There’s a wonderful scene in Season 3 of Bob’s Burgers, in which the eponymous restaurateur lets his 13-year-old daughter Tina drive the family’s car in a nearly-empty lot. “Let’s make this kitty purr,” Tina monotones, glancing nervously at her dad from the driver’s seat. She pulls out of the parking space at a snail’s pace, and starts to groan with anxiety. Bob talks over the groan, calmly reassuring Tina, his voice rising as she sets them on a glacial collision course with the only other car.
“OK, Tina, you’re kinda headed toward the only other car in the lot,” he says. “You have plenty of time to turn, Tina, so just go ahead, turn one way or the other.” Tina’s groan intensifies. “You’re just swerving back and forth,” Bob says, now alarmed. “Turn one way and stick with it, Tina. Tina for the love of God, turn away or stop! The brakes, Tina, the brakes!”
Needless to say, Tina totals the car.
The slow motion wreck is a good example of why, over four seasons, Tina Belcher has become a folk hero for anxious young people—a generational subset, I suspect, who worry they’ll remain trapped forever in an extended, liminal adolescence. According to Google Trends, searches for Tina dwarf those for her other four family members, including patriarch Bob; it’s harder to quantify the social Web, but Tina is ubiquitous on Tumblr and in the screencap scene in a way that few TV characters ever become. On a Reddit AMA, voice actor Dan Mintz called her, plausibly, a “feminist icon.”
Like most characters on Bob’s Burgers, Tina is a memorable caricature. Her eyes are lone dots in huge, D-shaped spectacles, and her arms hang by her sides like limp noodles. She wears her hair with bangs, and is frequently dressed in a skirt, sneakers, and knee socks. She speaks in a mid-range monotone and betrays emotion mostly with her signature groan. And like other beloved animated adolescents, she expresses childish concerns in an adult register and adult concerns in a childish one. “I want a dry-erase board so I can write down all my private thoughts and then erase them immediately,” she says in one episode, a thought bubble imagining the phrase “penis fly trap.”
Tina also embodies a common millennial quirk. She’s dysfunctionally ambivalent—in the whole length of the parking lot, she can’t make up her mind which way to turn to avoid a collision—but, even in inaction, seldom tongue-tied. “Time for the charm bomb to explode,” she says, awkwardly flipping her hair, in a widely shared screencap. She’s also a decidedly moral person: After she crashes the car, she won’t let her dad leave without writing a note for the owner of the other car.
“My inner Tina is pretty close to the surface, so it’s pretty to easy to channel,” Mintz said. “She has kind of a zen quality of being in the moment with whatever she wants.”
A good portion of Tina’s mileage comes from her outspoken and sometimes gross-out sexuality. She devises elaborate fantasies about zombies and football players, and writes volumes of what she calls “erotic friend fiction.” She’s cripplingly shy with boys, but is generally the instigator anyway. And she is preoccupied with their specific physical attributes, subverting gender expectations. In the show’s pilot, in fact, Tina appears as an adolescent boy named Daniel, also voiced by Mintz, and with nearly identical dialogue (memorably, “My crotch is itchy”).
Unlike Family Guy and South Park, Bob’s Burgers is a deeply tolerant show. Everybody is weird, and if an episode has a villain, they’re usually made sympathetic by the end. Nobody tolerates or is tolerated as much as Tina, making her indispensable to the show. The Belchers shriek, shout over each other, and violate the health code, but with love.
Last year, Boston telephone poles were pasted with flyers for a feminist punk festival that featured a grimacing Tina, playing an electric keyboard and flanked by Lisa Simpson, Daria Morgendorffer, and burning police cars. It’s a telling trifecta of animated heroines. Lisa rebels against the seeming mediocrity of her suburban family, Daria against the conventionality of the ’90s. Tina’s role in this trio, I think, is to speak to the anxieties of young people who quietly fear they will never set a firm course in life.