‘Bob’s Burgers’: The Uniquely Lovable Tina Belcher

tina-belcher

Written by Max Thornton as part of our theme week on Child and Teenage Girl Protagonists.

It might seem odd to be writing about Bob’s Burgers for Bitch Flicks‘ Child and Teenage Girl Protagonists week, but I can justify it. For the uninitiated, Bob’s Burgers is an animated comedy centered on the Belcher family,who run the titular restaurant: long-suffering paterfamilias Bob (Archer/Coach McGuirk!), his irrepressibly cheery wife Linda, and their three children–awkward 13-year-old Tina, genial 11-year-old Gene, and borderline-sociopathic 9-year-old Louise. The show is charming, warm, and very funny, and it’s no great leap to declare it the spiritual and comedic successor to The Simpsons. It’s also eminently possible, as A.V. Club’s Sonia Saraiya explains in a recent article, to read Tina as the show’s protagonist.

Delightful Tina. Shy, painfully weird, butt-obsessed, quietly dorky, intensely daydreamy Tina. Tina is a little bit like all of us (and–cough–a lot like some of us) at that most graceless, transitional, intrinsically unhappy stage of life that is early adolescence. She is also a wonderfully rich and well-developed character, both in her interactions with her family and in her own right, and she’s arguably the emotional core of the whole show.

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The typical oldest child on TV doesn’t look like Tina. Oldest children are smart and accomplished or bratty and rebellious, but always outspoken and confident: Becky from Roseanne, Sondra from The Cosby Show, Bart from The Simpsons, Haley from Modern Family… The oldest child is almost never the clear point of identification for the TV viewer, but Tina’s gentleness makes her the most relatable and in some ways the realest Belcher.In Saraiya’s words, “She’s sensitive and working-class and even possibly neuroatypical.” This might not seem like a recipe for a popular television character, but it gives Tina a depth, nuance, and a potential for growth in comparison to which her family seems a little, well, cartoonish.

[caption id="attachment_6788" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Wait... you mean to say... they ARE cartoons?? Wait… you mean to say… they ARE cartoons??[/caption]

Tina’s very existence is arguably an explicitly feminist triumph. To quote Saraiya once more:

In the original pilot for Bob’s Burgers, [Tina] was a teenage boy. That fundamental difference aside, Daniel Belcher and Tina Belcher are the same character—but looking back, that choice had enormous implications for the show, because a TV audience has never seen a girl growing up like this. She’s nothing like an archetypal teen, but she’s also unmistakably one. She daydreams about kissing her crushes—and also about touching the butts of all the cute boys in her class. She fantasizes about being a prettier, bolder version of herself, who talks politics with adults and is an object of affection among the guys at Wagstaff School. … Puberty and dating have a typical arc on shows about teenage girls, but Tina’s arc on Bob’s Burgers is something else entirely. It’s gross. It’s messy. It occasionally encourages threesomes. And it’s hilarious, but the show is careful to never make Tina the butt of any jokes. (Tina touching butts, however, is okay.) If the viewer is laughing, it’s most likely with Tina—or at the very least, with the people who love her.

Amen to that.

An oddity of Bob’s Burgers is the fact that Kristen Schaal, the voice of the wonderfully evil Louise, is the only woman among the cast for the Belcher family. John Roberts voices Linda, and Dan Mintz voices Tina. Metatextually, I’m troubled by yet another instance of women not getting work in the vastly male-dominated industry of film and TV; but within the world of the show, it’s simply one instance among many of gender norms being subverted, tossed aside, or merely ignored by the marvelous Belchers. Whether it’s Tina regretting waxing her legs because she mowed down her “furry little friends,” Bob delighting in the fact that he also waxed his, Linda and Louise bailing on a creepily womb-centric mother-daughter seminar to bond over laser tag, or Gene casually declaring which outfits in a fashion catalog would suit him–all examples from a single superb season 3 episode, “Mother Daughter Laser Razor”–the Belchers are not bound by the anxieties of conforming to strict gender roles, and it’s glorious to behold.

The whole Belcher family dynamic is the real reason to watch this show. As Saraiya notes (and I swear this is the last time I will quote her), “everybody watches out for Tina, because Tina couldn’t hurt a fly.” As someone whose siblings are my best friends, I love the Belcher kids more than any other set of TV siblings. They pester and needle and tease other, as siblings do, but they also scheme together, protect each other’s greatest vulnerabilities, and have huge amounts of fun together. Tina isn’t bossy or a bully, like so many TV oldest kids. She’s weird, she’s wonderful, she’s a 13-year-old girl voiced by a 32-year-old man, and she’s one of the best young female characters on TV.

[caption id="attachment_6791" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Also, she's basically Tumblr in human form. Also, she’s basically Tumblr in human form.[/caption]

Max Thornton blogs at Gay Christian Geek, tumbles as trans substantial, and is slowly learning to twitter at @RainicornMax.

One Comment

  • scryberwitch
    Posted November 29, 2017 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Yay for Tina! I’ve said the same since I first started watching: Tina is the first *real* preteen girl I’ve seen on TV in a long time. Maybe ever. The fact that she has crushes, wants to kiss and make out, and yes, gets horny, is NEVER shown on other shows. At 13, most girls feel all those things…but it’s like we’ve decided that reality is to be denied.
    And I love how dorky she is! 13-year-old me just found her BFF.

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