Review: Bob’s Burgers

2011 January 10

Last night I decided to watch the pilot episode of the newest animated series in Fox’s Sunday night line-up, Bob’s Burgers. The series is produced by Kimberly Smith, which told me nothing, because up until this point Smith has mostly worked on children’s shows, which these days I only watch if they are especially good or about dinosaurs. The fact that the show would air on Fox was no more helpful; this is the network that gave us Futurama, which I love (or loved—the episodes that have aired since the move to Comedy Central have left a lot to desire), and Family Guy, which I disdain. Thus I went into Bob’s Burgers ready to experience one of either end of the passion continuum.

Bob’s Burgers is about the misadventures the titular character’s nuclear family has while running a burger joint called Top Notch. No—you got me—it’s called Bob’s Burgers. The other family members are Bob’s wife, Linda, and his three children, Gene, Louise, and Tina. Though it is by no means a great indicator of sexism or the lack thereof, I always like to look at how closely a show approaches gender parity. Bob’s Burgers throws me for a loop by having men provide the voices of Linda and Tina. Even if I did not care about feminism, I would question this odd casting choice. Kristen Schaal, whom I first became acquainted with in Flight of the Conchords, provides the voice of Louise, and she gave the stand-out performance of the first episode. Why wouldn’t the makers want to give other women an opportunity to breathe life into the family at the focus of the series?

Some viewers, if they did not determine that the show was sexist upon noting its casting choices, might have reached their conclusion about a minute in, when Tina discloses that she has a crotch itch. I have not yet figured out if this offends me as a feminist, but I will say it was annoying as a running gag. The introduction of the plots was hardly more promising. The A plot concerns the fallout of a rumor that Bob’s Burgers uses human meat from the mortuary next door. In the B plot Bob is feeling inadequate as a husband, because Ricky forgot Lucy’s anniversary—no, wait, Bob forgot Linda’s anniversary. The plots are linked together when Hugo, a health inspector who dated Linda before she and Bob were married, capitalizes on the situation by requiring Bob’s Burgers to display a sign saying that the burgers may contain human meat.

Lest you come away from this review thinking that I have taste, I found the cannibalism allegation to the be funniest element of the episode. I smiled when it became apparent that Louise was the one who started the rumor, even if the smile faded when a flashback told me what I already knew. Was the show trying to tap humor from repetition, or was it condescending to me? I smiled again during the plots’ resolution, when Hugo relents and decides to give Bob’s Burgers a clean bill of health only to have Bob shush him, because he has found clients that want to try human meat for fifty dollars a burger. Unfortunately for the show, capping each end of a plot with funny moments does not make it any more interesting.

I was not at all impressed with the show’s other attempts at edgy humor. When Bob leaves Louise to run the store, she changes the sign to announce that the burger of the day is “the Child Molestor”. In another scene the writers try to generate laughs by having Gene and Louise taunt Tina with the suggestion that she is autistic. I did not notice any homophobic content, but if the pilot is an indication, the series will offer plenty to offend viewers concerned about social justice all the same.

As for the characters, Linda, Gene, and Tina are mostly forgettable (or perhaps I would just like to forget Tina’s contribution to the episode). If there is any hope for the series, it lies in Louise and her relationship with Bob. Louise is easily the most intriguing character—and not just because we never see her without her pink bunny-eared hat. She pulls shenanigans in territory where Bart Simpson fears to tread. Unlike Bart, however, she has a father who instead of responding by strangling her gives the most understated responses imaginable. Of course, making her more central to the plot could lead to other problems. This character needs to remain an enigma to work, and too many unvaried responses from her father would be dreadful. I do not envy the writers who will be doing the tight-rope walk required to keep the show fresh.

Of course, the above presupposes that the show can be kept fresh. Personally, I found Bob’s Burgers to be rank after the first viewing. And even in the absence of the humor I found offensive I have little incentive to watch a show that never made me laugh and only made me smile twice. Bob’s Burgers falls far short of the heights that sitcomes like Arrested Development soared to on the same network. If I know Fox, this is a sign that Bob’s Burgers will be around for a long time to come.

