A few months ago, when I watched the first episode of Bob’s Burgers on Netflix with my roommate, our immediate response at the end of the episode was “Uh… That is not how I expected any of them to sound.”
Out of the five members of the Belcher family, three are girls (Linda, Tina, and Louise), and two boys (Bob and Gene). Linda Belcher, the wife and mother, is flamboyantly voiced by John Roberts, a comedian and writer who looks like he’d be at home on the Jersey Shore. Tina, the eldest daughter, is voiced by Dan Mintz, a man who looks like the adult male live-action version of Tina, actually. Gene, the only son and middle child, is played by Eugene Mirman, who maintains a lilt in his voice to make the fart-loving 11-year-old sound notably effeminate. Louise and Bob are the only two who sound anything like they look, nine-year-old Louise being voiced by the crass and doe-eyed Kristen Schaal, and Bob by H. Jon Benjamin of Archer fame.
Recurring guest characters are also gender-flipped by the voice actors, with twins Andy and Ollie Pesto being played by Sarah Silverman and her sister. The women who are voiced by men are given no less sincerity in their portrayal because of the swap, nor are the male characters voiced by female actors.
The more I’ve watched, the more obvious the rejection of gender has become… and the more I’ve fallen for the characters.
“Also, I might be a pimp.”
Bob is technically the patriarch of the Belcher family. Technically the provider. Technically the breadwinner. Technically the head of the household. Technically, because the show centers around the restaurant he opened, manned only by himself, Linda, and the kids. While the show can be said to be about Bob, he doesn’t dim the shine of his fellow characters.
In the first season, Bob takes on a second job driving a cab to pay for Tina’s thirteenth birthday party. It turns out that his most frequent fare is a group of transvestite prostitutes, with whom he jokingly flirts and politely converses. Contrary to the reaction we’ve come to expect from straight men being hit on by anyone other than cis women, Bob treats these people as people, and as such, helps them stand out as comedic characters through action and dialogue rather than through their existence.
He isn’t a hyper-masculine representation of manhood. He faints at the sight of blood. He listens when his wife says she doesn’t want to have sex. He struggles with the emotional repercussions of having a bad childhood. He frequently attempts to connect to his children on an emotional level. He is admirable and tolerant and comically human.
“I wanted to be edgy like them. Pill-popping sex freaks.”
In the first season, Linda didn’t really catch my eye, but as I binge watched and re-watched the show, I really began to take notice. Considering how theatrical she is, I’m surprised it took that long. She embraces her womanhood, talking openly about “polishing” her “pelvic floor” with prenatal yoga (she hasn’t been pregnant in nine years) and proudly proclaiming that Bob “made your burgers and he made my babies!” But even through taking pride in her womanhood, she rejects any ladylike notions of propriety.
She is a lush. She is libidinous, with an age-appropriate crush on Tom Selleck. As a mother, she is too indulgent, doing her children’s homework for them under the guise of “helping.” She is protective of her family, quickly getting a second job at a grocery store when they fall upon (particularly) hard times, and allowing her sister to hang her horrible paintings on the walls of the restaurant during the city’s art crawl in order to support her emotionally. Linda is misguided, tactless, inappropriate, and well-meaning — a combination that makes her completely lovable.
“I am a smart, strong, sensual woman.”
From her very first line in the very first episode — “My crotch is itchy” — I was obsessed with Tina Ruth Belcher. She is all the dryness of Bob mixed with all the impropriety of Linda. Her passions are boys, butts, horses, and zombies. In the original pilot, Tina’s character is instead a boy named Daniel, and when the show got picked up by Fox, his dialogue was only rewritten to adjust for anatomy. In the body of a thirteen-year-old girl, the characterization is flawless.
As Daniel, the eldest Belcher made sense as a star of the show. He was funny, yet predictable. He was the awkward pubescent boy that awkward pubescent boys are almost always shown to be. As Tina, well, she is the awkward pubescent girl we expect awkward pubescent boys to be.
“What kind of God would give you those legs and no rhythm?”
Eleven-year-old Gene is the only son of the Belcher clan, and as one would expect from a boy his age, he is a potty humor connoisseur. He has a keyboard that he often carries around with him, making laser, robot, and most often of all flatulence noises. He bonds with his father over Spaghetti Westerns and the smell of their farts.
Gene is indubitably the most effeminate of the Belcher children, referring to his baseball jersey as a blouse and embracing his position as the only “good daughter.” In one episode, he decides to manage a girl group, but when the girls back out of the impromptu “gig,” he puts on the costumes prepared for them and performs as a one-man girl band. Fitting so well into both masculine and feminine boxes at once, Gene has a gender presentation the audience can’t help but love.
“I smell fear on you.”
Simply looking at Louise, you would expect her to have a completely different personality. She’s nine years old and significantly shorter than her siblings, leading the audience to believe that she’s small for her age. She often wears a green dress and will never, under any controllable circumstances, go without her pink bunny-ear hat.
In addition to being damn precious, she’s the only Belcher child with aspirations of world domination. She’s more likely to run a casino than a lemonade stand, more interested in playing sweatshop than tea party. She is vicious and scrappy and ambitious and terrifying — quite the opposite of how girls her age are viewed in real life.
With this particular combination of lively characters, the result is a cast that acts like real human beings in a real human family.
Historically, I haven’t enjoyed socially satirical adult cartoons. I’m not big on Adult Swim or anything Seth MacFarlane has done in his career. The humor, more often than not, is cheap, coming at the cost of already marginalized people groups. But Bob’s Burgers, rather than making commentary to disparage femininity or ignoring gender issues altogether, displays a loving family in which gender roles are often rejected — THEN DOESN’T COMMENT ON IT. But in the best way.
Bob and Linda accept that Gene is a little effeminate. They are aware of Tina’s awkward and inappropriate lusts, only interfering when it comes to older men. And they haven’t tried once to medicate Louise. The Belcher children are weird as all hell, and their parents accept them just as they are. There is no “act like a lady” or “man up.” Instead, there is love, and there are puns — oh my god, are there puns.