Netflix’s New Animated Series ‘Tuca And Bertie’ Is Kind Of A Big Deal
Rarely has an animated show had women as the main protagonists.
What a time to be a woman in the world who loves to sit in front of the TV and watch it.
In the last decade, we’ve had Girls and Broad City tease out the awkward realities of a woman’s twenties (albeit a white-washed version), teasing out the mundanities of this bizarre period of one’s life.
We’ve also met dynamic, multifaceted women and girls in animated shows: BoJack Horseman’s #girlboss Princess Carolyn, the unapologetic Belcher weirdos on Bob’s Burgers, and Big Mouth’s tween Missy Foreman-Greenwald — who’s a straight-A nerd on the outside, and a glow-worm-humping, Nathan Fillion-loving burgeoning hornbag deep down.
But rarely has an animated show had women as the main protagonists — rather, they share the spotlight with men, or are supporting characters.
Just as critically, behind the scenes in animation, women have largely until now only been co-creators — the groundbreaking Daria was created after MTV requested a “show for girls”, and even then one of its creators was a man.
That’s why, despite it perhaps seeming like something we’ve seen before, Netflix’s new animated series, Tuca and Bertie, is kind of a big deal.
watched all of tuca and Bertie last night. look at this powerful image pic.twitter.com/9Otv5ajehT
— bimbo casey frey (@ponyboybysophie) May 7, 2019
The comparisons to BoJack Horseman are unavoidable — Tuca and Bertie is the brainchild of Lisa Hanawalt, the designer for the sad horse show. It’s very much its own beast, though — Hanawalt has full creative control here, and has gone wild, propelling us into a chaotic technicolour world where plants are sentient, mobile phones come alive and berate you for ignoring texts, buildings have boobs and sound effects are physical objects.
Think Rocko’s Modern Life blended with comic book style (the creator’s background is in graphic novel) — it’s unabashedly garish and in-your-face, marrying bright colours with a pounding soundtrack and all the clever blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight gags Hanawalt does so well.
At first it feels overwhelming, but once you settle in, it’s a glorious ride.
What’s It About?
Living in the NYC-like Birdtown, BFFs and former housemates Tuca and Bertie are both 30 — Bertie a former data analyst for Conde Nest (very good), who’s moving in with her boyfriend, Tuca a recovering alcoholic who’s unemployed, single and insecure, despite her flamboyant personality.
The friends experience anxiety about jobs, home ownership, dating, trauma — and they move through the world together, holding each other close through the whirlwind, even when it causes conflict between them.
The comparisons to Broad City are also unavoidable — the similarities to Abbi and Ilana are easy to draw — but it’s a disservice to see Tuca and Bertie as simply derivative, when it has so many original things to offer about the experience of womanhood.
— Lisa Hanawalt (@lisadraws) May 8, 2019
After all, we rarely hear anyone complain about the same stories being made from the same pale, male and stale perspective, there’s room for multiple tellings of women’s stories as, with all the commonalities they share, no two are exactly the same.
Tuca and Bertie feels wonderfully inclusive: a woman who’s now married to another woman is mentioned casually as having an ex-husband; a subplot where Tuca engages in sex work is portrayed non-judgmentally as just another job she undertakes in her personal microcosm of the gig economy.
To see all of this represented as everyday is quietly revolutionary.
I finally finished Tuca and Bertie and wow, that show is brilliant and weird in every way.
— Simone de Rochefort (@doomquasar) May 16, 2019
A Quiet Revolution
What’s interesting, too, is that Tuca and Bertie’s voice cast is largely made up of people of colour.
The two leads are voiced by comedy stars Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong respectively, and Bertie’s boyfriend Speckle is voiced by The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun.
One repeated criticism of BoJack is that its entire cast is white (creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg copped to this on Twitter early last year), and its only visibly non-white character, Diane Nguyen, is voiced by the very white Alison Brie.
So, to have an almost entirely non-white cast is a huge feat, though it also raises curious questions, as race almost seems irrelevant in this universe, despite obvious coding in some characters (similarly Bob-Waksberg told Junkee in 2017 that BoJack’s world doesn’t really touch on race, but acknowledged the complexities that raises in itself).