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Review: Dinosaur Train

2010 October 12

I recently started watching the PBS series Dinosaur Train on a somewhat regular basis. The show is obviously aimed at a younger demographic, but I was drawn to it, because, well, dinosaurs are awesome, and when was the last time a show all about dinosaurs aired almost daily? Of course once I started to watch the series I noticed sexism, some of it subtle and some of it not so subtle. Because I wanted to be sure that the subtle sexism wasn’t all in my head, I thought I’d analyze five episodes to see if my suspicions about the show’s trends were confirmed.

The show focuses on the family of Buddy, a young tyrannosaurus rex. The rest of Buddy’s family is made up of pteranodons—Mom, Dad, Tiny, Shiny, and Don. In a typical cartoon members of the Pteranodon family take the Dinosaur Train to meet other animals from the Mesozoic era. While on the train, a troodon called Mr. Conductor tells the family members all about the animals they’ll be meeting. At some point Buddy will say, “I have a hypothesis!” After each cartoon Dr. Scott, a paleontologist, interacts with children, and he expands on what they might have learned from the cartoon. During the Dr. Scott segments there is often a man who suddenly bursts through a door to make an announcement that begins with, “Point of fact,” and usually ends with a denial of one of the obviously fanciful elements of the show, such as, “Therizinosaurus did not practice the martial arts.” (Yes, martial arts. I’ll say more on this later.) Each episode consists of two cartoons and therefore two Dr. Scott segments.

Though it isn’t of much social consequence, there is something I see in every episode that bugs me: In the introduction a song recounts Mrs. Pteranodon’s experience of finding Buddy in her nest. According to the lyrics she explains why Buddy belongs in the family by saying, “You may be different, but we’re all creatures. / All dinosaurs have different features.” Pteranodons aren’t dinosaurs, dammit. Now I know there’s been at least one cartoon in which a character says that pteranodons aren’t dinosaurs, but when it’s insinuated at the beginning of each episode, it’s bound to create confusion.

With that out of the way I can get on with the meat of my review (which is available for everyone’s digestion, not just carnivores’): Even after casually watching a few episodes a few problems become immediately apparent. Though the show seems to offer something approaching gender parity—the Pteranodon family has an equal number of males and females, and there are a lot of girls represented among the children Dr. Scott interacts with—it is nevertheless male-dominated. Buddy is obviously the main character of the series, not only because t-rexes are more recognizable than pteranodons but also because he is the only character who always takes the dinosaur train. (This contributes to a problem with the PBS Kids block: When different characters appear during station breaks or on the web site to represent different series, there are often no girls among them.) Mr. Conductor, Dr. Scott, and the Point of Fact guy are also all males/men. Though the show welcomes girls to enjoy dinosaurs, it sends the message that it’s mainly boys who get to hypothesize and speak about them authoritatively.

Upon closer examination the show reinforces gender roles in other ways. In the episodes I watched Mom alone took the kids out in four cartoons, Dad alone takes them out in two, and Mom and Dad take them out together in one. (The other three cartoons did not have Pteranodon family members leaving the nest.) Dad only went out when he got to play the role of the great outdoorsman, as when he took the children out to go fishing and look for dinosaur tracks. On the other hand Mom’s primary motivation seemed to be that she was always eager to please the children. The one exception is when she has the opportunity to get the autograph of a cryolophosaurus patterned after Elvis Presley. It’s hard to see how the writers might justify this. I don’t know what the current scientific consensus is on pteranodons’ child-rearing tendencies, but this scarcely matters. The series already makes a number of departures from reality in an attempt to appropriately socialize children (I always have a very hard time suspending my disbelief when Buddy nonchalantly tells a herbivore that he eats meat and the herbivore doesn’t show a hint of fear). Why can’t we have more females/women actively involved in learning and teaching about biology?

