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Sexual Agency and Zombie Butts: Why Bob’s Burgers‘ Tina Belcher Matters

Essay

If you had told me back in 2011 that Tina Belcher would be my absolute favorite character on H. Jon Benjamin’s new show Bob’s Burgers, let alone that she’d be one of my favorite characters on television period, I would have been … skeptical at best. Mostly I just saw the character design and knew she was voiced by a male comedian and, man, does comedy have a bad history of mocking girl characters who have masculine features and don’t fit perfect feminine molds (cough cough Family Guy cough). But the show took what could have been a cheap running gag of “let’s laugh at the weird girl” and turned her into the best character on the whole damn show. And I’m still kind of amazed that she exists.

My love for Tina started in the second episode, “Crawl Space,” when she’s faced with sharing a room with her brother for the week. In what seems like a throwaway joke, Tina warns that not only has she dealt with zombie-themed night terrors for years, but thanks to her budding sexuality, the night terrors are melding into weird sex dreams where she gets the zombies to make out and touch each other’s butts. Bob, along with Tina’s brother and sister, are understandably unnerved by the admission and that’s where I thought it was going to end. A random joke that pokes fun at Tina’s intense awkwardness and then is never mentioned again, right?

Well, no. Instead of just dropping the zombie fetish joke, they made it part of her character. You see the dreams manifest themselves later in “Crawl Space.” Then you see euphoric visions of zombies in her head when she has her first kiss a few episodes later. They kept bringing it up. Sometimes it’s a sight gag, sometimes it’s a passing comment and sometimes it’s a whole plot line. There was even an anthology episode this season where she writes a story for school about the school basketball team becoming part of the walking dead and Tina (in full Walking Dead sheriff uniform) seduces them with her expert hair flip and feminine wiles — it ends with them all becoming her sexy zombie boyfriends.

But it doesn’t stop there. As the seasons have progressed, she’s been more and more unashamed about being physically attracted to boys. She flirts with them … it’s usually really awkward, but you’ve seen her level of confidence grow (props to her voice actor Dan Mintz for walking that line of awkward and confident perfectly). Along with zombies, she really, really likes sometimes-love-interest Jimmy Jr.’s butt. She really likes boy butts in general. Heck, she listens to the traffic reports because she likes the phrase “bumper to bumper.” We’ve also seen Tina’s volumes and volumes of erotic fiction — both fan fiction and stories based on her classmates and almost all of them involve butt touching as part of the sexy activities. And did I mention her short story about becoming the girlfriend queen of a horde of sexy athlete zombies who all have cute butts? The girl knows what she likes!

Sure, we only see hints of how filthy her erotic stories get (TV Standards and Practices, after all), but the parts we see are still unabashedly “Tina.” I can’t think of a show (especially a comedy) that has so expertly handled a teenage girl’s desires in all their awkward glory. If we do see a teenage girl having desires on other comedies, it’s either being mocked as something trivial and stupid or, even worse, shown behind the lens of what boys and men want from young women, catered to what the male gaze wants girls to be in that moment. And god forbid that girl doesn’t look exactly how the male audience wants her to look, whatever arbitrary traits those might be. That invasive scrutiny permeates through a good portion of our entertainment and is, quite frankly, really gross.

But in Bob’s Burgers, the writers (several of whom are women, surprise surprise) have allowed Tina to express her budding sexuality, weirdness and all, without putting it through the lens of what others would feel comfortable with. She has weird fetishes. She writes erotica. She enjoys expressing her feminine side in the form of unicorns and pretty horses while having a thing for zombies, too. She female gazes all over hot men. She also has some of the funniest, most random and weirdly sexual thoughts in the whole show, including “If boys had uteruses, they’d be called duderuses.” In short, Tina is the patron saint of Tumblr, a platform that brings in a multitude of weird, creative young women. I can think of no better representative.

There is also something to be said for how the writers surround Tina with a support system, no matter how flawed its members may be. After all, Tina’s great weirdness is written as a strength, but it would be put to waste if the characters around her were constantly putting her down (cough cough Family Guy again cough). While Bob might not want to know the details of his daughter’s sexual urges — pretty sure most dads just don’t want to hear that — he’s never told her how she feels is bad or that she needs to change. He’s often the first encouraging Tina not to listen to what others think. Mom Linda is mostly just happy when her kids are happy, so if Tina is happy writing undead erotica then all the better. And despite the occasional mocking from Louise and silly comment from Gene, Tina’s siblings have supported her in their own way, like with an army-style bootcamp to prepare her for her first kiss. Even with the hints of dark humor in the show, Tina is encouraged by her family more than she’s discouraged and that’s an important element to what the show is saying about how to treat teenage girls.

But at the end of the day, what makes Tina great is Tina herself. Tina Belcher’s sexual desires are weird. They’re weird and more than a little off-putting and not meant to be particularly palatable for the average straight male viewer. And it is glorious to watch. The show makes you recognize her desires as a young woman and the possibly that other girls feel the same way. Tina’s budding sexuality might be an exaggerated view of how a lot of teenage girls feel as they grow up, but there are girls out there that relate to Tina and it’s a point of view that rarely gets told. And when it is, it’s almost always bent to fit how men want girls to express their sexuality. But Tina’s sexual desires aren’t there to titillate the audience. They’re there because they’re a part of her. And they’re funny because sex is weird and funny and awkward.

After the Season 4 finale this past weekend and with season five coming in the fall, I can’t help but be grateful. I came to Bob’s Burgers for H. Jon Benjamin, I stayed for the quippy dialogue, but I fell in love with this show because Tina is a beautiful unicorn of awkward blooming sexuality. And television is better for it.

Katie Schenkel (@JustPlainTweets) is a copywriter by day, pop culture writer by night. Her loves include cartoons, superheroes, feminism and any combination of the three. Her reviews can be found atCliqueClack and her own website Just Plain Something, where she hosts the JPS podcast and her webseries Driving Home the Movie. She’s also a frequent Mary Sue commenter as JustPlainSomething.

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