I dream of escape. An exit with no destination but rather the lingering, longing feeling of the unfamiliar. The minutiae of existence requires too much of me to keep afloat, a constant flow of explanation and acquiescence as the intersection of the world inhabited as a trans and a queer becomes fraught and heated. The epicenter of discourse on any given day is an ankle weight, slowing us all down. I dream of an oasis, with nothing but fresh water, a soft breeze and a still and calming energy.
I dream of a diner, run down and nondescript on a stretch of road called Ocean Avenue. I dream of Bob’s Burgers.
The show, which recently wrapped its 12th season, is proof that success can grow from the most unlikely of places and that it’s possible to find new growth from bad seeds.
Bob’s was initially a dark comedy centered around a family of cannibals running a burger joint before it was retooled into the family-focused show it’s known for. It started, as so many animated series that skirts the line between adult and youth focus finds itself, aiming its punches squarely downwards in its nascent years, slamming metaphorical fists in an attempt to strike the right funny bone.
The first season of Bob’s Burgers is hard to revisit. It’s funny and charming but largely uneven and clunky, a smattering of desperate attempts to find the soul and voice of the show that feels authentically its own. In the pilot episode, “Human Flesh,” a false rumour that the restaurant is selling human meat — a nod to the original cannibal-diner pilot — unfolds in the background while bad jokes about child sex abuse, autism and fatphobia are jarringly front and centre.
Halfway through season one – episode 5 “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” – we hit a story ripped from The Simpsons, albeit with a twist: Bob takes a job as a cab driver at night to pay for his daughter Tina’s birthday party and picks up a trio of trans sex workers. As anyone befriending a roving group of people in the dark still of the night can tell you, his excited retelling of their initial encounter is based on staying up to meet the dawn of the day doing coke and binge drinking.
The moment these three women slide into the back of Bob’s cab – Bob adjusting his mirror in the driver’s seat and addressing the women in his charge – the show moves swiftly to an all-too familiar punchline. The camera zooms into the animated Adams apples and twinges of facial hair on the women, the tell tale heart of cheap trans jokes. So many of us trans women have been in those same back seats, shifting our bodies uncomfortably and searching within ourselves for a passable voice and the right poise. Anything to shield us from the eyes in the rear view mirror that find our tells.
But here we also get a glimpse of Bob, despite the show’s deliberate attempt at turning these women into a joke, seemingly struggling against the whims of his creator. He treats them as they announce themselves, they are women and he defers to their knowledge of self. Bob is every well meaning man working behind a counter, selling coffee or cigarettes (or in the best of places: both), that has stumbled over the words trying to tell me that he sees me as I am and not who I am running from. While he doesn’t fully understand the language for me, he is grasping at straws to ensure he doesn’t speak to who I am not.
Bob, we learn early on, is neither push nor pull; he is simply open. A man of infinite misunderstanding but an unending ability to discover and accept and not attempt to place boundaries around that which he does not truly understand.
While these three transsexuals are treated poorly by the show, created in a world where trans sex workers are largely portrayed as deceased in mainstream television, a glimmer of hope shines under the surface. These women don’t want to be the joke, an almost steadfast refusal to be anyone’s corpse. When Bobs’ debuted on TV in 2011, I was a few years out from accepting myself as who I was despite the idea constantly circling the drain in my head. Seeing these women appear on TV was a lightbulb, dimmed slightly by seeing the show try to find reasons to make them the joke, but illuminated once more when they instead turn into the heart of the story.
In their introductory episode they prove themselves the heroes, the only ones living truthfully and without shame or fear of themselves. They know who they are and require no explanation nor do they offer it. They don’t need to, it’s the audience who needs to catch up. When they show up at the birthday party later in the episode it’s they who teach Tina about the good heart resting in their fathers chest while telling the audience the nature of who Bob is trying to be: a good man trying his best.
The thing that sets Bob’s Burgers afield from other shows of its kind is its desire to move past making cheap jokes at the expense of anyone deemed lesser. There is no hierarchy on Ocean Avenue.
The trans women Bob meets in that early episode largely disappear from the show, save for Marshmallow, a tall Black woman with a gorgeously husky voice who always announces herself with a “hey baby” upon entering the frame, dressed always in a green crop top and denim shorts, her hair a perfect bob revealing the hint of hoop earrings.
