[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “BoJack Horseman” Season 5, Episode 2, “The Dog Days Are Over.”]
Beneath the animated, anthropomorphic, and pun-tastic exterior of“BoJack Horseman” is a brilliantly satirical series that conveys an uncanny authenticity when it comes to representing the troubled side of the human emotional experience. That’s why it rang false that the Vietnamese American character Diane Nguyen was voiced by white actress Alison Brie. In January, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg tweeted out a mea culpa about the cartoon whitewashing, and discussed with IndieWire how his “colorblind” casting didn’t result in inclusivity or proper representation, which he was determined to improve on his show.
While “BoJack Horseman” has increased its casting of people of color (Season 5 features Hong Chau, Issa Rae, and Rami Malek, to name a few), in “The Dog Days Are Over” the show was able to increase inclusivity behind the scenes as well. In the episode, Diane is left adrift after divorcing Mr. Peanutbutter and heads to Vietnam, where her parents are from.
“The idea for Diane going to Vietnam came up earlier when we were writing the season,” Bob-Waksberg said in an interview with IndieWire. “It made me very nervous, I think because I knew it would bring up a lot of these conversations that I personally felt like I was unprepared to have. I, a little cowardly, tried to push it off and said, ‘Oh what if she left at the end of the season and like we told the story next season?’
“[Latinx writer Joanna Calo] really fought for this episode and said, ‘No, I really think we should tell the story. I think this is a story that really means something.’ To me, Joanna is a Latina woman who I think had a long journey with her own racial identity and her own cultural identity and what that means to her,” he said. “I think she felt like she could really say something about Diane and her story through this episode. So that being said, let’s do it and try to do it right. We sent the script to VyVy Nguyen [Editor’s Note: No relation to this reporter], an actress who was in the episode and we got her feedback. She had a lot of smart things to say about her experiences as a Vietnamese woman, second generation, and her going back to Vietnam and what that was like for her. That was incredibly helpful to have that insight.”
It’s an important distinction to make that Diane is a Vietnamese American and therefore how she experiences America and Vietnam are distinctly different from how someone who is born and raised in Vietnam would. Part of the purpose of her trip is to find herself as a person separate from her failed relationship and see if her cultural roots resonate with her.
“We also tried to make sure the episode was consistent with the character of Diane that we’ve laid out previously and her own discomfort with her own cultural heritage,” said Bob-Waksberg. “I will talk to the fact that is an outgrowth of my own discomfort with my cultural heritage or my discomfort telling stories about her culture or her race. But I did think, ‘Given what we’ve established as a character, let’s take that seriously and let’s explore that. Then it was really important to me that we had Asian actors in the cast and make sure we’re telling the story with the right people and telling it the best way we could.”
The Consultant: A Nguyen-Nguyen Situation
Enter the aforementioned VyVy Nguyen, an actress who served as a creative consultant on the show, but also voiced three characters in the episode: the worried Vietnamese mother, the pangolin cashier at Chicken 4 Dayz, and the crane at Americrane Airlines. Nguyen could identify with Diane somewhat as a second-generation Vietnamese American whose craft requires her to have a mastery of the English language. While Diane is a ghostwriter, Nguyen is an actress and translator, of which the latter skill helped get her noticed by “BoJack” casting director Linda Lamontagne when seeking someone both proficient in speaking Vietnamese but who also understood culture from a Viet-American point of view.
Joanna Degeneres, Netflix
As a performer of color, Nguyen can’t separate herself from the representation issues that make it a challenge for her to get her foot in the door. So-called colorblind casting tends to still dip into the same white well, and the roles for Vietnamese women tended to be stereotypical nail workers or seen only through the context of the Vietnam War. Rarely (as seen recently in “Queen Sugar”) are they written as regular folks who happen to have the occasional Vietnamese cultural touchstones. And only lately have Vietnamese actresses been seen in more aspirational roles such as Lana Condor in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and Kelly Marie Tran in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
But even those circumstances can cause fierce competition among Asian American actresses who are up for the same few roles. Nguyen has been at the same auditions as Oscar nominee Chau (who is featured on “BoJack Horseman” this season as Pickles), and her dream role was one that she lost to another fellow Vietnamese American actress.
“I was obsessed with Star Wars growing up. It influenced me some much into wanting to be an actor growing up. I used to pretend I was Princess Leia’s best friend. I wrote about it in my college essay when I applied to drama school,” Nguyen told IndieWire. “I was in the running for the role of Rose, funnily enough against Kelly Marie Tran, whom I know and adore. I got pretty far in the process, but they had to make a decision.”
Then, this gig came along on “BoJack” that seemed tailor-made for Nguyen’s specific skill set, which was translating, cultural advising, and voicework. “What they wanted was someone to consult, to make sure that nothing was culturally inappropriate or offensive in any way,” she said. “They wanted to make sure that the locations and details were accurate, and that they were going to require some Vietnamese translation for some lines.”
For example, Nguyen made sure that Diane’s background checked out. “There was originally a line saying that Diane was third generation. [But] the Vietnamese community, most of the people here came during the Vietnam War so there is not really a third generation of her age,” said Nguyen. “So, it got changed to be much more vague. Unfortunately they had already established her family has really strong Boston accents so it wasn’t something they could ret-con, so Raphael just decided to make it a little more open-ended there.”
Pronunciation: Can’t Nguyen for Losing
For viewers who speak Vietnamese, one of the most glaring details about Diane wasn’t just that she is played by a white actress, but that the pronunciation of her last name is a running gag on the show. According to the scripts, some of the characters can pronounce the surname Nguyen, whilst others mangle it or avoid saying it altogether. The truth is that no one on the show has said it correctly because it’s only been pronounced in a Westernized, non-accented way.
The surname Nguyen, shared by approximately 40 percent of Vietnamese people, is comprised of the initial phoneme “ng,” which English speakers are not used to beginning a word with (but are fine pronouncing on the end of words as in “king”), and the second part “uyen” that includes a triphthong with three vowels. Both combine to make one complex mouthful of a syllable. Adding to the difficulty is that Vietnamese is a tonal language, which means the tone in which a word is said changes its meaning even if the pronunciation remains the same. Thus, the proper way to spell Nguyen is with its diacritical marks – Nguyễn – which indicate the tone of the word. Numerous YouTube videos try to either explain the pronunciation of this surname, with this video as perhaps the simplest, most straightforward one.
“It’s incredibly complicated for someone who doesn’t speak a tonal language to kind of get the grasp of it,” said Nguyen. “There are lots of variations on how to say it in the Americanized accent, and I feel like there’s no one generally accepted way to say it.”
It’s simply easier to tell English speakers to pronounce Nguyen as “win” or “nwin,” “new-inn,” “noo-yen,” or any other number of close approximations. None of them include the tonal aspect.
“It can get very hairy. I had this conversation, too, with Raphael because he had gotten lots of tweets about, ‘You’re not pronouncing Nguyễn right,’” said Nguyen. “No matter what Americanized version you choose, someone else is going to disagree with you. When you hear it [said] properly it’s really beautiful. It’s very lilting and lovely.”
Nguyen was also on hand to help Brie record the two Vietnamese phrases that Diane says, having learned them from the pangolin at Chicken 4 Dayz.
“I got to sit in the session with her and kind of guide her with the pronunciation,” said Nguyen. “Obviously it was totally fine for her not to be perfect with the accent [since Diane doesn’t speak Vietnamese]. I was actually in the booth with her twice. The first time was helping her with that where she was parroting what the pangolin had said and later using that with the bald eagle character.”