Bob’s Burgers is a relatively new animated comedy show. It premiered in 2011, and is now on it’s fifth season. The show’s main character is Bob Belcher, who runs a burger restaurant with the help of his wife Linda, and his kids, Tina, Gene, and Louise. The show follows the Belchers as they struggle to keep the restaurant in business, despite biased health inspectors and a rival restaurant located just across the street.
It is easy to compare Bob’s Burgers to other shows such Family Guy because of their similar styles. Both are animated comedies airing on the same network. Bob’s Burgers however, contains a different flavor of humor. Family Guy has over the top characters, loads of pop culture references, and cutaway scenes. Bob’s Burgers is more focused in the conversations between the characters. In fact, Bob’s Burgers’ main source of humor in in having the characters say what a lot of people think, but never voice out loud. Bob tells him family that, “You’re my family and I love you, but you’re terrible, you’re all terrible.” Louise frequently screams at people, and has no problem mocking her parents. Tina, the teenager of the family, frequently discusses her sexual fantasies. These are not abnormal things for people to think. Many parents become frustrated with their families, everyone probably has had a moment where they just want to scream at the world, and speaking as a former teenage girl, I can truthfully say I’ve had my share of fantasies. The humor comes from the novelty of hearing these things voiced out loud. This is important, for Tina in particular. By having her voice aloud all of the normally hidden thoughts of a “typical” thirteen year old girl, the writers manage to make Tina a candid representation of teenage females. Although she may appear at first to be awkward and weird, Tina is an incredibly self-confident female character and is a realistic portrayal of a teenage girl.
In most animated comedy shows (The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Cleveland Show) the children fit neatly into stereotypical boxes. In Bob’s Burgers, Tina is the awkward child. She is plain looking, dressing in a t-shirt, shorts, and socks as well as sporting large glasses.
Tina is portrayed as the dork at school. She is an over enthusiastic hall monitor, Thunder Girl, and doesn’t know how to put on makeup or talk to boys.
To increase the awkwardness, Tina is very open about her sexuality. One of her more memorable traits is her preoccupation with butts.
Tina frequently ogles boys’ butts, and is obsessed with touching them. Tina also writes erotic friend fiction, which is like erotic fan fiction but about her friends and school-mates.
The scenes featuring Tina are often, for lack of a better term, cringe-worthy.
Bob’s Burgers is aired on both FOX (immediately following Family Guy) and Adult Swim. Family Guy is primarily watched by males1 and Adult Swim viewer ship is 60% male2. Knowing this, it is safe to assume more than 50% of the audience for Bob’s Burgers is male. Males and anyone using the male gaze would find Tina to be an incredibly uncomfortable character. She would appear awkward, dorky, and creepily sexual.
Problem With This View
The problem with this way of viewing Tina is that it makes teenage and pre-teen girls seem “weird” and “creepy”. The fact that Tina’s fantasies are seen as strange perpetuates the idea that women should be ashamed of their sexual desires. With this dominant view of Tina, girls are encouraged to think that their desires are weird and uncomfortable. If the female desires are suppressed, they have difficulty resisting the ideas pushed on them.
This problem doesn’t actually stem from the way Tina is written, it stems from the way an audience views the character. I believe Tina is written as a fantastic feminist character. The problem is that audiences are used to seeing a certain representation of teenage females in TV shows. The audience is also used to a certain portrayal of sexuality when it comes to teenage female characters. Tina makes so many viewers uncomfortable because she isn’t what is expected.
Tina is both a good role model for younger females watching the show and relatable for the older audience. First of all, Tina threatens the male gaze. She is the one who looks, not the one being looked at. Tina sexualizes, but is never sexualized herself. Laura Mulvey states, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.” (Mulvey 4). Tina is an inversion of this pleasure. In the episode “Bad Tina” we see some of Tina’s fantasies when her erotic friend fiction of brought to life. In one, Tina orders Jimmy Jr. to mop off a spill with his pants. In another, she is the hero who changes the world by touching Jimmy Jr.’s butt.
It is important to realize that in both situations, Tina takes the initiative, and Jimmy Jr. is the passive character. Tina threatens the male gaze, and does so without shame.
It’s not uncommon to see a portrayal of a teenage female dealing with puberty. What is uncommon is for the teenager’s private fantasies to be so blatantly obvious. Many characters make doe eyes at their crushes, or sigh about certain boys with their friends. In Bob’s Burgers, there are frequent cut scenes that show the audience exactly what Tina is imagining. The fantasies are as absurd, but they’re funny because of their absurdity. Tina’s fantasy is humorous not because it’s a sexual fantasy, it’s humorous because she wants to have an entire basketball team of zombie boyfriends.
Family is an important aspect of Bob’s Burgers so Tina can always count on the support of her family. In “Two for Tina” Tina’s mom Linda encourages her to enjoy the attention of two boys competing for her. In “Bad Tina” Louise and Gene (Tina’s siblings) initially tease her for her erotic friend fiction, but eventually offer ideas for her to write about. At the end of the episode, they even attempt to save Tina from embarrassment by sabotaging the plans of the new girl who attempts to humiliate Tina. In the same episode, Linda consoles Tina, telling her that she’s creative, imaginative, and shouldn’t be ashamed for writing erotic friend fiction. (6) This positive support encourages not just Tina to stay true to herself, but the audience as well.
Besides being confident in her sexuality, Tina is incredibly confident in herself. She is not the typical girl plagued by self-doubt; she is a proud Thunder Girl (girl scout), a hall monitor, loves horses, the Equestranauts (My Little Pony), and has a bit of a zombie fetish. Even if it may be seen as lame by her fellow middle schoolers, Tina never attempts to hide the fact that she’s a Thunder Girl. This takes more self-confidence than I had in middle school, where I never mentioned to anyone that I was still a member of Girl Scouts. Tina’s self confidence increases as season one progresses, and at the beginning of season two she states, “I’m sick of acting like a dumb, helpless girl just so a hot boy who dances his feelings will notice me. That’s not who I am. I’m a smart, strong, sensual woman.” Tina is already established as a genuine portrayal of a teenage girl. Her self-confidence makes her a positive portrayal as well.
How I Used Oppositional Gaze
Finding the oppositional gaze while watching Bob’s Burgers wasn’t difficult. At first I viewed Tina as slightly weird, but mostly focused on Louise and her excessive shouting. However, after watching a few episodes, I began to see Tina in a different light. She became easier to identify with, and I understood why she was an important character. Viewers using the male gaze however, find it difficult to look past Tina’s strangeness. Anne Friedberg states in her essay A Denial of Difference: Theories of Cinematic Identification, “Identification can only be made through recognition…” Males have almost no connection with Tina, and so can’t identify with her. I wasn’t using the male gaze in the first place, so as soon as I began to think about the meaning of the text, I realized that Tina was weird, but that it wasn’t a bad thing.
1. Rice, Lynette. “Ratings Alert: What You’re Watching If You’re 11, 50 or 34 Years Old (the Results May Surprise You!).” EW.com. Entertainment Weekly, 15 Mar. 2011. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.
2. Carter, Bill. “Adult Swim, No. 1 With Younger Adults, Is Expanding.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Feb. 2014. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.