As I’m about to graduate college, I’ve been thinking about BoJack Horseman again. I literally love this show so much, probably because it makes me think about people and the patterns they find themselves in.
I also find it interesting that the show includes characters of all different age groups. BoJack is in his fifties. Princess Carolyn is around 40, and Diane is a few years younger than her. Sarah Lynn and Todd are thirty. Hollyhock and Penny are a teens and then young adults. Several characters go through big life changes and experience growth. But I’m not sure that works for everyone. BoJack struggles to make lasting changes over time, but if there is anyone who fails to change over time, it is Mr. Peanutbutter.
I have been thinking lately about mental health and BoJack Horseman and about how Mr. Peanutbutter is the perfect example of toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is a term that I’ve seen everywhere. There are even toxic positivity memes out there. We have all heard the usually well-meaning advice to just stay positive and choose to be happy every day. Is that necessarily a bad thing?
And what is toxic positivity, exactly? According to Medical News Today, Toxic Positivity is “is an obsession with positive thinking. It is the belief that people should put a spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic. Toxic positivity can silence negative emotions, demean grief, and make people feel under pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling.”
Don’t get me wrong, looking for things you are grateful for and appreciating the people around you are good things, but that simply isn’t the answer for every life situation, especially the painful parts of life. Ignoring life’s tragedies and pain for the sake of positivity is deeply toxic. But before we dive into toxic positivity, it is important to understand Mr. Peanutbutter as a whole.
He is one of those characters that I love to hate, or more accurately, he is one of those people who annoy me, but I can’t help loving them a little anyway. He is funny, and he is always so happy. But his happiness is a strange one. He is willingly oblivious, which seems like a quirk at first. If you think about it though, he’s actually pretty harmful—even if he isn’t causing harm on purpose.
Mr. Peanutbutter’s worldview is actually one of the most complexly thought out ones on the show. When I first saw Mr. Peanutbutter, I figured he was one of those characters who never thought of big questions about life and just enjoyed being rich and famous. After all, money is quite distracting; life is distracting. Not everyone constructs a worldview or decides to understand their place in the world. I thought maybe Mr. Peanutbutter was happier than BoJack because he never thought about the world and just enjoyed the good stuff. Boy, I was wrong. He has thought of his actions and what it means to be in this world. In one episode, he tells Diane:
“The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.”
Wow, I can’t quite agree with you on that, bud. I understand that we can’t figure out the answer to every question or solve the world’s problems, but wow. He also uses the word unimportant nonsense, which indicates that there are important things to do with your life. He could be trying to help others and help with issues he does care about. He does care about the people close to him—Diane, for instance. And he’s not in a position where he can’t help others be happier and safer.
As an actor, he has a lot of money. He already recognizes that it won’t buy him happiness or make his life perfect, so why doesn’t he help the less fortunate? Diane, in contrast, is all about saving people. She knows that the world is full of pain and harm, and she wants to help other people. But she breaks down when she realizes she isn’t making lasting change. That’s totally understandable. The world is full of hurt, but I feel like our best efforts are worth it. I agree with Diane’s decisions at the end; she does help people in a new way. But there is an alternative worldview and way to look at things. We don’t have to give up, and we don’t have to fix everything.
So, I wonder if a middle ground between Diane’s activism and Mr. Peanutbutter’s denial would be recognizing that you can’t fix everything and that bad things will continue to happen. But do good anyway. Mr. Peanutbutter also, in deciding that there is no point in helping, ignores the privileges that he has that others do not. Few people are able to distract themselves with “unimportant nonsense” without worrying about bills, health, and other life struggles. Even if you take up the view that life is all nonsense, why not allow others to enjoy nonsense the way you do? That brings me to the next point, the episode, “The Face of Depression.”
The Face of Depression
I find it interesting how when Mr. Peanutbutter is labeled, The Face of Depression, BoJack and Diane are completely skeptical. He’s so happy all the time: how can he possibly be depressed? Diane is diagnosed with depression, and it sounds like BoJack has it as well from what we see.
But I wonder why they have to be so skeptical that their friend has depression. Even though Mr. Peanutbutter is generally a happy person, that doesn’t mean he can’t suffer from depression. Anyone can have any mental illness regardless of their personality or the face they put on in public.
