Of all the characters on Bob’s Burgers, Tina Belcher, the oldest of the Belcher children, has arguably gotten the most attention. And well-deserved attention it is, too, for she is a particularly bright spot on the cultural landscape of fictional adolescent girls. As Bitch Media has discussed in-depth, she is a unique and refreshing subversion of the nerdy, sexless wallflower trope, as well as being a distinct turn away from shallow Barbie knock-offs. Although she is awkward, and dorky, she is also very confident in her expressions of sexuality and desire. She loves butts, and isn’t afraid to say so. She is also an avowed fangirl, and gets up early to write erotic fan-fiction in her spare time. Seriously, what’s not to love?
Discussions of the feminist aspects of Bob’s Burgers tends to foreground Tina, and understandably so. But since her significance has already been given the lime-light in other venues, I’d actually like to put my focus on some of the other characters on the show, and think through some of the gender and sexuality politics conveyed particularly by the show’s continual refusal to shore up masculinity by disavowing the feminine and the queer.
This is especially visible in the character of Gene, the middle Belcher child and only boy. Gene happily spends most of his recreational time with his sisters, and when confronted with the absurd masculine wrestling antics of two boys on the beach in “The Belchies,” relays to his siblings, “This is why I’m only friends with women.” The articulation is an overt nod to the tired sexism of women declaring they are only friends with men, as if associating only with men is somehow inherently superior.
In addition to enjoying the company of girls his own age, Gene is also entirely copacetic having a close, affectionate relationship with his mother, Linda. In the Valentine’s Day episode “My Fuzzy Valentine,” youngest daughter Louise rejects their mother Linda’s attempt to smother her with affection, and says “Give mine to Gene,” to which he replies happily, “I’ll take it!” In “Turkey in a Can” Gene casually confesses that he and his mother are shopping buddies and they “don’t have any secrets.” His affinity with the maternal is also expressed by his overt desire to be a mom. In “Outside Toilet,” when his class is assigned to care for a flour sack baby for a week, Gene is stoked about the project and declares “I was born to be a mother!”
And he is visibly upset when his mother tells him in “Wagstaff School News” that he “takes more after [his] father.” This observation comes directly after Gene suggested he inherited his mother’s birthing hips; when his mother casually disagrees with him, he refutes the comparison with his father with a retort of “No! Hips don’t lie!” Moreover, the show never suggests anything is amiss about Gene’s maternal bent. He is never shamed for it by the other character on the show, nor is it ever made the butt of the joke to the audience.
He also receive no real backlash on the more than one occasion he dresses up as a girl. In the episode “Full Bars,” he goes as Queen Latifa for Halloween (no blackface!), and he calls upon her to give him strength when he must help his friends escape from older teenagers harassing their trick-or-treating group. In “Synchronized Swimming” he wears a girl’s bathing suit – to match with his sisters and mother – and he is thoroughly satisfied with the situation, saying “I like it! It holds things in in all the right places.” When his father later informs him that men usually wear trunks in the pool, he simply dismisses the idea, saying it “looks ridiculous.” During Louise’s sleepover in “Slumber Party,” Gene very enthusiastically participates in the girl’s fashion show, and has to be told by his mother to let the other girls have a turn, so anxious is he to flaunt his style on their living room catwalk. He has no investment in conforming to arbitrary gender norms and he is always happy to occupy the place of the feminine if it suits him to do so.
He also has no need to distance himself from female-typical grooming habits or bodily functions. In “Mother-Daughter Laser Razor,” Tina is anxious to shave her legs, worried some of her peers might gossip about her having leg stubble. With Linda away, Bob is left to deal with the problem, and he takes her to get her legs waxed, while Gene tags along. Tina is afraid to go it alone, so Bob does it with her, and on the way home, Gene repeatedly grunts and harrumphs until Bob asks him, “Why are you making those noises?” “I wanna wax my legs, too!” Gene replies. “But you don’t even have leg hair,” Bob reminds him. “Tell that to my heart!” Gene retorts. And Bob takes them back to let Gene in on the fun. Afterwards he is quite proud of his smooth legs, as is Bob incidentally.
