On January 9, 2011, FOX aired the premiere episode of their newest animated comedy. Created by Loren Bouchard, Bob's Burgers wasn't exactly a ratings smash right out of the gate, but over time, more and more people gravitated to the often deadpan family comedy about a burger-joint proprietor and his family who live in the apartment upstairs. Nearly a decade later, the show is celebrating its 200th episode this Sunday, making it only the fifth primetime animated series to reach such a milestone (after The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, and King of the Hill).
But for all of its considerable accomplishments as a long-running sitcom, it's clear what the most enduring pop-cultural achievement of Bob's Burgers is, and that's the character of Tina Belcher. The eldest of the three Belcher children, Tina's flat affect, roiling teenage emotions, tendency towards panic, and infatuation with butts has made her not only the show's most iconic character, but also an avatar for the awkward teenage girl inside us all.
At first glance, Tina is an incredibly unlikely choice for a breakout character. For one thing, she's has a lot of intra-familial competition. There's patriarch and title character Bob (H. Jon Benjamin), his perpetually enthusiastic wife Linda (John Roberts), hyper-weird Gene (Eugene Mirman), and hard-nosed, bunny-eared Louise (Kristen Schaal), each with their own strong personalities and big comedy potential. By comparison, Tina (voiced by the phenomally low-key Dan Mintz) would seem to be the least excitable Belcher by far. But that just belies an inferno of teen emotion inside her, one that burns brightly for boys in general (and Jimmy Pesto Jr. in particular), fan fiction, boy bands, and horse dolls, among many other things. Tina's the eye of the storm in the Belcher family, but that stillness only disguises the storm to come.
Bob's Burgers producers figured out early on that Tina's strength was in her burgeoning horniness. Early episodes centered on Tina's crush on Jimmy Jr., her being a menace to the boys' gym class by peeping in on them and her "erotic friend fiction." Whereas The Simpsons made Lisa Simpson an icon for her beyond-her-years social and political awareness, Bob's Burgers burrowed deep within Tina's psyche and confronted the kinds of insecurities so many teens feel when they're first discovering their sexuality. Tina Belcher may well be the horniest character on network television, but she's presented as a sweet, unthreatening, cripplingly romantic girl. She's altogether typical of early teen emotions, while at the same time being the most blessedly strange creature on earth.
If nothing else, Tina Belcher is absolutely of her time. If the teen heroines of the 1990s were all about preternatural confidence — Cher in Clueless, Tracy Flick in Election, Buffy the Vampire Slayer — then relatable awkwardness is the vibe of the 21st century. Hell, there was a show on MTV called Awkward, not to mention more recent examples like the film Eighth Grade or the Hulu series PEN15. Tina is the absolute apex of 21st century teen girl awkwardness in cartoon form. She embraces it, often weaponizes it, and consistently transforms it from debilitating into this kind of rad celebration of uncontrolled horny discombobulation.
You can't throw a stone online without encountering a Tina Belcher meme or a listicle about her greatest moments. This is why, as the years have gone on, Tina has become a legit icon and a merchandising dynamo. Not since the early days of Bart Simpson has an animated character been so celebrated for their visage and/or catchphrases. Tina's face — often just her silhouette, featuring her signature baretted bob and glasses — adorns countless mugs, pins, wall hangings, and increasingly, face masks. Take a trip to Etsy some time and check out how Tina-fied everything is. Odds are you'll be able to find just about anything with Tina emblazoned across it, along with her declaration: "I'm a smart, strong, sensual woman."
If there's one area where the Tina Belcher phenomenon has made itself most pronounced, it's in the field of butts. Tina Belcher loves butts, and the part in all of us that loves butts loves Tina for loving butts. Whether it's Jimmy Jr.'s butt pulling her back in, Godfather Part III-style, or Tina bragging about her photographic butt memory, she is all over the butt appreciation. In an era where so many flavors of horniness seem either gross or problematic, an unassuming teenage girl being utterly obsessed with butts feels like the kind of safe harbor we can all happily steer our sweet keisters towards.
All of which is to say thank you, Bob's Burgers, for the gift of 200 episodes' worth of Tina Belcher. She's the deadpan butt enthusiast inside us all, and we love her for it.
The 200th Episode of Bob's Burgers airs on FOX November 15 at 9:00 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.