But Mr. Peanutbutter doesn’t have depression. The show says he does not, and that is partially why he works as an example of toxic positivity. He is absurdist in philosophy and deep into toxic positivity. Now, when we hear the term positive, we wonder, what is wrong with that? Is there anything wrong with being happy and having a good view of life? Is it wrong to be an optimist and to see the glass is half full?
Well, frankly, it depends. Toxic positivity refers to downplaying any emotions that are not positive.
Of course, we all want our friends to be happy and we want ourselves to be happy too. We don’t want them to be going through hard times or to feel bad. When we feel good about life, we want other people to as well. That is a normal feeling and a human one. But happiness isn’t something we should expect out of other people. No one should have to pretend to be happy when they are feeling miserable. I get his ignorance, however. I personally do not have depression, and I can only imagine what it would be like for others.
I understand that it can be hard to understand why someone’s external circumstances seem so good on the outside, but they might be unhappy. Take this conversation between Mr. Peanutbutter and BoJack. Mr. Peanutbutter just asked BoJack if he is jealous of Mr, PB because he is married to Diane.
BoJack Horseman : No. Of everything. Everything comes so easy for you.
Mr. Peanutbutter : Oh, and it doesn’t for you? You’re a millionaire movie star with a girlfriend who loves you, acting in your dream movie. What more do you want? What else could the universe possible owe you?
BoJack Horseman : I… want… to feel good about myself. The way you do. And I don’t know how. I don’t know if I can.
On Mr. Peanutbutter’s end, it sounds like BoJack has every reason to be happy. Shouldn’t these good things, love, and career success make him happy?
The two of them end up reconciling, and I’m not sure if Mr. Peanutbutter understands BoJack in the end or not. I’d say his worldview makes it hard for him to understand people. Mr. Peanutbutter, because he sees the world as meaningless, doesn’t recognize that others think differently than he does. If life is about doing silly things, why doesn’t everyone go with the flow and enjoy them? Nothing has any inherent value or meaning, and if it doesn’t matter–why not have fun?
This is why he and Diane clash. Diane doesn’t like large parties and being in the spotlight, but Mr. Peanutbutter just assumes she’ll love it. It is fun for him, so why doesn’t everyone else want that? As an introvert, I can relate to Diane. She’s awkward at parties and doesn’t feel comfortable in a large group of strangers.
But Mr. Peanutbutter never tries to consider her perspective because it doesn’t matter. He sees almost all parts of life as things to embrace. Unlike BoJack, he is willing to take any role or follow any scheme, no matter how silly, cliché, or even downright harmful it is. Birthday Dad, a knockoff of BoJack’s show, and an app that later enables sexual harassment are never a no for Mr. Peanutbutter. He goes along with whatever comes his way. There is something to be admired in going with the flow and accepting challenges or when life doesn’t look what you expect, but Mr. Peanutbutter takes it to the extreme. He is utterly thoughtless, and his moral code is weak. Maybe that is why he is so popular while running for office. He cares about niceness and friendliness, which BoJack lacks, but he also doesn’t look beyond the surface level.
He refuses to listen and look, and see any deeper meaning in life.
Toxic Positivity in Real Life
I don’t think that belief that the world is meaningless is the inherent cause of toxic positivity, though it certainly can lead to it. I have heard about it in various subgroups. People who are passionate about their jobs or about the opportunity to study in college can fall prey to toxic positivity. I’ve seen this mentality amongst Christians, even though Jesus showed a wide range of emotions and wasn’t exceedingly positive. He cried and got angry and was pretty human and he validated people’s emotions and didn’t pretend sadness didn’t exist.
If that’s the case, I don’t get why we all shouldn’t be like that. God has given blessings and there are good things in the world, so we should appreciate them. Every day is a gift, there is a beautiful creation and there are the joys of coffee and time with friends. I don’t disagree with that, but creation can also be terrifying and horrific. There are hurricanes and tsunamis and nature is frankly, a wild beast. While I agree being thankful and focusing on blessings is important, we don’t always feel happy even with the good things in our lives.