Bob will always respond to her call with a response of “oh hey Marshmallow”, treating her as he would any other that crosses the threshold into his domain. Marshmallow requires no explanation or apology, she simply exists. In the season six episode “The Hormone-iums”, Bob says of her, “she comes and goes as she pleases, answers to no one and is truly free.”
Bob’s Burgers has never been a show about food or a restaurant, clever burger puns and perfect diner setting aside. It’s all set dressing for a story about a working class family acting in solidarity with one another above all else. The show makes great pains to remind us the Belcher family is poor, often paying rent months late or making deals with their landlord to get one month taken off their permanent record. Bob and Linda play exasperated parents perfectly, ones who are also all too keen to involve themselves in a good scheme, and to take their three children as honestly as they appear.
It’s a familiar setting for anyone who grew up with their collars similarly blue. My own father ran a glass shop that I worked in with him when I was old enough. We came perilously close to living in a makeshift apartment above it at least once. Working class people are often the center of culture wars, painted as conservative and vigilant in their parenting but the Belcher family mirrors my own. My parents only wanted us to get through the day as they struggled to afford the next behind us, and they listened and supported my sister and me as we grew and changed and were molded by the world around us.
This feels true as well of the Belcher children.
Tina, the oldest child, lives at the intersection of painfully awkward and horny af, trapped in an on-off relationship with a boy with a sweet lisp and a love of dance and bad poetry. Tina, voiced by Dan Mintz, was meant to be a boy and was written as such back when the show was about cannibals. When the show changed tones so did Tina’s gender, with the voice and the horny energy of your average teen boy the only remaining constants. Tina reminds me of myself at her age, all hormones and undiagnosed ADHD and a secret journal hidden in her bedroom trying to find the right way to be.
Louise, the youngest of the three, is mischievous and scheming with a desire to hold on to the wonder and magic of youth. Emotionally bonded to a set of bunny ears that mask her dark hair in pigtails, she inhabits the danger zone that lives in the years just before puberty hits. More than once she is engulfed in the flames of a passion she does not understand in the presence of Boo Boo, the littlest member of popular boy band Boys 4 Now.
Louise is on the outside of puberty but close enough to its taillights that she can see its light in her eyes, often finds herself at odds with her gender. She questions it, playing with the form and never choosing a side. Asking with genuine hesitation in her voice, “is that going to happen to me?” When she witnesses girls her sisters age become ensorcelled with the mix of puberty and budding sexuality.
And finally, Gene lands squarely in the middle, unmotivated and eternally hungry with an innate knack for musical theater, at one point penning a musical about Topsy, an elephant that Thomas Edison killed while inventing electricity.
Children are not a static concept, but rapidly forming kinetic ideas of the self. Gene Belcher has an ever evolving language that he uses to describe himself, informed by the world as it impacts him. In “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” he references finding websites about transsexuals on the internet “I was only on that website for like a second” Gene protests, as I once did when I was discovered with crude websites featuring trans women in the browsing history of our home computer.
But by episode 303, “Bob Fires The Kids” – in a conversation with ex-con/future-carny Mickey – Gene says “we’re working girls now!” before yelling “say that to my vagina!” in response to Bob’s protestations. Gene learns, over the course of the show, to find ways to express a relationship to his gender that’s in flux, not tethered in one place but floating about in an endless sea of questions.
Bob and Linda both react to Gene’s many proclamations of womanhood throughout the show without exertion of control. Bob on occasion might try to tell Gene that he’s a boy, but when Gene pushes back he will always let the issue lay. There are no discussions of labels or context, but rather there is an open environment to discover, to proudly state “this is me now!” and be taken at your word.
It’s a detail — one of many — in the show that you could miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. If you’ve never felt your way through similar feelings you may not understand how it feels to have questions about the gender you were given and the gender you might prefer you had. Many of us who are experienced with asking questions of our own genders can spot our own and in Gene there’s a kinship.
