BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
This week marks a momentous occasion in the lives of Bob’s Burgers fans. After waiting four long years, Tina Belcher has finally been crowned the best character on TV. That is according to Entertainment Weekly readers, at least.
The adolescent butt aficionado took home the top spot in the magazine’s recent poll over 24 other beloved television favorites. EW’s Hillary Busis revealed Belcher’s victory, writing, “One of the most animated entries on EW‘s list of TV’s Best Characters blew away 24 other worthy competitors—including Arya Stark, Alison Hendrix of Orphan Black, and even Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes himself—to emerge victorious in our poll.”
For some, this news was probably a bit of a shock. Bob’s Burgers never really fit in with the Simpsons/Family Guy-supported “Animation Domination” lineup FOX has tried to force down everyone’s throats. In May, Deadline’s analysis of the 2013-2014 primetime season put the show’s ratings in 96th place, in between failed ABC attempts Killer Women and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.
But despite middling ratings at best, Bob’s Burgers has always had its defenders. After getting off to a rocky start, the show quickly found a consistent groove, and TV-heads soon got onboard. From the mind of Home Movies creator Loren Bouchard, Bob’s Burgers remains mostly a cult offering. It’s style feels wildly raw and specific, especially for network television, but there’s also an undeniable sweetness to it. Its fans are few, but they are loyal and passionate. And in an age where the TV landscape is increasingly fractured, the intense fandom surrounding Bob’s Burgers stands as a prime example of the fine line that can determine whether a show lives or dies.
More than any of the other players in Bob’s Burgers, though, Tina (voiced by writer Dan Mintz) stands as the most clear example of why people love this animated series, and on top of that, why some fans will come back again and again to a show just for one character.
There were signs of Tina’s ascension prior to the EW pronouncement. The Internet has long pegged her as a TV standout, primarily for one reason: she’s relatable. Reacting to the news about her on Wednesday, Jezebel’s Isha Aran gushed, “I suppose if there is one thing that will unite us after all, it’s the ghastly hormonal experience that is adolescence. And no one, NO ONE I TELL YOU, pulls it off with more style, grace, and pure sensuality than erotic friend fiction novelist and mergina detective Tina Belcher.”
Although Aran uses the word “all” here, what she’s really getting at is that Tina’s relatability is not widespread, but specific to a younger generation. That’s not to say that older people don’t find the show funny, too, but the brusque sincerity Tina possesses rings distinctively true for millennials, a group too often characterized as wild and artificial. Consider that a poll from last year found Bob’s Burgers viewers to be among the poorest; it’s not hard to understand why a bunch of low-income twentysomethings would flock to a show that portrays a struggling family with all different types of personalities, one of whom is a daughter that internalizes those struggles and that of her adolescence in a way which looks remarkably familiar.
The Internet generation has made their love of Tina explicitly felt through all the venues the web allows. As Slate’s Jon Christian points out, Tina is searched for more online than any other member of the Belcher family by a healthy margin. She is a popular presence on Tumblr, and a Reddit AMA with Mintz and John Roberts (voice of matriarch Linda Belcher) from earlier this year basically turned into a Tina lovefest, with Mintz going so far as to call her a nuevo feminist icon (a claim which Christian and others support).
Christian discusses Tina’s uniquely millennial traits as the primary core of her character. He observes,
Tina Belcher has become a folk hero for anxious young people—a generational subset, I suspect, who worry they’ll remain trapped forever in an extended, liminal adolescence… Tina also embodies a common millennial quirk. She’s dysfunctionally ambivalent… but, even in inaction, seldom tongue-tied. ‘Time for the charm bomb to explode,’ she says, awkwardly flipping her hair, in a widely shared screencap. She’s also a decidedly moral person: After she crashes the car, she won’t let her dad leave without writing a note for the owner of the other car.
Furthermore, Tina isn’t just a millennial paragon, she’s a paragon of millennial femininity. In a piece on Tina that can only described as a treatise of sorts, The Mary Sue’s Katie Schenkel declared:
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… 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 possibility 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.
This is likely to be where certain older viewers go, “So what? Who cares? Aren’t young people already represented on TV enough?”
It is true that there has been a noticeable shift in the last few years to actively represent millennial ideas and archetypes on television. Brett Martin, author of the book Difficult Men, notes towards the end of his text that, “The most notable change at HBO, as the Bush years faded into memory and the Obama era proceeded, was that its programs no longer seemed as intent on challenging its viewers with characters from the other side of the sociopolitical spectrum… we were left with the liberated pansexuals of True Blood, the spoiled Brooklyn strivers of Girls, the twee Brooklynites of Bored to Death, the bloviating, middlebrow liberal superheroes of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.”
And yet, here’s the thing: representation on TV is incredibly important. And whether you like TV, or outright hate it, television’s ability to represent the changing nature of what it means to be American, and beyond that, to be a person, is as imperative to its evolution as it is to the evolution of any other medium.
Millennials continue to watch TV, even if they’re watching it on actual televisions less and less. But within the range of “millennials,” like in that of any demographic, there are a plethora of different subsects, many of which are less represented than others. As a BuzzFeed survey from the beginning of August found, black viewers, unsurprisingly, tend to watch premium cable shows with more black characters. This explicitly and obviously illustrates not only the social, but the financial benefits of increasing television diversity.
TV is the most ubiquitous artform in American culture, and if content providers want it to retain that position, there needs to be more than just difficult men on the air for all viewers to feel included. In a devastating speech at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, Gina Rodriguez, star of The CW’s upcoming Jane the Virgin, told the audience,
I became an actor to change the way I grew up. The way I grew up, I never saw myself on screen. I have two older sisters. One’s an investment banker. The other one is an doctor, and I never saw us being played as investment bankers and actor. And I realized how limiting that was for me. I would look at the screen and think, ‘Well, there’s no way I can do it, because I’m not there.’ And it’s like as soon as you follow your dreams, you give other people the allowance to follow theirs.
TIna Belcher isn’t as slyly badass as Arya Stark, or as darkly fabulous as Alison Hendrix, or as hilariously brilliant as Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes. For all their faults and complexities, these are the characters we want to be, not the characters we are. Even as relatable as EW’s fourth runner-up, Dr. Mindy Lahiri is, she’s more enviably successful than most of us. But through the lens of Rodriguez’s words, Tina Belcher’s status as the “Best Character on TV” is beyond well-earned, it’s a victory for anybody who’s ever watched her and thought, “Yeah, that’s me.”
Tina’s awkward, budding sexuality isn’t just funny and relatable, it’s essential. In his Slate piece, Christian ends with an anecdote:
Last year, Boston telephone poles were pasted with flyers for a feminist punk festival that featured a grimacing Tina, playing an electric keyboard and flanked by Lisa Simpson, Daria Morgendorffer, and burning police cars. It’s a telling trifecta of animated heroines. Lisa rebels against the seeming mediocrity of her suburban family, Daria against the conventionality of the ’90s. Tina’s role in this trio, I think, is to speak to the anxieties of young people who quietly fear they will never set a firm course in life.
But you could go on from there. If Lisa brings a hopeful wisdom to the operation, and Daria brings the sarcastic cool, Tina is simply the band member you’d want to hang out with the most. Rock on Tina, rock on.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.
Photo via Death and Taxes Mag