In “Boyz 4 Now,” Gene participates in a table-scaping competition, in which he ends up as a finalist. However, not realizing he was supposed to have a second display at the ready, he and his mother and father are forced to throw a theme together out of the contents of her purse. They go with a period motif, and the table is set using tampons, pads and strawberry jam, which Gene labels his “Menstrurant” (though Bob advocated for “Period Piece”). He is not at all grossed out by the set-up, and he has no shame presenting it to the judge, who is predictably rather less chill about it than he is. Men of all ages are notoriously loath to talk about or deal with menstruation as a typical part of daily life for a large percentage of the population. Although the treatment of it in this episode is a bit zany, it also normalizes male engagement with things like tampons and menstrual blood, which are often treated by men as particularly gross or offensive.
Perhaps Gene’s one and only gender-typical trait is his affinity for farting and his enjoyment of fart noises. Aside from that, his tastes, habits and idiosyncrasies actually strongly favor the feminine, a fact which is never treated as a problem or even really a curiosity in need of justification or explanation. He is incidentally portrayed as hetero-inclined, romantically and sexually, but he is also eleven and usually his storylines revolve more around his aspiring music career or his voracious appetite. He prefers dancing and cheerleading to baseball or football, and when someone questions his characterization of himself as a “working girl” in “Bob Fires the Kids” he simply doubles down insisting that he is a girl, rather than trying to deny it. He genuinely cannot imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to be one.
His utter lack of concern to defend his masculinity is perhaps a trait learned from his father, who also has little investment in disavowing the feminine. When the Belcher patriarch agrees to wax his legs with Tina, he is afterwards pleasantly surprised, saying “These pants feel incredible. Why don’t all men do this?” In “Slumber Party,” after he lets one of the young female guests braid his hair, Linda asks him “What’s wrong with your hair?” and he replies “What’s right with it?” revealing that “Abbie braided it;” his genuine enthusiasm for the plaits is palpable. At the end of “Moodie Foodie,” after getting caught up in an accidental kidnapping of a food critic, Bob is worried the police might come to arrest him, and his family are brainstorming ways to keep him out of jail. Tina suggests putting Bob in dress and telling everyone he is their aunt. When Bob rejects the idea, saying “I’m not going to wear a dress,” Louise comes back with “Pants suit?” and he immediately concedes “Alright, fine.”
This joke is instructive for the way in which the humor is derived directly from the expectation that all men will inevitably resist being cast as women. Initially, Bob’s resistance to the dress reads as resistance to being seen as female, but when Louise offers the pants suit, we realize Bob has no real issue with being seen as a woman. He just doesn’t want to wear a dress. Which is fair enough; plenty of women are not fans of dresses either.
Bob also does not display any queerphobia to speak of in the course of the show. In the first season episode “Sheesh! Cab, Bob,” Bob takes on an extra job as a cab driver at night to pay for a special 13th birthday party for Tina. His best customers become a group of transwomen who are working as prostitutes and he is quite respectful towards them, referring to them as ladies, and developing a friendly camaraderie that results in him inviting the women to his daughter’s birthday party. The episodes depiction of this group is potentially open to further analysis, but there is no doubt that they as characters are at least treated respectfully by Bob and his family.
In the Thanksgiving episode “Turkey in a Can,” Bob must keep going back to the meat counter at their local grocery store for new turkeys, due to a mysterious someone regularly putting them in the toilet behind his back. After a few of these incidents, the man at the meat counter – who is gay – deduces incorrectly that Bob is trying to hit on him. The amusing misunderstanding culminates in the other guy propositioning Bob, and Bob leaving embarrassed because, “I’m married, but if I weren’t…Who am I kidding? You’re out of my league!” Again, the set-up strongly suggests they are going to go down the typical road of gay-panic as humor, but the “mostly-straight” Bob rejects the idea ultimately because he knows the other guy is actually just way too good for him. Also, he is married.
