There are only a few hard and fast rules to know when living in the universe of the network sitcom:
1. Marriages are held together by the sheer power of constant bickering.
2. Most people don’t do any actual work at their jobs.
3. Teenage boys are deranged, perverted sex-monsters, dogged in their pursuit of generally disinterested teenage girls.
From the obliquely horny high school boys of Saved By the Bell, to the sexist horn-dogs of That ‘70s Show (and a literally uncatalogable number of other examples), teenage boys on TV are frequently painted as full of free-floating sexual urges for almost any woman that crosses their path, possessing a sexual vibe that could best be described as “lovably disgusting.”
In contrast, the teenage girls of TV are typically portrayed as only capable of responding to sexual overtures—with varying degrees of disinterest, disgust, or enthusiasm, sure, but their sexuality almost exclusively exists in response to the overtures of male characters.
Even on beloved, progressive teen shows with ground-breaking female protagonists, like My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks, female sexuality is almost always shown in relation to a partner—like when a character develops a scheme to catch a specific classmate’s eye, or must make a decision about whether or not to have sex. We’re rarely treated to a look at a teenage girl’s raw sexuality and impulses, untethered from relationships to specific partners, or even any partners at all, the way we are with teenage male characters.
In fact, the aching, hormonal horniness that is an unfortunately memorable part of most of our adolescent years isn’t generally represented among teenage female sitcom character at all. For the most part, female network comedy characters who desire sex but lack willing partners—like Peg Bundy on Married with Children—are generally seen as defective, their sexual impulses and desires a source of “gross-out” humor. After all, in this same universe, men of all ages are constantly horny—so a heterosexual woman would, by that logic, have to be profoundly undesirable to have sexual needs that aren’t being met.
Bob’s Burgers, now wrapping up its fourth season on Fox, initially seemed like an unlikely candidate for a ground-breaking depiction of teen female sexuality. It’s an animated comedy in the vein of early seasons of The Simpsons, documenting the triumphs and (more frequently) failures of the Belcher family, who run the titular burger restaurant.
But Tina Belcher—the family’s eldest child, a charmingly nerdy 13-year-old girl—has, over the course of the past several seasons, developed into a fantastic teen character. Tina has one of the most vivid sexual imaginations ever shown on network TV. She writes erotic fiction about her fellow middle schoolers, has a Twilight-parodying sexual fixation on zombies, fantasizes about adult men who cross her path (from her dentist to her capoeira instructor to a team of baseball players) and nurses a fierce crush on the son of a rival restauranteur. Her passion often runs into bluntly sexual territory; when trapped with her crush, Jimmy Jr., in a cave, Tina remarks, “I wish some strong, chivalrous man would lend me his jacket… or pants.”
Tina’s unabashed teenaged horniness could, at first glance, be mistaken for another joke about the grossness of an “undesirable” woman being horny. But the show depicts Tina’s horniness as simply another aspect of her character, rather than as a source of gags about how gross she and her desires are.
And Tina isn’t painted, as Rachel Dratch so memorably put it in her memoir, as one of television’s “unfuckables.” Though not popular, Tina is never depicted as less desirable than her classmates. She has an on-and-off relationship with Jimmy Jr., and at one point juggled him with another boyfriend. We’ve never seen Tina do more than kiss a boy, because, like most 13-year-olds, her hormones are making demands that her conscious self is not ready to act on. Tina probably could have some of the sex she constantly dreams of having. But she’s smart enough to be able to tell the difference between her impulses and the actual actions she should take to live a healthy, happy life.
Tina walks the fine and confusing adolescent line between asserting one’s sexual agency and letting your hormones take control—a sexual life stage I've never before seen depicted quite like this on network TV. Tina isn't desperate, or looking for the love of a man to complete her. She's just horny. She's also plenty of other things: smart, funny, geeky. She's a rare, well-rounded character.
In the original show pilot, Tina was a male character named Daniel, and few changes were made to the character as she was retooled into a woman (most of the lines of dialogue from the pilot are even the same for both characters). This might be how Tina snuck in as an revolutionary character—by accident. Simply by transplanting the same awkward horniness we’ve always in television’s teenaged boys on to a female character, Tina was able to explore new territory.
Bob’s Burgers is warmly human and wildly compassionate, the very opposite of animated sitcom hits like American Dad or South Park. And yet, like those shows, it is able to push an envelope in a way a live-action show can’t because it is a cartoon.
Though Tina is wildly popular on the internet and considered the show’s breakout character—even if you don’t watch the show, it’s impossible to ignore her popularity as a Tumblr phenomenon, in memes, or in the three pages of Etsy goods you can purchase bearing her likeness and catchphrases—she’s able to delve fully into her own sexuality because her behavior doesn’t come under the same scrutiny that a teen character on a live action sitcom would have to endure. Any live-action exploration of a teenaged female character’s sexuality can be shut down by being accused of being purposely titillating—for instance, the premiere of the teen historo-drama Reign had to trim a fairly tame female masturbation scene after media outcry. But this accusation doesn’t stick quite as well to the elastic, fantastical universe of cartoons, making Tina's character a safe place to explore new ideas about depciting female sexuality.
Hopefully, the success of Bob's Burgers, and of Tina in particular, will open the door to other TV shows (including ones with actual live actors) to follow the show's lead. Because it would be a shame if Tina's frank sexuality, just like the family's run-ins with robotic sharks or artifically intelligent toilets, remained the stuff of make-believe.
Gabrielle Moss writes about popular culture, feminism, and awkward teens all over the internets.