I’ve been rewatching old episodes of Bob’s Burgers. In a lot of ways, the show could be considered the most sex-positive show on televison. Tina’s awkward budding sexuality gets talked about a lot on the Internet, and is certainly noteworthy. But while rewatching multiple episodes in a row recently, I found myself thinking more about Gene.
I’ve always loved Gene’s character for the sassy quotes which make the viewer wonder if he’ll grow up to be gay. Gene’s character gets wonderful one-liners like, “You don’t just throw away satin!!” in “A River Runs Through Bob.” Whether it’s secret spa days with Linda or dressing up in a sequin gown and wig to perform with the girl group he creates at school, Gene isn’t afraid to embrace his feminine (effeminate?) side.
But there are also plenty of times when Gene acts like a “normal” 11-year-old boy. Whether it’s recording fart noises on his electric keyboard, talking about poop, or eating the orange foam from Family Frackus, Gene is just as likely to be grossing out the family as being fabulous.
There was one sequence of dialogue in particular, however, which inspired more intensive reflection about Gene’s sexuality on my part. Here’s the excerpt from “Bob Fires the Kids”:
Gene: We’re working girls now! Deal with it!
Mickey: You’re a girl?
Gene: Yes, I am!
Bob: No, he’s not.
Gene: Tell that to my vagina!
“Tell that to my vagina,” Gene says. Now, some might write off a retort like that as just another example of Gene’s function as wacky comic relief in the show. But it got me thinking: rather than being gay, is it possible that Gene’s meant to be genderfluid? Some might say I’m reading too much into a cartoon series. But there are plenty of complex representations of sexuality in Bob’s Burgers. In addition to Tina’s obsessions with zombies and boy’s butts, Linda’s parents live at a retirement home for swingers, and the show represents the trans sex workers of the town in a positive light in the episode where Bob moonlights as a cabbie.
I touched briefly on genderfluidity in my column about Drew Johnson and the Gender Portraits series. For those unfamiliar with the term, here’s a definition from genderspectrum.org: “Gender fluidity conveys a wider, more flexible range of gender expression, with interests and behaviors that may even change from day to day. Gender fluid children do not feel confined by restrictive boundaries of stereotypical expectations of girls or boys. In other words, a child may feel they are a girl some days and a boy on others, or possibly feel that neither term describes them accurately.”
That definition seems to fit Gene, whose character mixes and matches gender and sexuality stereotypes at will. In “OT: The Outside Toilet,” for example, Gene’s maternal insticts mix with his love of toilets. In the episode, Gene’s class is doing a parenting exercise and he declares to the family, “I was born to be a mother.” Unable to properly care for his bag of flour in class, however, Gene instead cares for an expensive toilet abandoned in the woods. Gene would rather be a mother than a father, but has a love of toilets our culture would not typically ascribe to conventional motherhood.
Some days, Gene’s behavior is stereotypically masculine. Other days it’s more feminine. Sometimes Gene is sassy like a gay best friend, but at other times, it seems he truly feels he is a girl. But Gene certainly doesn’t always feel that way. In “The Belchies,” Linda gives Bob a “penis pill” (i.e. Viagra) for their sex night. Here’s an exchange from that episode:
Linda (to Bob): Is your penis all right?
Bob: It’s fine.
Gene: Mine’s a nightmare, if anyone’s wondering.
In one episode, Gene references having a vagina. In another, a penis. Is he just trying to be funny? Possibly. But instead, what if we took for granted that he really feels that way? It’s a subtle dynamic – I only noticed these moments of juxtaposition the second time through. In some ways, that’s what is so beautiful about this show. Gene is free to express whatever he feels in the moment, and the viewer doesn’t get the sense that he’s teased in school. It’s also well established that the Belcher family accepts the unique quirks of all their children. Bob may deny that Gene’s a girl to others, but he doesn’t shame him, and we know Gene has the opportunity to do mother-daughter bonding with Linda.
Our culture teaches us that gender is a binary, but not everyone experiences it that way. Not everyone feels male OR female – some are both simultaneously, or neither. Returning to Sam Killermann’s Genderbread Person both Gender Identity and Gender Expression can be viewed not as an either/or, or even as a spectrum, but as two simultaneous spectrums. A tomboy might feel high on the “Woman-ness” scale of Gender Identity and in the middle of “Man-ness,” while also feeling high on the “Masculine” scale of Gender Expression. An androgynous person might be somewhere in the middle on all the scales. A genderfluid person might feel turned all the way up on all the scales, switching between gender identities and expressions from day to day or even within the same day.
This concept might feel confusing for someone who feels firmly within the boundaries of the gender they were assigned at birth to understand. But even the gender expression of a cisgender individual fluctuates from day to day. The most preppy popular girl in high school, for example, might occasionally wear a t-shirt and sweatpants. A butch lesbian might decide to wear pink.
Individuals who ultimately come out as transgender and choose to medically and/or socially transition most often feel gender dysphoria (conflict between one’s assigned gender at birth and the gender one experiences internally) regularly or even constantly. But a genderfluid individual might only feel dysphoria intermittently, or not at all. Like Gene, such a person might feel like a girl one day, and a boy the next. Gender expression is also not an indication of gender identity, but can be one way a genderfluid person might express the the fluidity of their gender to those around them.
Whether or not the writers of Bob’s Burgers mean Gene’s character to be genderfluid, it’s possible to read the queer subtext of the show that way. It’s encouraging to me that there’s now room on television for more flexible and realistic depictions of the ways different kinds of people experience and choose to express their gender. So the next time someone tells you they’re a girl, believe them – regardless of what they look like, or what they might have said in the past. Sometimes, you’ve just got to go with the flow.
This article was originally published by The Horn on 07/09/2014.
This version of the article text has been updated as of 2020 to more closely reflect current terminology and understanding of gender.