One instance I can think of during college was a situation with academics. In my English classes, I read fantastic books and listened to great lectures. But does that mean I’m not going to be stressed that I have to read 200 pages for one class by next Thursday in one class and 60 pages in another? No way.
If a friend is stressed about school, it is tempting to say to them, “But we have it good here. Our classes are amazing and the books we are reading are profound and beautiful. We have good friends here and our professors are helpful and kind. Classes are fun, why complain if they are hard and you feel anxious? Just enjoy them.” Now, saying that sounds incredibly dumb. College is stressful. Heck, life is stressful. Why should we pretend like it is not. Just like it is absurd to convince our friends to be miserable when they are happy, it is absurd to convince our friends to be happy when they miserable.
Instead, we should listen to people and validate their emotions. Let them let the guard down a little and don’t be afraid to talk about how you’re feeling if you’re upset or something is bothering you. If you feel academic stress, for instance, I know that sometimes a lot of people feel the same way but are a bit afraid to say it. I like x aspects of school, but I’m struggling with x. Or it bothers me when x.
No matter how good things appear on the outside, let yourself feel your feelings. Then learn about them. Understand them. Talk to a counselor if you feel like it could help to have someone else help you understand yourself more.
I think that one of the people that Mr. Peanutbutter hurts the most from his actions is himself. He jumps from wife to wife and doesn’t have any stable foundation. He keeps up a cycle of denial, and that can’t be the right way to live. He also has been deeply sheltered from anything “bad” in the world. His parents raised him on a farm and never taught him to be empathetic or emotionally intelligent. They stunted him.
Toxic positivity does the same thing. It stunts us. It tells us to deny, deny, deny when bad things happen to us, and when life exists outside that bubble of contentment that we’ve created for ourselves. Whenever he faces a challenge, he just moves on to the next thing. He doesn’t reflect on his experiences, and he repeats the same toxic patterns. Bad parts of life exist, and we should learn from them. We should live with them and acknowledge them. Otherwise, we might make the same mistakes. Associating a negative emotion with a certain choice can help us avoid it. For instance, Diane feels disappointed when Mr. Peanutbutter does a big gesture. Instead of recognizing that and seeing it as an opportunity to learn more about his girlfriend and be a better boyfriend, he just moves forward like nothing happened.
His constant invalidation of others’ emotions is pretty terrible. And how are we supposed to learn and love ourselves and the people around us if we do not understand them? If we sort all life’s events into the category of good, there is no opportunity to recognize wrong.
But I can’t just critique his toxic positivity without realizing how it works with his philosophy of life. Mr. Peanutbutter thinks that nothing matters, but it kind of does. His running for governor, for instance, impacts real people around him. To Mr. Peanutbutter, why not run, it sounds like fun. He’s rich, he can do whatever he wants. But Diane admits that he wouldn’t make a good governor. But she doesn’t tell him. Mr. Peanutbutter is never told no, so he keeps doing whatever he feels.
If we go back to that original quote, where he asks BoJack what more could he want, I think Mr. Peanutbutter is jealous of BoJack just like BoJack is jealous of him. Horsin’ Around was a thing before Mr. Peanutbutter’s House. There is also Diane. I feel like a part of him noticed that Diane and BoJack connected emotionally in a way that he can’t with Diane or with any of the women he dates really. But he doesn’t understand himself enough to fix it. He starts dating younger and younger women, and he is never required to understand any of his wives.
Of course, Mr. Peanutbutter is a dog. Dogs are loyal and loving but not always understanding. They like doing different things, and they don’t see any inherent meaning in their actions. At least, I’m assuming they don’t.
But none of this is to retract my points. Humans have a natural craving for meaning, and we experience emotions deeply and they hurt. It is tempting to shove our emotions down and pretend we’re fine. It is tempting to say “at least….” when someone shares bad news or says their day was bad.
But that doesn’t make the pain go away. In fact, it lets us suppress the pain and forces ourselves to put on a happy face for the person who asked us. Mr. Peanutbutter is a dog, but it is okay if he is a sad dog sometimes. A self-aware dog would be nice to see too.
Have you heard of toxic positivity or watched BoJack Horseman? What are your thoughts on the subject of Mr. Peanutbutter? Let me know down in the comments below.