I‘ve said it in previous blog posts before: few groups on this earth are treated with less respect, are seen as less consequential, than adolescent and prepubescent girls. In news media and popular culture, female teens and tweens are mocked as, at best mindless consumers of mass-produced crap or, worse, as boy-hungry predators using the smartphones surgically grafted to their manicured hands to plot their next move. Even media aimed at adolescent girls presents them this way, from television shows like Nicks’ Life with Boys to news stories and comedy bits that berate them for their taste in music (though SNL‘s skit with Paul Rudd as an adult male One Direction fanatic was pretty hilarious). These degrading depictions of young women are one reason why I think Young Adult fiction is so important in presenting more empowering images to female readers. But I’ve also found a TV show – however unlikely it may seem – that presents adolescent girls with admirable complexity: Fox’s cartoon Bob’s Burgers.
Bob’s Burgers has aired for four seasons now and is increasing in popularity. I counted twenty fan Tumblrs this morning devoted to the show, and that’s not including those created by Fox or the show’s writers or Bento Box Entertainment, the producers of the show. Time magazine named Bob’s Burgers one of the top ten television shows of 2o13. The show follows the Belcher family, owners of a struggling burger diner, and much of the fandom centers on the Belcher daughters, 13-year-old Tina and 9-year-old Louise. On the surface, they couldn’t be more different. Awkward and angst-y,
Tina represents every cliche about adolescent girls. She has a huge crush on her neighbor, for example, and believes with all of her heart that if she does not kiss Jimmy Junior underneath a disco ball at her thirteenth birthday party her life will be ruined. (And one of the great things about the show is that, as impoverished as this may seem to us as a life’s dream, her family respects it. In fact, her father, Bob, takes on a second job and a whole lot of humiliation from rival restauranteur Jimmy Pesto Senior just to make it happen).
Louise seems like the perfect foil to her sister. Cynical and possibly sociopathic, Louise rejects everything the culture tells her she should be as a girl, whether it’s slumber parties or leg shaving or being nice to people. So when Louise is “forced” to go to with Tina to see Boyz 4 Now perform, she’s filled with the same disdain for boy bands and their screaming fans that most people are. Originally airing April 18, 2013 the “Boyz 4 Now” episode, however, treats both boy bands and their young female fans with more respect than most popular texts. The episode opens with a snippet of the Boyz 4 Now video that begins with the band singing in a mine until they break through the wall of a t(w)een girl’s bedroom to offer a big shiny diamond (and their devotion). The lyrics are wonderfully stupid (“Be mine/Coal mine” ) and manage to at once make fun of the inanity of many boy band songs (written by adult men) and acknowledge that however cynically, they speak to what young women (and all, people, when you get down to it) really want: to be noticed and respected, to be deemed important and worthy of attention. The song that closes out the episode, “Interested”, makes this even more clear with these lyrics:
I want to hear your secrets, I’m so interested in you!
What did you have for lunch today? Tell me breakfast too!
Which friends are you mad at girl? What size are your shoes?
You just went to the bathroom; number one or number two?
I want to know everything, everything about you!
I want to hear your secrets, I’m so interested in you!
Even if its not a secret, tell me that stuff too!
Details! I want to know details!
What’s your dad’s name?
Details! And your mom’s?
Details! Any allergies?
Details! How was prom?
Interesting, so interesting…
The show has great fun with the simplicity (even cynicism) of boy band lyrics as well as the corporate construction of boy band members’ identities, which Tina shares with Louise in an effort to get her to understand. There’s Griffin, “the hot one. He’s super extreme. His dog is a wolf,” Tina explains, and “Allen, cute but super-shy” and “Matt, moody and a little older, seventeen, I think,”* and, finally, BooBoo, the blond baby of the group, whom we discover later does not yet weigh eighty pounds and therefore must use a booster seat in the tour bus. The band thus covers every membership cliche from at least the age of the Beatles: cute one, shy one, moody one, dangerous one. Louise is not impressed. And she hates that the screaming starts in the parking lot, musing, “No wonder no one likes women.” “What’s wrong with all of you?” she berates the frenzied girls in the arena. “They’re just boys.” “Boys?!” a girl responds with such delight and horror, her emotions ratcheted up so high, that she immediately vomits.