The cartoon I found to be the most irritating was the therizinosaurus cartoon and not just because Mom’s expression of support was so over the top. (Mom is in the background, silent and motionless until one of the kids suggests to Buddy that they visit the therizinosaurus family “today”, and Mom suddenly leaps into action to say what a good idea it is.) Throughout the episode traditional Chinese music plays, and the viewer finds that the therizinosaurus family practices a martial art that looks like Tai Chi Chuan. Why? Well, often in the series a dinosaur will have attributes associated with the people who currently live in the land it was discovered in. For example, Archaeopteryx was discovered in Germany, and Arlene Archaeopteryx has a German accent. The therizinosaurus practice a Chinese martial art and are accompanied by Chinese music, so where was therizinosaurus discovered? That’s right, Mongolia. Wait, what? Yes, apparently the show’s writers find Chinese culture and Mongolian culture to be entirely interchangeable. I must confess that I was blindsided by this racism, which probably says more about my white privilege than the likelihood of its inclusion.

If it weren’t for the therizinosaurus cartoon, I’d be a lot quicker to endorse Dinosaur Train. There aren’t enough shows that teach children about a subject they’re already enthusiastic about. To the extent that gender parity is present in the episodes, it’s encouraging. Though the females of the series aren’t very well developed, the same is true of the males. I suppose some adults would gag on the simplicity and cutesiness of the cartoons, but I for one appreciate the occasional escape from heavy topics. I just wish there were less sexism and racism in the series; I prefer that my escapes be not so short-lived.


Why the Uproar Leaves Me Feeling Only Cold

2010 September 24

What should we do when people in the mainstream media spend inordinate amounts of time talking about parts of a woman’s anatomy? Should we refrain from pointing out the sexism at the root of the focus? Or should we call the responsible parties out on their sexism, knowing that it will pique the curiosity of some readers who might not have otherwise heard about the ordeal? I’ve decided that the latter is the lesser of the two evils, but if you don’t want to read further, I certainly don’t blame you.

If you haven’t heard yet, a music video featuring Katy Perry and Elmo from Sesame Street was released to YouTube, and Perry’s cleavage is visible in the video. In the wake of this conservative parents in the US have howled words of protest, and entertainment news reporters (I’m looking at you, Access Hollywood) have engaged in the sort of snickering I grew out of before I entered my freshman year of high school. And, yes, I did say that this is conservative outcry. No, I will not be silenced by people shrieking, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” There were breasts, and they were jiggling. That’s what happens to breasts when people who have them run, and it doesn’t take a physicist to explain why they move that way. There is nothing inherently erotic about this. Despite what patriarchal culture tells us it is not the case that we cover breasts because they are erotic. Rather, breasts are erotic because we cover them. In some societies women routinely go topless, and people don’t find them especially arousing. In other societies people blush when they see a woman in a sleeveless shirt, because they’re not used to seeing bare arms. If sensible people were interested in keeping erotic images of breasts from appearing on television, encouraging Katy Perry to keep her breasts covered would be the last thing they would do.

Yes, I’m sure there are people who eroticize Perry’s breasts in the video. But there are people who eroticize everything. Parents, if your kids are prepubescent, they’re not going to be all that interested in Perry’s cleavage. And if they are pubescent and wired to like women, there aren’t enough layers of clothing that will keep them from becoming aroused. In fact, when I hit puberty one of my first vivid sex dreams was about a woman who appeared regularly on Sesame Street. (Talk about the day my childhood died; the street just wasn’t the same after that.) It had nothing to do with the way she dressed—she always dressed conservatively, if my memory serves correctly—and probably the most titillating thing she ever did was announce that the day’s episode was brought by the letter O. But my newly hormone-infused body responded all the same, because I was a healthy, young queer girl.

