The eldest Belcher child is a unique character in the world of modern television. And this is a very good thing.
It’s hardly surprising that Bob’s Burgers has become one of the biggest recent successes in televised animation. It boasts a healthy mix of the usual qualifiers to success within its genre: A glib world-gone-mad sense of humor, a heavy focus on characters and situations defined by social awkwardness, acidic yet reliably Tumblr-friendly asides to a left-of-center worldview, a lead vocal-performance by John Benjamin and a near-absence of any names from the Cartoon Snob Blacklist (see: MacFarlane, Seth) on its creative team.
Thematically, it’s very much a series of the moment; straddling the blurry border between genuine American blue-collar sentiment (see: Roseanne) and the half-ironic hipster idealization-via-mockery thereof (see: Two Broke Girls – or, rather, don’t.) All of this set at a fledgling family-run hamburger joint in a gentrification-bound stretch of New Jersey. The restaurant is the struggling dream of patriarch Bob Belcher (Benjamin), operated with the help of his theatrically-inclined (in ambition and in personality) wife Linda (John Roberts), wacky son Gene (Eugene Mirman), troublemaking youngest daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal) and 13 year-old eldest daughter Tina (Dan Mintz.)
The whole family is hilarious, but the secret weapon of the Belcher family and of Bobs Burgers itself is the aforementioned eldest daughter, Tina. Because while the rest of the cast gamely improves on classic tropes of sitcoms past, Tina is something new entirely: There’s never been a major character like her on the small-screen – her very presence in the “now” calling attention to a gaping void so many of us had likely overlooked before. This alleged Golden Age of television gets a lot of credit for confronting fears and horrors (think Hannibal, Walking Dead, American Horror Story.) But in a very real sense Tina’s existence is a confrontation with something from which TV itself has always fled in terror: a teenaged girl grappling with adolescence… but on her terms, rather than as reacted-to by other (mostly male) characters.
To be sure, “puberty is funny/gross/exciting/depressing/dramatic/etc” has been the underlying theme of teen stories on TV as long as there’s been such a thing… but usually with a reflexive focus on boys. The idiot box has always been profoundly uncomfortable approaching the sexual development of young women in any manner beyond titillation or parody. Generations of television’s boys-becoming-men have had their quests for first base (and second, and third) memorialized as heroic conquest. They’ve peered through the Girl Next Door’s bedroom window, locked themselves in the bathroom and walked to the front of the class with textbooks strategically covering their pelvis. Often for laughs, yes, but always coupled with a sense of whimsical, knowing pride and an “Aaaaw, that takes me back,” nod from legions of (male) TV writers, producers and critics.
But for their female counterparts on the same shows, pubescence only comes in three flavors: The Princess, The Temptress and The Beast. The Princess wakes up one day, magically-evolved into an ideal object of forbidden (temporarily – wink wink) desire but appears dreamily ignorant of this change herself (see: Swift, Taylor). She now exists only that we may identify with the heartache she stirs in the boys and headaches she gives her father. The Temptress undergoes the same change with the same lack of ill-effect (neither will EVER have to shave, wax, exfoliate, burp, bloat, bleed or smell of anything but ambrosia). But this one has an awareness of her “power” that renders her evil: If she abstains, she’s the villain for withholding The Gateway To Manhood from male heroes. If she indulges, she’s a harlot who callously permits The Horde to befoul The Promised Land.
And then there’s The Beast, who is usually fat or “plain” or otherwise un/anti-sexual; and as such does get to endure the less enticing pangs of growing up. This is usually played for “gross-out” comedy, because what are we supposed to do with a woman on TV whose not there just to be sexy? (Family Guy’s Meg is a self-aware inversion of this trope, in that she exists as a baseline for what awful human beings the rest of The Griffins really are.)
But Tina is something else entirely. She’s wholly aware of her own adolescence, but wrestles it with an awkward honesty that defies easy categorization. She is “owning” what she matter-of-factly calls her “budding teenage sexuality” (she appears cursed to speak in any way other than frankly) while also being frequently unsure what she’s supposed to do with it. She swoons for boy bands, doggedly pursues male classmates and slips into romantic fantasies at the slightest suggestion. Her actions (and reactions) are often cringe-inducing but endearing, “gross” but also sweet, awkward but also brave.