Bob’s marriage to Linda is another aspect of the show that is blissfully free of painful gender tropes which are common in other family sitcoms and adult animation. Bob never acts like he is somehow a victim of his own marriage, and although he and Linda get on each other’s nerves now and again, they also genuinely love and support one another. Moreover, Bob never treats Linda like she is a “crazy woman”; although she can fall into habits that are a bit kooky now and again – compulsively buying porcelain baby figurines, singing everything because she loves musicals, becoming obsessed with the antics of the neighborhood raccoons – Bob never genders these quirks. He treats them as being entirely specific to her, rather than indicative of some kind of womanly ‘condition.’
Indeed, this type of behavior is actually far more typical of the youngest Belcher child Louise, who more than once is portrayed as the girl-who-is-better-than-other-girls and eventually gets knocked down a peg for it. This is most visible in the episode “Boyz 4 Now” in which Tina and Louise are set to go see a boy-band concert together. At first Louise is horrified by the idea, disparaging Tina’s obsession with the band members and putting down the excitement of the other girls at the concert by declaring, “What is wrong with all of you?! They’re just boys.”
“No wonder no one likes women,” she laments with disgust. Yet she soon finds herself captivated by the bands youngest member Boo Boo, and must seek guidance and help from Tina, who councils her through her first crush. By the end of the episode Louise has gained an unequivocal respect for her sister, and she learns that her dismissal of other girls’ behavior and of girly things, such as boy-bands, was ultimately mistaken and short-sighted.
“Mother Daughter Laser Razor” finds Louise learning the value of mother-daughter relationships and it starts with Louise telling Linda that she ruined a game between the kids and Bob by “momming it all up.” Linda responds, “Dad’s here. Did he dad it all up?” “Yes,” Louise replies, “but that’s a good thing.” Linda attempts to force a bond between them through a new-agey seminar that involves reciting silly, pro-feminine platitudes like “I’m an estrogenius” and simulating birth with “vagasacks.” Understandably disaffected by this, Louise eventually escapes, and she and her mom finally have an honest confrontation while they duke it out in the laser-tag arena next door. Louise realizes her preference for her father over her mother might have been misguided and that actually she can have fun with her mom, too.
In “Slumber Party,” Linda is out to help Louise make friends with some of the other girls in her class. Besides her siblings, Louise’s playmates are primarily boys – the Pesto twins Andy and Ollie, and a boy dubbed “regular-sized Rudy.” Feeling Louise needs a female BBF, Linda coordinates a surprise sleepover for her youngest child; unsurprisingly, Louise initially wants nothing to do with it and she works to drive her unwanted guests away. However one girl named Jessica, initially dismissed as dull, ends up playing an elaborate game of cat and mouse with Louise around the apartment, trying to hide the shameful secret that she wets the bed. “So why go to slumber parties at all?” Louise eventually asks, after all the other girls have already left. Turns out Jessica also has an overbearing mother, and the girls bond over this shared lot.
When Bob finally returns to take Jessica home, Louise – having discovered she enjoys Jessica’s company after all – does a complete 180 and protests, “It’s a slumber party. Why would she go home?” Louise learning to like, and trust and value other girls and women is a recurring theme in the show, and its portrayal of unlearning internalized misogyny through her is one of its best features.
A TV show’s feminist credentials tend to be evaluated primarily on the basis of many “strong female characters” it has. Bob’s Burgers is uniquely instructive in how to portray men in a feminist manner, an issue still far less discussed, but no less important. Gene and Bob Belcher are both extremely laudable examples of male characters who do not feel the need to put down women or femininity, and have no investment in maintaining their masculinity through repudiation of the feminine. The show is also a pleasant relief from the pop culture habit of rewarding one special female character for being different from all the other girls. When Louise, in particular, attempts to pull that card, the show often takes pains to expose that mentality as faulty.
There remains a great deal more to say about the show’s engagement with gender and sexuality, particularly through minor recurring characters like Jimmy Jr., Mr. Frond, Aunt Gayle or Tammy Larson. However, its consistent refusal to make femininity into a rhetorical or narrative punching bag, or to utilize its’ disavowal to establish the manhood of its male characters consistently makes Bob’s Burgers a pleasant relief from so many of its peers – past and present – on prime-time TV.
Bob’s Burgers airs Sundays at 9:30 on Fox.