LET’S STEAL FROM THIS! Tina Belcher, TV’s Best Character
TV, you’re great. You’re not at all a wasteland! This is slooowly and finally becoming non-news in all but a few dark corners. The Sopranos, Enlightened, Parks & Recreation, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc. — for ten years now, no one can have claimed there’s no good writing on television. So, quality-wise, writing-wise: good going, television.
Oh, but then: Hmm, female characters.
This is not remotely a new sentiment, but what the fucking fuck is anyone to think about our treatment of girls and women in 2014, based on our nation’s main storytelling medium?
Imagine you’re an alien who’s just tapped into our satellite feeds. You’d understand the deal right away: the ones with protuberances on their chests are wives and assistants. (I don’t know how these aliens know those last two words but not “boobs.”) They’re the ultra-competent coroner or surveillance expert who knows to otherwise go back to her desk and shut the fuck up so the dude(s) can get the real work done. If they’re somehow in a position of power, they’re a horrible mess. They’re unable to balance work and relationships because on television that’s somehow a specifically feminine affliction vs. just how life works for almost everyone. They’re unhappy. Or, if they’re happy, it’s because they’re the dumb one. They don’t realize they’re the butt of the joke. Always, regardless of status, they are deeply compromised. Not complicated, most of the time, just compromised.
But then there’s Tina Belcher. She’s thirteen, she wears glasses and (sorry) unstylish hair, she goes to school, she’s obsessed with butts, she fantasizes about having a horde of zombie boyfriends. She’s not only one of the best female characters in any medium these days, I think she’s the single best, most radical character on TV.
If you don’t know who Tina Belcher is, she’s a character on Bob’s Burgers, which is maybe the most consistently funny show of the last ten years. It’s also one of the — and I hesitate to use this word — gentlest. That implies the comedy has no bite, though it has plenty. But Bob’s Burgers isn’t after satire or skewering How We Live Right Now, and no one in its world is an asshole. (Well, almost. Tina’s classmate Tammy is kind of an asshole.)
If I had to compare Bob’s Burgers to anything, I’d say it’s a cross between King of the Hill without that show’s “simple folks” fetish and season-one Simpsons without the weird ’50s-era family dynamics. Bob Belcher’s kids are odd and he likes them, even if he knows they’re in for a lifetime of pain. And no character on television is more aggressively odd — and therefore aggressively normal — than Tina Belcher.
And there’s why Tina Belcher is an especially powerful female character: She normalizes normality. Which sounds like either a typo or a load of crap, but I mean it that way. Girl characters on TV tend to conform to yearbook superlatives: Hottest, Smartest, Most Sarcastic, etc. But Tina isn’t The Most Stunning, she’s not even Secretly Hot But No One Else Sees It Yet, she doesn’t have Superpowers, she doesn’t (aside from her facility with Erotic Friend Fiction) even really have a Special Ability. She’s just Tina and she likes being Tina. (She even digs her own hair and practice swishing it around seductively.) She’s waiting for everyone else to realize they like Tina.
This, somehow, is maybe the most radical idea going.
Teenage girls on TV, remember, are supposed to be snarky bitches, Disney-eyed quip machines perpetually mortified by their parents’ attempts to be cool. Or they’re supposed to be Cute, But… and here you fill in that blank like you’d fill in a health form: but clumsy; but shy; but miserable; but part of a family with a big secret; but busy running a company. Tina is unashamed of her family, she’s becoming aware of the hierarchies that rule middle school, and mainly she’s just doing her thing, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with her. Tina may pine for a lot of things (e.g., Jimmy Pesto, Jr.), but she’s good with who she is.
This feature is called Let’s Steal From This. So if you’re a writer, here’s what I want you to do. Well, two things. One, watch Bob’s Burgers. It’s great. Two, though: Steal from Tina Belcher. Make one of your own. She doesn’t have to look or talk like Tina Belcher (I’m not sure how you’d ever get that voice across in print anyway), she doesn’t have to love butts or write erotic friend fiction. But she should be A) a female character who is B) interesting on her own, and she should C) be fine with who she is, D) preferably to the discomfort of others.
That last point is what creates the stakes for a character like Tina. I write a lot on here about how the best characters are always driven and damaged. While that sounds a lot like Scandal‘s Olivia Pope or Enlightened‘s Amy Jellicoe, it also describes Tina Belcher. (To be clear: “Damaged,” on this blog, can mean everything from sociopathic to narcissistic to full of rage to overly shy. Damaged is just what causes friction with other characters.) And Tina’s certainly driven, powered by hormones and curiosity. But she’s also “damaged” in that she shares a key quality with so many great characters: a distinct lack of self-awareness. And where that may lead, say, Amy Jellicoe to behave as though she’s still got some currency in the corporate world even after having a terrifying meltdown and going to anger-rehab, it leads Tina into situations where most teenage girl characters wouldn’t be caught dead. Which makes for — ta da! — great comedy that doesn’t feel quite like everything you’ve seen before.
Example: Tammy threatens to expose Tina’s Erotic Friend Fiction to the whole school. And even after Tina’s siblings sabotage Tammy’s plan, Tina decides to go Full Tina. She writes a new piece to read aloud in the cafeteria. (Excerpt: “Everyone touched each other’s butts…and it was great.”)
The tension around that scene comes not from Tina’s mortification — because why should she have any? — but from everyone else’s.
So go. Go and create a Tina Belcher of your own. Make her deeply weird, but treat that like it’s utterly normal. Because here’s the big secret about her: While lots of us would love to believe we were the cool kids, or at least the undiscovered cool kids, most of us we were either out-and-out Tina Belchers or we were constantly suppressing the one who was inside us, thinking weird stuff, touching butts.