Katy PerryAs much as the uproar angers me as a woman, it absolutely infuriates me as a queer person. Why? Well, it wasn’t too long ago that Katy Perry appeared in another music video. In this video she showed a lot more skin, and one of the aims of the video really was to titillate the audience. I’m talking of course about the music video for “I Kissed a Girl”. Was there outcry then? Well, actually there was, and it came from the queer community. The video features a woman (Perry) who is presumably straight, singing about trying on same-gender intimacy for her own temporary gratification. In other words she plays the trope of temporary lesbianism entirely straight (no pun intended), abjectly failing to respect the many women for whom same-gender attraction is not a choice. Were children hurt by this? Well, the target demographic of music videos is adolescent youth, and as someone who was once a queer girl, I imagine this depiction of girls’ kissing would have left me wondering if the first girl I kissed would be using me as a disposable means of pleasure. Even if we set aside the fact that some of the fathers who now complain were all too happy to see Perry gyrate to music and sing about kissing girls—even if we set aside the fact that some of the mothers who now complain were all too happy to imitate Perry and try on lesbianism to make the men in their life horny—the current outrage is infuriating, because our society, dominated as it is by straight men, has given Perry a free pass until now. If the mainstream media is our guide, when the potential injured parties are queer youth and the people who object are also queer, it doesn’t deserve nearly as much attention.

So what do I think of Perry? I understand that our sexist society holds women in entertainment to a double standard and expects them to appeal to men in a way men are never expected to appeal to women. But it’s not like her producer was putting a gun to her head, so I don’t think she can be excused for her role in exoticizing queer women in the “I Kissed a Girl” video. Even so, none of this excuses the attention the same sexist society is now giving her and her body—not the least bit. As I can’t emphasize enough, it’s awful that I should feel the need to address this topic at all. Really can anyone honestly tell me that one one third of a cis man‘s breasts has never been visible during children’s programming?


Where Are the Trans Queer Women?

2010 September 13

Mainstream entertainment almost never depicts trans women who are unambiguously queer. A work might present a woman who begins transition while already married to a cis woman, but if anything is said about preferences, it will be that the two women have a love that transcends sexual orientation. After all, this is a message that will be more palatable to cis straight audiences. The only movie I know of that has a trans queer woman as a fictional character is Better than Chocolate, an independent film.

Why don’t we see more trans queer women in the media? I think we find the answer when we consider a couple of tropes that are common in our day. I’ll call the first Lesbians as Straight Men’s Fetish. This is pretty straightforward. If lesbianism is depicted, it is as a service to straight men. It is often the case that within a production there will be a man watching, acting as the surrogate viewer. And in an obvious case of fantasy wish fulfillment the lesbianism is temporary or superficial so that men in the audience can see lesbians who end up in committed relationships with men. (The possibility that the characters are bisexual women is never explored.) Lesbians in the media are prime examples of fetishization—objects of desire that exist for people who have absolutely no regard for the desires of the objects.

I’ll call the second trope Trans Women as Inauthentic. As many before me have pointed out, trans women are often depicted as stealthy deceivers or as comic want-to-be women. If a trans woman easily “passes”, it is because she is trying to trick a man. (In horrifying examples of life imitating art some cis straight men have killed their trans lovers and escaped murder charges by claiming that they’d been duped.) On the other hand if a trans woman is harmless, the production team will play up her masculinity or maleness in an attempt to get laughs. Because, you know, failing to blend with cis women in a society where trans women are singled out for violence is comedy gold. One way or another movies and television must say that trans women aren’t real women.

Trans queer women can’t be depicted in popular culture, because we challenge the heterosexism and the cissexism that are so deeply ingrained in our society. The target audience simply would not react the same way if a trans woman duped a queer woman or failed miserably at convincing a queer woman of her womanhood. Even if it did, presenting a woman as a deceiver or a failure would undermine attempts at titillation. If the mainstream media depicted trans queer women, something would break.

But this is not a lamentation, it is an exhortation. Let’s break things. Let’s create representations of trans queer women and put them where they can’t be ignored. Of course care should be taken when depicting trans queer women, just as it should be taken when depicting all members of oppressed groups. We don’t want to substitute new harmful tropes for the old harmful tropes. But I don’t think the possibility of getting things wrong should deter us from trying something that could go wonderfully right. For far too long we’ve been letting cissexist, heterosexist institutions tell us how to view trans women and queer women. Now is the time for us to stop viewing worlds we can’t relate to and start making a better world.