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In Praise of Tina Belcher, Subversive Feminist

She’s 13 years old, the daughter of a working-class father, and not even a real person, but Tina Belcher, darling of the animated sitcom Bob’s Burgers, makes for one excellent role model.
Tina Belcher. (Photo: Fox)

Tina Belcher. (Photo: Fox)

Beyoncé, Sheryl Sandberg, Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton, and many other successful women are frequently hailed as modern-day feminist icons, but commentators on the state of women's empowerment have overlooked one important addition: Tina Belcher.

It's understandable why Belcher has gone unrecognized. She's different. Unlike the aforementioned, Tina (that’s what her fans call her) is 13 years old, the daughter of a working-class father—and not even a real person. She's a cast member on Fox's animated sitcom Bob's Burgers, and she behaves nothing like a pop star, politician, or business leader. She spends her time "logging fantasy hours" with (i.e., daydreaming about) her crushes, helping out around the family's titular diner, and writing friend fiction. That's like fan fiction, except it’s about her friends.

"I'm no hero. I put my bra on one boob at a time like everyone else."

Like similar prime-time cartoons—The Simpsons, Family Guy, and King of the HillBob's Burgers features a nuclear family made up of quirky individuals, any one of which—child or adult—is likely to take on the leading “parent” role. Bob, voiced by H. Jon Benjamin (Archer, Home Movies), is a cynical, hard-working, loveable father and husband who worries about business matters while his wife Linda (John Roberts), an excitable optimist, takes care of family issues and counterbalances Bob's glass-half-empty outlook. The children—Louise, Gene, and Tina—often help around the restaurant or in their apartment upstairs, chiming in with quips and moderately helpful suggestions. When Linda wonders how to afford baseball lessons for her son, Louise responds: “You could sell your soul. I did.”

As in creator Loren Bouchard's previous show Home Movies (co-created by Brendon Small), the young characters often drive the plot and deliver the most quotable lines. Louise (Kristen Schaal of Flight of the Conchords) is the precocious youngest daughter with the loudest voice and a bunny ear-shaped hat, constantly provoking people to do what they wouldn't on their own. Gene (Eugene Mirman), the middle child, is a young musician who tries hard at everything he does, whether it's maintaining a hilariously bad middle-school relationship for the sake of excellent recording equipment or improvising a formal table setting using tampons and menstrual pads at a local competition. The oldest sibling, Tina (writer and comedian Dan Mintz), is equal parts confidence and uncertainty, with a penchant for unrequited adolescent love, and a tendency to hyperventilate in social situations that make her uncomfortable (which happens often).

Tina is the show's darling. Mentioning her to friends often elicits an exclamatory, “I love Tina!” followed by imitations of her off-key monotone, saying “sexy hair flip,” “friend fiction,” “Jimmy Junior,” or simply mimicking the throaty moan that emits from her mouth every time she's at a nervous loss for words. At 13 years old, she acts as wise, big sister almost as often as she lets younger Louise take control. Swamped with vivid dreams and a rich fantasy life, she is often inside her own head, appearing surprised when people address her and unsure of how to respond. Despite frequent bouts of speechlessness, she regularly shares thoughts reflecting her personal worldview that are so honest and awkward they stun family members and alienate classmates. Herein lies her charm, and her power.

"If you believe you're beautiful, you will be. I did."

In her endearingly matter-of-fact voice, Tina tells her dad, “If you believe you're beautiful, you will be. I did,” and, in another episode, infamously declares, “I'm no hero. I put my bra on one boob at a time like everyone else.” She wakes up early every morning to write her friend fiction. One piece ends with her touching her crush Jimmy Jr.'s rear end, thereby changing the whole world.

In her raciest fantasy, Tina dreams of an island where she can fly around and give a handful of men a peck on the lips, after mishearing the name of fictional Quipiquissit Island as “Quickie Kiss It Island.” For every G-rated fantasy Tina expresses, there emerges a character that subverts typical portrayals of female adolescence, the depiction of which so often centers solely on stale ideas about a flat feminine sexuality. Rather than mired in princess stories, weddings, or male attention rendered quantifiable by social media, viewers watch Tina daydream about boys' butts, first kisses, and a collection of zombie boyfriends.

A few characters have memorably rejected the stereotype of adolescent girl as boy-obsessed. In another iconic animated show, Daria does like some of her male peers, but that doesn't get much screen time. She is frequently pitted against her overwhelmingly boy-crazy, vapid sister Quinn and head cheerleader Brittany (each of whom is not without her merits), while Daria herself is most often noted for her witty comments and cutting observations about society.

Tina Belcher, on the other hand, is pretty obsessed with boys, and this is precisely what makes her so subversive. She shakes up the representation of adolescent girls who are racked by their hormones. We are privy to her fantasies, and they aren't necessarily atypical. However, we never see her expressing her desirous side in a stereotypical way. There's always something off. She speaks her passions in a monotone. (Tina is voiced by a man.) When she clams up because her crush enters the room, it's funny and painful rather than funny and cute-because-she's-embarrassed.

Bob’s Burgers focuses on Tina's pride in her fantasies, not whether or not she has succeeded in achieving them. Tina wants 10 zombie boyfriends, and it's something she desires despite its impossibility. She is rarely a hackneyed example of pitiable awkwardness. She meets a cute boy in the dairy department at Fresh Feed (a send-up of Trader Joe's) and passes him her number through the milk shelf. “Here's a bunch of numbers. They may look random, but they're my phone number,” she says. Even when she's gauche, she is brazen and original.

Without affirming her importance through financial, political, or sexual accomplishments, Tina is an example of empowerment through personal liberation. She speaks her mind when she's not tongue-tied. She's open about her passions even when another person might try to hide her writing habits or impossible fantasies. She's a gawky teenager, yes, but she never hides who she is. Confidence and openness constitute a form of empowerment worthy of any woman's, or any person's, aspirations. Without going further than a kiss, Tina comes off as unabashedly open and independent of the sort that's rare on television. She's right when she says, “I'm a smart, strong, sensual woman.”