“There’s a lot of puberty” in that arena, Louise concludes, and it’s something she wants no part of. And why should she, if puberty – and by extension sexual desire – renders adolescent females into gibbering, screaming, vomiting creatures with no self-control? But what other outlet is there for adolescent hormones? And one of the lessons of this episode is that like or not, puberty is inevitable. And when it hits you, it’s bittersweet at best and there’s no turning back.
Because even Louise gets sucked into it. She watches the boys enter from above on harnesses, hoping the show has “the kind [of lasers] that slice people in half,” but when BooBoo removes his helmet as he sails in on a scooter and asks, “Who let all the pretty girls in here?”, Louise is toast. She has, to use the Althusserian term, been hailed as a subject in this discourse. She has been, against her will and her own judgement, touched by her first feelings of desire and indoctrinated into the world of corporate-produced fan girldom. She begins screaming like the other girls, ecstatic, yet aware that something profound and disturbing has been forever altered within her. “Who the frig am I?” she asks, and it may be a question she spends the rest of her life answering.
Suddenly she’s singing along with the lyrics (“Tell me about every single time you cried/Oh, the first time when your goldfish died”) and wants to know more about BooBoo, wants to “do things” for BooBoo even if she has no earthly idea what those things might be. And that is the agony and the ecstasy of an adolescent crush. It has you in its grip and you don’t know what to do, especially at that age, when you just have a vague idea that it would be pleasant to be around the object of your desire, like, all the time. It’s especially wrenching for Louise who is usually so contemptuous of desire and the things teen girls desire. She has no idea what to do except to want to “slap [BooBoo's] hideous beautiful face” for making her feel this way.
They try to get backstage, which is not easy to do despite the presumed promise in the lyrics to “Girl, You Don’t Need a Backstage Pass.” The security guard recognizes both their dimly perceived but incredibly acute need as well as his duty to protect the boyz. “I get it,” he says. “I’d love to let you in. I see the pain in your faces. That pain never goes away. It only gets worse. Don’t get older.” And with those funny but heartbreaking lines, Bob’s Burgers “gets it”, too. I’m not saying that once you get your first crush you become a slave to your hormones for the rest of your life, but it does seem to mark an important and irretrievable step from childhood to the adulthood. As a cartoon character, Louise gets to continue being who she is, wearing her pink rabbit ears hat and “messing with people”, but she’s developed a new respect for Tina’s ability to withstand crushes. The past three hours, she realizes, nearly killed her, whereas Tina “has a crush on almost every boy” she knows. “How are you still alive?” Louise marvels and insists that she ‘s glad she got this over with and is done with crushing forever. Tina, more sanguine in these things, says, “For your sake, I hope you’re right. But if you’re not, you know where I live.” Louise goes to sleep with a photo of BooBoo, which she lovingly slaps, under her pillow.
Beneath its often anarchic humor, Bob’s Burgers takes t(w)een girl culture seriously. It makes fun of boy bands, sure, yet acknowledges that perhaps the boys in those bands have genuine affection and respect for their fans (BooBoo only gets slapped on the tour bus by Louise because he’s trying to speak to her, to listen to what she has to say, but is strapped into his booster seat and can’t escape). More importantly, it takes the desires of the t(w)een fans seriously, and not just sexual desires, but the desire to be recognized as important, as consequential in the world, as worthy. And it presents, through Louise, the terror a girl can experience when she succumbs to what nearly every pop culture artifact presents as her womanly destiny: attraction to a man. (And we know from fairy tales and Disney movies, if we watch critically enough as Louise does, what the attraction often leads to for girls: self-annihilation of sorts. Even in the Disneyfied film version of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, the little mermaid has to give up her voice and her home to gain her man.)
I have a daughter who’s a One Direction fan and she takes some crap for it from people who think the music is lame and the boys are manufactured and disposable. I won’t argue with those aspersions, much, but I want to take seriously what she and her friends and so many other girls like her find in the music and the images. And Bob’s Burgers presents a pretty good picture of it: desire, excitement, reassurance, identity, and possibility.
* The joke here is that Louise is correct in suspecting he is much older. “Maybe his mustache is seventeen,” she snarks, “but he’s ninety.”