Finding Myself in Media: Princess Carolyn and High Functioning Depression

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The stereotypes around depression often revolve around isolation, sleeping, and general inactivity. While this portrayal of depression may be accurate for some, it isn’t for everyone. In Netflix’s adult animation series Bojack Horseman, representations of depression and anxiety drive the show. Many of the pieces dedicated to the complex and accurate portrayal of depression revolve around the lead character Bojack’s self-destructive, manic, and even self-reflexive demeanor while obviously dealing with declining mental health. But depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are not always easily spotted. Sometimes symptoms of episodes are masked by overworking, something that isn’t seen as negative but something to strive towards.

I’ve struggled with an anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and depressive episodes most of adult life. But for me, it doesn’t involve Bojack’s brand of self-destruction or even Dianne’s reclusiveness. My issues and failures are reflected in Princess Carolyn. Hard working, held together, cleaning up others messes, and always taking on more than she can handle. Princess Carolyn is one of the only characters on the show that has it all put together. That is until she get’s her own episode and of course that business with dating Mr. Man, a literal child in a trench coat pretending to buy alcohol and do business things because she’s too engrossed in her work to accept reality.

Truth be told, I’ve been in a Princess Carolyn mindset not that long ago. Working is something that alleviates my stresses about life but also induces my anxiety, and that’s just my full-time job. Factor in the hours recording and editing podcasts, writing articles, editing articles, running a site, streaming, and going to conventions to network and it’s a recipe for being overworked. Similarly, the more stressed Carolyn gets, the more she works, and the more she works, the more she’s stressed. The cycle continues to feed into itself until we see a crack in the veneer in season four, episode nine, titled “Ruthie.”

In “Ruthie,” you follow Princess Carolyn’s worst day of her life. Up until this day, her life is going well, and then it crashes down around her. She loses her child, her big client, a family heirloom is revealed to be a worthless piece of junk, and you realize that while Princess Carolyn seemed to have it all put together, she didn’t. Or at least, what was put together was held by a thin gold-plated chain.

Throughout the entire episode, her facade slips. Much like the episode “Stupid Piece of Shit” which gives you an inner monologue on Bojack and uncovering his character, you start to understand that the Carolyn we see isn’t the Carolyn that lives under the surface. As each thing goes wrong her voice changes, becoming less assured, less Carolyn. She quickly shifts from the woman who fixes everyone to the woman who is attacking everyone, trying to break them.

She destroys her relationship with her assistant Judah because she doesn’t know how else to cope with her stress, with failure. She breaks her relationship with her boyfriend Ralph. She’s worked to never fail so when things that are not in her control happen, accented by her OB/GYN saying: “Maybe you just wanted the baby too much. Maybe you didn’t deserve it because you were unkind once,” when she loses her pregnancy.

When your entire life has centered around being together, being perfect, succeeding, and working, one thing shattering from beneath you feels like you’re responsible for the crash. She had stretched herself so thin that when one thing failed it cascaded. The stress leaves her crying her in her car at the smallest moment in the entire episode (video above). I’ve been there.

I find myself in her actions and obsessions. I’ve walled myself off before, and in some cases, I continue to do so. I never know I need help until it’s too late and I’m trying to burn everything around me. “Go to work, be awesome at it, and don’t waste time on foolish flights of fancy,” is by and large a mantra I’ve gotten behind and as unhealthy as my focus on success is, I need it to push myself. I don’t know any other way to exist. However, I am getting better at asking for help.

I’m lucky enough to have someone to catch me, but that wasn’t always the case. Even then, I have a hard time speaking up. For others, they might not have anyone, driven by the fact they’ve taken the Princess Carolyn approach of aiming to be the emotionless and ruthless “career gal” that society has told us feminine success looks like. How do you ask for help when you’re doing the very things that society idolizes? When Princess Carolyn starts to value her well-being and love life, she thrives in a healthy way.

Although I don’t want children and I’ve been lucky enough to find someone to go through life with and who will my Samwise Gamgee and carry me when I tell him it’s my burden to carry alone. Rarely do I let myself detach me from my projects, be they for my paying job or my passion projects creating content. It’s easy to burn out. It’s easy to hit a place where you have nowhere else to go. In those stagnant and joyless times, I have my husband to remind me to enjoy things. He pulls me away from the computer and reminds me to take a break.  But sometimes it’s only after I’ve hidden my stress for so long. And only he notices.

To everyone else I’m just being the workhorse they know me to be. I can’t blame them for that. The same way no one helps Princess Carolyn and they can’t be blamed for that, because ultimately she refuses it or buries herself so far under her work that no help can alleviate her discomfort. It’s a weird balance that is really hard to maintain. How do I do what I love without it consuming me? How do I get what needs to be done, done, without running myself into the ground? How does the person who is taking care of others, ask for someone to help take care of them?

“I don’t know how you do all of this!” or “You do so much work, I wish I could do that!” are things that are told to me and I greatly appreciate, so I strive to keep that going. However, when I watched Bojack Horseman and saw her, I felt seen. I also felt uncomfortable but ultimately I felt like I could find a path forward by being able to see the mistakes that I make and yet be able to have answers for a fictional character. This is one of the reasons why the accurate representation of mental health and mental illness are so important. Sometimes we’re too close to the situation to find solutions, but seeing it on television makes it easier. It’s the same reason we need parodies, comedies, and overall irreverence. In my opinion, seeing something in a hyperbolic light, lets us digest the trauma of an event or reality that we’re seeing or going through.

Princess Carolyn serves as a testament to those of who work through our exhaustion, depression, and especially our anxiety. Where Bojack’s binge drinking and “piece of shit” attitude exemplifies one area of being mentally unhealthy, she showcases how you can be successful, hardworking, and yet still deal with emotional wariness.

1 Comment on “Finding Myself in Media: Princess Carolyn and High Functioning Depression”

  1. Fantastic article, Kate. I’ve seen this in myself before and moments of this article ring through my memories of friends, family members and partners. I haven’t thought much about the different ways depression manifests itself. I’m gonna start bojack over from the begining, with a bit of a different lens.

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