The key to this is subtle but vital: Tina is the show’s “awkward” character, and also a teenaged girl navigating sexuality, but the usual relationship between the two has been inverted: She’s awkward because her affect, mannerisms and outlook make her so – and probably would even if she were proportioned like Jessica Rabbit. Her hormone-driven teenage-ness the show generally posits as not just a “given,” but perfectly normal and even healthy.
In one early episode, she climbs into the ceiling above a boys’ locker room – gender-inverting an entire epoch of teen sex comedy – and while the show invites laughs at the absurdity of the scenario, the staging of the sequence clearly invites the audience to root for her success: “You go, Tina! Steal a glimpse at… whatever it is you think you’re trying to see.” Her character is defined, more than anything, by a sex drive that lacks a clearly-understood destination. She channels her intense but incompletely-formed desires into volume upon volume of her “Erotic Friend-Fiction.” This is essentially naughty fanfics starring her classmates begun in earnest when she apparently exhausted every other conceivable pairing of mythological and fictional figure that crossed her fancy. This is also an important but unremarked-upon subtext of the series is that the Belchers are a family of creatives stuck in a class/culture that’s not built to recognize or encourage any of them.
None of this should be particularly revolutionary, but it is. If she were a male character, we’d perhaps be expected to chortle and call her “a horndog.” She’s written like a full-fledged human, experiencing her growth in a realistic fashion – which, on TV, means she’s written like a boy. As if to drive the point home: In the (justly) celebrated “Food Truck” episode, a B-story involves Tina’s attempt to reinvent herself to new acquaintances as “Dina,” with her thought process in choosing a new identity visualized as an extended reference to Mark Wahlberg rechristening himself “Dirk Diggler” in Boogie Nights.
Consider another early episode, where she matter-of-factly notes frustration that her nightmares (about zombies) are intruding onto her nicer dreams (about boys.) Later on, we see one of these dreams, where she tries to “play it cool” (Mintz’s deadpan monotone can make any line-reading funny) as a pair of undead paramours approach her bedside. Then things get weird(er) when “suggestive” sounds coming from another room (her grandparents, specifically) intrude on the proceedings further.
It’s a funny scene, but think about the context here. The sympathetic “joke” is that outside forces have spoiled her fantasy, but that fantasy was… “making out” (Tina has only aged from 12 to 13 in the timeline of the series, and it’s not entirely clear that she’s 100% aware of the actual mechanics of sex beyond abstraction) with two guys? Together? Teenaged boys in movies/TV are allowed (and cheered-on for) such thoughts regularly, but for girls its almost always used as a signal that something is wrong with them: In True Detective, Woody Harrelson’s violently-inclined cop puts a brutal beating on two boys caught in a (consensual) threesome with his (older) teenaged daughter, behavior which is implied to be further evidence of unrevealed psychological trauma on her part. But here, with Tina, it’s a given: of course she thinks about such things (as opposed to doing them, a vital distinction) such things – don’t you remember being a teenager? It doesn’t even occur to Bobs Burgers to condemn or shame her. And why should it?
To be sure, there’s a lot more to Tina than simply being TV animation’s answer to Melissa McCarthy. She’s the quiet side of the series’ overriding “Be yourself!” ethos, and the continuing plot-thread of her being the person in the family most similar to Bob places the two of them in a unique father/daughter paradigm. And I love that her shyness and introversion are largely presented as simply traits, as opposed to flaws in need of correction: She’s (apart from her libido and its effects on her imagination) quiet and guarded by nature, she probably always will be, and that’s just fine.
But her nervous, unpredictable plunge into puberty is what puts her on another level. Her… “unique” interpretation of an ascent to adulthood is awkward and offbeat, but she comes from an entire family of awkward and offbeat. By simply existing, in and of herself, her presence declares to a generation of young women (also to the young men around them) that whatever their version of zombie dreams, “Boyz 4 Now” and Erotic Friend-Fiction are that it’s normal, healthy and nothing to be embarrassed about.
The world should be different. This shouldn’t be impressive. Growing girls shouldn’t “need” Tina Belcher to tell them to be okay with themselves. But the world is what it is, and we have her. So I’m grateful.