and be seen as perfect—is something that Black women often face.

In one scene, Diane’s husband, Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) even tells Princess Carolyn that he knows she can help him get out of a bind because, “You’re Princess Carolyn and you can fix anything.” This care is expected of her by other characters, and something PC upholds for herself. Much of her storylines revolve around her attempts—and failures—to have a thriving career, a satisfying love life, and a family, all life events that are harder for Black women to achieve and maintain. Through the character’s background and story arc, BoJack Horseman makes a strong case for Princess Carolyn’s Blackness. The character’s core traits—such as her strong maternal instincts, strong work ethic, and intense perseverance—are qualities that many Black women are intimately familiar with. For Princess Carolyn, the case for her identity as a Black woman offers a more nuanced lens through which to make many of the struggles that she faces in the show—such as her infertility and tumultuous love life—more meaningful.

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by Mary Retta
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