I’ve written previously about my love for Daria and how big an influence its eponymous protagonist was on my adolescence. I was never a Generation X teen, but the proto-nihilism and no-fucks-given verve of Daria Morgendorffer, coupled with her quiet anxiety, typically teen girl crush and understanding that the world can be good sometimes was exactly what I needed at that point in my life. Of course, no matter how hard I tried, I could never be as cool as Daria. I was never able to make the cutting remarks of my contemporaries roll off my shoulders like she could, nor did I have a snarky comeback for every occasion. My endless emotional waves stood in stark contrast to Daria’s seeming lack of them, and the hierarchy of her high school, increased into obvious satire of suburban American discomfort, was far neater than anything I experienced in mid-2000s Scotland. Still, she was a woman of her time, and one I turned to for lack of a pop culture hero with a better fit.
If I were a teenager now, the options would be far richer for my cultural consumption. There’s the women of Steven Universe, deftly drawn and vibrant in their optimism; the kids of Stranger Things keeping the giddiness of nostalgic adventure alive; a whole new generation of Star Wars women whose heroism is front and centre in a beloved narrative; and many more. Primarily, I’ve used pop culture less as a place to look for myself than a way to find new and unfamiliar worlds and people to live through. However, if I was a teenager in 2018, I would see everything of myself in Tina Belcher. Hell, I’m 28 now and I still see a lot of myself in her.
Tina Belcher is the oldest of the three kids in Bob’s Burgers. Voiced by Dan Mintz, she is a perpetually awkward teen girl with unabashedly weird interests, a serious lack of social graces, occasional bouts of elevated confidence, and a level of candidness that is usually advised against when it comes to teen girls. She likes butts! She writes zombie fan-fiction with lots of kissing! She takes part in every social activity at school, despite kind of sucking at them all! She is straight-up odd, but crucially, she is never judged for it by her family, nor is she self-conscious about her obvious weirdness. Indeed, she is a unique entity in a pop culture ecosystem oversaturated with familiar characters and their predictable tropes.
Adolescent girls in pop culture, particularly American television, tend to be lumped into easily defined categories: The outcasts, the mean girls, the weirdos, the nerds, and so on. This is something Daria executed with sharp flair, tearing down the absurd expectations such tropes force onto teens at their most emotionally vulnerable. In any other story, a 13-year-old girl like Tina, openly fawning over her crush Jimmy Jr. and writing stories about sexy zombies, would be the character you’re explicitly instructed to laugh at. The girl who frankly talks about her burgeoning hormones and willingness to crush on almost every guy she sees would be positioned as creepy or a Melrose Place-style harpy. The nerd who crushes is mostly seen from a male perspective, and often a super discomfiting one (see how the ‘heroes’ of Revenge of the Nerds are essentially sexual predators). Tina is unlike anyone else on T.V. and she’s given the room to be weird by the show and those who populate it.
Lisa Simpson was always defined as being the sane one in the family whose moral authoritativeness grounded the wacky shenanigans of the show. Along with Marge, they were primarily the straight men of the family, providing necessary scorn for the antics of Homer and Bart. Women are often shoved in this box in comedy, but Bob’s Burgers subverts that by having Bob be the straight man surrounded by a loving family or proud oddballs. Tina is almost stoic compared to her siblings, but her weirdness isn’t tempered as a result.
Tina’s sexuality is one of her defining traits. She loves Jimmy Jr., horses but particularly centaurs and unicorns, kissing zombies, boy bands, and basically any boy in a ten yard radius. Everyone knows about this, from her classmates to her parents. Sometimes, it is remarked upon with disdain, but seldom is Tina the punching bag of the show. Instead, her sexuality is something we root for as viewers. Depicting young adolescents going through the journey of dealing with all these weird hormones and body changes is tricky territory for any writer. It makes sense why so many prefer to deal with broad stereotypes because it’s safer than getting too deep into the topic and making it uncomfortable or crossing an unfortunate line. Why else would you see stories of teen boys played by 27-year-olds who look old enough to be having their own kids, much less going through puberty themselves? Tina has feelings, she’s working her way through them in her own way, and that’s totally normal in the narrative. Sure, we don’t all write zombie friend fiction, but who the hell are you to judge Tina for doing so?
Tina’s a horndog, although it’s questionable whether, as a 13-year-old, she’s even aware of the basic mechanics of sex. Yet that’s only one shade of her wonderfully layered characterization. She’s the shy girl whose awkwardness isn’t positioned as a problem to be fixed. The series plays with make-over tropes and the old story of wanting to be more popular, but these aren’t permanent shifts in her character, and nor should they be. Being quiet and weird isn’t an inherently negative trait, nor is it incompatible with being super candid about your oddball nature. You can be awkward to the world and still possess an immense amount of self-confidence. Anxiety can co-exist alongside swagger. Tina is the bundle of contradictions that feels more accurate to the teen girl experience than anything Daria did. She provided a fantasy in a satirical world, albeit one with its roots firmly in more varied shades. She was a blueprint to the kind of cool outcast you wanted to be, but it’s Tina who shows there’s greater power in owning the outcast you already are.
Television often tells characters and their audiences to ‘Be Yourself’, even as it distils that ethos into something derivative and safe. Tina Belcher is the great opposition to that force, and one who changes the game for teenage girls on the small screen. Be yourself, Tina. Be your weird, awkward, kind of discomfiting, utterly lacking in tact and boundaries self. So, shine on, Tina Belcher. You’re the difficult woman modern T.V. needs.
(Header image from YouTube. All gifs from Giphy.com)