Even in the life of Bob himself, we get to see a desire to grow beyond tired archetypes of the beleaguered dad. Bob, a man who loves nothing more than cooking a perfect turkey on Thanksgiving, returns multiple times to the meat section in episode 405 “Turkey In a Can.” He wants to buy new frozen birds, but his plans get waylaid by his own misadventures. By the third visit the clerk thinks he is wise to Bob’s gambit and proposes he and Bob run away together. Bob, in this moment is not flustered by the sexual energy of the man across the counter but just that he doesn’t think he’s good enough for the man leaping across the counter to sweep him away to a newer, gayer life together.
So much of the language around gender and sexuality in Bob’s Burgers is not laid on the table under categories or affixed with labels. The Belcher children are just that, kids figuring it out and not holding themselves back with language that doesn’t suit them. They’re working their own gender and sexuality out in the moment as it comes to them, the beauty of it is there is no desire to control the narrative. An authority figure never steps in to put a lid over this boiling pot, rather it’s left to simmer in the open and allow the ideas to stew and settle. Bob never announces his sexuality, but he doesn’t shy away from being propositioned by horny turkey vendors. He simply lives and loves as honestly as he is able.
The beauty of Bob’s world, the oasis of that run down burger joint on Oceans Avenue, is that these things don’t need to be said out loud. Some things don’t need to be pointedly entrenched in a language we can dissect, but rather they can be presented without discourse. Identities in Bob’s world can be thrown to the wind without care of seeing what comes back. The freedom lies in not needing to have an answer or understanding in the moment, but a space where everything and everyone can be explored without concern or reprisal or push back. In Bob’s Burgers we can all be free.
We wanted to revisit the legacy of Bob’s Burgers in light of the new Bob’s Burgers film release, now available on Hulu.
Yes all of this! I love that Bob’s Burgers is so resolutely non-judgemental and uninterested in labels or static identity. People just are what they are in that moment, and that’s okay. Also The Bleakening is possibly the best queer Christmas episode.
Yes to all of this. The song at the end of The Bleakening Part II (sung by Todrick Hall!) made me cry the first time I saw the episode in 2016.
This was an amazing article, loved it. Love how the show doesn’t put labels and doesn’t judge. One of my comfort shows
I really enjoyed reading this. I’ve been a fan of the show since episode 2 of the first season I think you really offered good insight. It really is a precious show to me. It is very heartwarming and inclusive. With the way the corporate world is now a lot of shows are ready to just throw a token character on there to provide “representation” but I feel the way Bob’s burgers does it is very genuine and you care about the characters and that they aren’t just checking a box.
As I started reading, I realized I didn’t want to stop. While the content was excellent, the writing was even more so. Really. We’ll done. As an academic writer, I appreciate the language you deploy to grab your reader’s attention. Taking notes. The Gene examination, by the way, was really interesting. Never thought about it like that. Even as a straight, white, cis guy, I can understand the nuances of the show’s portrayal of sex and gender as nothing to be pushed up front like liberal totems. I enjoy that about the show. But I always viewed Gene as a goofball kid who was meant to resemble his voice actor,Eugene Mirman more than anything else. However, you’ve made me rethink that. Again, great writing.
bobs burgers seasons 1-3 are great. i miss the humor in season one and grumpy bob but bobs burgers is amazing and i also wish i could escape into it!
This was such a great read Niko! Thank you!
This was an enjoyable read, thank you. I agree about seasons 1. I didn’t realize the movie was on Hulu now.
Love Gene’s gender exploration, thanks for the reminder 😊😊
Biggest agree!!! The biggest agree ever!!!
Love this article and this show. There is a 75% chance I have an episode of Bob’s playing when I’m home, because it’s comforting in the way reruns of the Simpsons were when I was a kid.
Good read, except one thing… in Sheesh Cab Bob, the circumstances and situation the three “Ladies” are in would be more apt to qualify them as “Drag Queens” or “Cross Dressers” as they seem to do this on the side for whatever reasons… so I believe the “Trans” moniker is a bit off. That is if the proper term is still “drag”. I haven’t heard of “Trans Shows” (seems a little negative), but I’ve seen drag shows still advertised around. Great article nonetheless, I just thought I’d share.
I don’t think I’ll ever have enough Bob’s Burgers in my life to satisfy my desire … So if you ever find that oasis, send me a postcard on how to get there!