The media has an agenda. Well, not just “the” media. All media. For the sake of this article, let’s say entertainment media, specifically. It communicates information, filtered through the creator, who is bound to have a unique perspective. So all media has ideology. Messages about the world we live in are an inseparable element. Even if it’s communicated poorly, (or maybe worse: unintentionally) messages are there.
The socially progressive messages, or lack thereof, in media are a frequent topic of discussion in pop culture. The conversation often centers around the clearly legible social messages communicated in stories: messages that present themselves as the “moral of the story.”
The animated TV show Bob’s Burgers is admirable in its ability to casually subvert social norms. It gets a lot of (much deserved) recognition for its socially progressive messages. It touts body positivity, sexual agency, gender fluidity, etc., all in a positive light, and impressively weaves these ideas into the story with little fanfare. They manifest in a very matter-of-fact “no duh, who cares” way. It’s refreshing compared to the self-congratulatory (and often self contradicting) progressive messages in media. Shows like Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, and Glee spell out their heartfelt moral of the story. (They often do this while simultaneously making sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes, relying heavily on stereotypes they are attempting to subvert.) Bob’s Burgers doesn’t make these social issues the moral of the story, or even make a plot point of them. They just comes through in how the characters treat one another and react to the world.
The antagonists in Bob’s Burgers aren’t typically manifestations of ideological opponents. In Glee the cruel cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) often embodies this role. In Home (season 01, episode 16) Sue demands that Mercedes (Amber Riley), a new cheerleader on the team, lose ten pounds in one week. It’s an obviously dangerous request, and a transparent commentary about how thin bodies are valued over thicker ones. Mercedes is pressured into extreme dieting and eventually faints in school. A peer tells her that she is beautiful as she is, and Mercedes sings the Christina Aguilera song “Beautiful.” It’s not a bad message, but it is an obvious one and it’s not particularly graceful storytelling.
Bob’s Burgers’ messages about body acceptance are in the same spirit, but they play out differently. In “Nude Beach” (Season 3 Episode 11) the villain isn’t a fatphobic bully. The A-story isn’t even about body image. It’s a goofier Saturday-morning-cartoon type plot. Hugo the Health Inspector, one of Bob’s many enemies, quits his job when he discovers new love for being nude with other nudists. However his replacement, Tommy Jaronda, also torments Bob and proves to be worse. Bob must get Hugo back into the health inspecting game. There are no messages about body image in the primary conflict. Unlike in Glee there isn’t one party who represents the “good” idea and the opposing party the “bad.” Instead the story sets up an environment where characters can be comfortable in their bodies of varying shapes and sizes.
When first visiting the nude beach Linda and her friend Gretchen (drawn as a fat woman) brazenly takes off their tops before they even arrive. Linda and Gretchen are comfortable seeing each others bodies, and being nude in a casual, unsexual environment. When strutting down the beach they have a comically blasé conversation about Gretchen’s pubic hair, “I don’t know, it started out to be a triangle but then I had to do it myself, and I don’t know, it’s like a flower or something. Check out the hot guys in the drum circle.” It’s rare that the particulars of pubic grooming get discussed in an un-scandalous, unremarkable way. Linda seems a little taken aback by Gretchen’s boldness at first, but she’s not judgemental. After the initial surprise Linda is onboard and pretty immediately accepts Gretchen. In the previous quote the “hot guys” Gretchen refers to have varied bodies, some with pot bellies and fat rolls. The message is clear- all bodies are fine and good, and nothing to be ashamed of. Body positivity isn’t the point of the episode, it’s just a part of the episode.
The B-plot does address body image more explicitly. The Belcher children set up a telescope on a hill overlooking the nude beach and decide to start a business charging other kids to peep. At first their teenage boy customers are grossed out by modest “old people” bodies they see. Louise, schemer and dreamer that she is persuades them to think differently, “You wanna see nice bodies? Get a magazine. This is real, people.” The customers quickly come around to her perspective. It’s only about halfway through the episode but that’s kinda the end of that storyline. For the rest of the episode the kids spy on the nude beach gleefully and watch the A-storyline unfold from afar. The teenage boys look at wrinkly butts and the Belcher kids get lots of cash. Though their desire to spy on people without their knowing is questionable, it does imply that bodies of all kinds are worthy of their gaze. It makes it less odious that their gaze isn’t sexual voyeurism, but something closer to innocuous curiosity. (They are children, after all). This continues the idea that naked bodies aren’t inherently sexual, a clear message in the A-plot as well.
While I personally happen to agree with most of the messages embedded in Bob’s Burgers, that’s not what I want to praise (at least, not in this article), but rather the method the show uses to deliver these messages. Glee turns its message into a binary conflict. It’s less authentic, because in reality rarely do our social beliefs manifest in clear cut black and white situations. Bob’s Burgers message doesn’t always need to prove itself as righteous. It just is. Instead of having a hero learn to love themselves despite the villain’s challenge, the characters just do love themselves, and other characters support that.