Still, it’s a major step forward in representation both on- and off-screen, and future seasons may see further exploration or explanation of the role race plays in Birdtown.
Just finished Tuca and Bertie and I can say for sure that this is the best shot from the entire show pic.twitter.com/dVEotr0w3b
— Jovithor (@John_Vithor) May 14, 2019
It Looks Great!
Hanawalt’s creative use of animation and storytelling techniques, played out within the flexible bounds of her surrealist world, lend great depth to the narratives explored through the show.
Take, for example, Bertie’s body’s response to being sexually harassed at work — her left breast, voiced by Awkwafina, decides it’s had enough and simply walks off her body to have a wine and night off.
Memories are illustrated through methods like yarn animation, claymation and simple sketches, taking the style of some of BoJack’s most stunning creative moments and making them a more common fixture of the show.
dying @ this joke from tuca and bertie omg pic.twitter.com/ePE0WAz1rI
— marie lum 🍞 林梅方 (@PuccaNoodles) May 8, 2019
A particularly beautiful and affecting moment occurs in the season’s penultimate episode, where Bertie reaches into the past and has a healing moment with her 12-year-old self, rendered heartbreakingly through simple yet potent surrealist imagery.
All of this manages to be done while the show delivers laugh-out-loud jokes at breakneck speed, as well as highlighting some of the ways in which women can be gloriously grotesque (one episode sees Tuca’s STIs become corporeal and sentient when she tries to self-treat).
“I don’t just want women who already agree with me to watch it. I don’t want to just preach to the choir. I want men to get comfortable with the idea of women being funny and gross,” Hanawalt told the Hollywood Reporter.
#TucaandBertie is a silly, sincere, and heartfelt show! I’m so happy to see animation with stories focused on women. I highly recommend it, please go watch and support this amazing show 🐤 pic.twitter.com/nLhCXqPD6a
— Christine Liu (@absoliutely) May 9, 2019
The criticism from unimpressed male viewers has, of course, rolled in.
The show is dumb. It’s not as deep as BoJack. It’s frivolous. It shits on straight white men, when not all of us are like that. It plays laughs for cheap. It builds on stereotypes. God, can chicks just stop talking about #metoo already?
To that I say, the world needs more imperfect but well-intentioned female characters on-screen.
We need more representation of the anxieties of existence in the weird, murky waters that are your thirties when you haven’t got a partner, or a mortgage, or kids, or a 9-5 job. Or when you do, and realise you’re desperately unhappy despite ticking all of society’s boxes on How To Be Successful.
finished Tuca and Bertie, what a fantastic show, it's joyful and hilarious and also not afraid to be unflinchingly emotional and real, so good
— SungWon Cho (@ProZD) May 13, 2019
We need to see women learning how to wield power and occupy space in the world (one storyline sees Bertie join a feminist collective literally called Women Taking Up Space), finding their voices and supporting each other. We need depictions of friends fighting in a messy, real way, and how to come out the other side stronger, more empathetic and willing to forgive.
Crucially, we absolutely need men to feel uncomfortable when they are confronted with stories of how, whether intentioned or not, their power can affect, demean and traumatise women –and we need them to use that discomfort to commit to undoing their part in patriarchal systems that harm everyone.
— Strong Black Lead (@strongblacklead) May 10, 2019
You Should Watch Tuca And Bertie
Tuca and Bertie succeeds because it’s all of these things, but it’s also just really bloody funny.
Sure, it’s not nihilistic like BoJack, but that’s hardly a fault — at its heart, it sings with the optimism that women have been conditioned to deny ourselves.
Even through all the shit thrown at us by the world, we can move through it together with grace, wit and friendship, and to see our lives and experiences reflected through fresh new shows like this — through the woman’s own gaze — feels like a gift every time.
And if the dudebros don’t like it — don’t worry, I hear there’s a new Rick and Morty season coming out later this year.
Tuca And Bertie is currently available on Netflix.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Melbourne-based writer and bookseller.