Tuca and Bertie Embraces The Complexity of Women’s Trauma and Healing

The new Netflix Original, Tuca and Bertie, takes place in a pastel-colored world that follows little to no rules. In fact, the setting of Tuca and Bertie is best described as a good kind of weird; everything from roses to dogs to humans coexist as equally personified characters. At the heart of the show are two bird women, Tuca voiced by Tiffany Haddish and Bertie voiced by Ali Wong. As season one unfolds, we watch them navigate their evolving friendship, workplace harassment, mental illnesses, trauma, and more. The show’s unique animation style allows for an artistic expression of emotional hardships that is arguably unmatched using live acting. Tuca and Bertie is able to animate the emotional waves that accompany women’s trauma and mental illness, and they do it in a uniquely healing way. The show’s ability to animate complex emotions is fully realized in the second episode when Bertie is sexually harassed at work.

Bertie’s left boob needs a f*cking drink:

Dirk, a rooster that works with Bertie at Conde Nest, takes up way too much space in meetings and even steals Bertie’s ideas. After Bertie tries with little success to assert herself and ask for a promotion, Dirk makes a comment about her boobs. In this moment, Bertie freezes up, but her left boob comes to life. It jumps off her body leaving a boob-sized hole in her chest. Bertie’s boob, voiced by Awkwafina, is “done with this shit” and stomps off to go get a drink, taking with it the anger Bertie is unable to outwardly express.

When Bertie comes home to Tuca and her boyfriend, Speckle, she continues to repress her emotions. The truth comes out, however, when Bertie’s drunk boob strolls in late, plops on the couch next to Tuca, and expresses the anger Bertie is feeling. Together both Bertie and her boob are able to represent the complex emotional reality of being harassed. Part of Bertie–the part she is acting on–feels humiliated and remains silent. Another part of Bertie–personified through her left boob–is angry and wants to escape her masculine, corporate work environment.

Tuca’s mom was crafty:

In episode five, the show once again uses its unique animation style when Tuca describes her mother’s death. Reminiscing fondly about her childhood, Tuca explains her mother raised five kids by herself, so she “didn’t have a lot growing up”. Despite the lack of material wealth, Tuca’s mother was “crafty” and filled their home with love. In this moment, the animation style changes and we enter Tuca’s childhood memory made entirely of craft material. Popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners make up Tuca’s childhood home, while her family is made up of string. When Tuca describes her family “falling apart” after her mother’s death, the craft material also falls apart. First, the string that makes up her mother’s body strips away. The same happens to her siblings until baby Tuca is left in front of the crumbling popsicle stick house. In the final shot before we exit Tuca’s memory, the child Tuca stands in front of a blank, white page; she is all alone.

Tuca’s mother created a safe home for her kids using love and a crafty attitude, and the animation translates this by literally using craft material to represent Tuca’s childhood memories. When her mother dies, so does her ability to hold the family together and Tuca is abandoned. She is left with a blank page and must learn how to fill it without her mother and siblings’ presence. By contrasting the filled page of Tuca’s childhood against the final blank page, the weight of Tuca’s loss is fully realized by the viewers. She did not merely lose her mother; she also lost her sense of family.

Bertie meets a shadow of her younger self:

In the second to last episode, Tuca and Bertie travel to Jelly Lakes where Bertie spent her summers as a young girl. During their time at Jelly Lakes, Bertie is confronted with a childhood trauma that stole from her the joy of swimming. Bertie opens up to Tuca, telling her she was sexually abused on the morning she planned to complete a long swim to Peanut Butter Island. In an effort to heal her trauma and take back her love of swimming, Bertie goes out to complete the swim she was unable to as a young girl. Bertie struggles to stay afloat, eventually sinking to the bottom of the lake where the shadow of her younger self is sitting. Bertie embraces her shadow self, and they begin to swim circles around one another with Bertie eventually following the shadow to the surface of the lake. As Bertie surfaces the water, she gains resolve to finish her swim.

Both the visuals and the sentiment of the scene are stunning, and it is arguably the most significant example of Tuca and Beritie using animation to create artistic metaphors that grapple with women’s trauma in a deep, healing way. By showing Bertie confronting her trauma and embracing her younger self, the animated series went beyond merely using women’s trauma for entertainment. Instead of focusing on the violence inflicted on women, Tuca and Bertie highlight how these two women cope and heal from trauma, taking back their personhood. And in this way, Tuca and Bertie is a show that truly embodies empowering women through storytelling.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Rejects Societal Expectations to Follow Passion

DSC00869.ARW

There are many reasons to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: the characters are vibrant, the dialogue is hilarious, and the fifties-style fashion is gorgeous. More significant, however, is the creators’ unique twist when depicting the 1950s. Unlike shows like Mad Men, which focuses on the masculine voice and its ability to shape oppressive cultural expectations, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel revolves around, as actress Rachel Brosnahan puts it, “a woman finding her voice”. Ultimately, finding your voice is about rejecting those societal expectations to follow passion, and in doing so, disrupting systems of power. In season one, Midge finds her voice in comedy, using it as a way to grieve her marriage and subsequent identity as a housewife. For Midge, her rejection of societal expectations comes naturally as she finds her power on stage. In season two, we not only watch Midge continue down this path, but we also watch her parents follow suit.

Rose, sick of being unhappy and overlooked, moves to Paris at the start of the new season. Lost in her role as a mother and wife, Rose returns to Paris—the place she went to college—to remember who she was before kids and marriage. She is taking time for herself and fighting for her own happiness—a radical thing when your role as wife and mother is to care for everyone else. Abe, on the other hand, does not reject societal expectations till the very end of the season. His identity is centered around his career as an academic. At the end of the season he realizes academia is tied to systems of power he protested  as a young man. The season ends with Abe (like Rose at the beginning of the season) returning to his younger self, ready to fight the establishment.

Rose and Abe’s self-discovery run parallel to Midge’s, and in some ways, their storylines are equally significant to the season’s narrative development. By putting Abe and Rose’s journeys on similar playing fields to Midge’s, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino argue that self-transformation and the rejection of societal expectations is possible at any age. It is never too late to fight for happiness and meaning in one’s life.

While Rose and Abe’s storylines take up more narrative space this season, Midge is still the star. On her way to making it big, she faces multiple obstacles. First is the male comedians and show bookers who constantly try to silence her. Unfortunately for these men, Midge’s talent perseveres, not because she plays their game but because she rejects it completely. Midge refuses to shrink her femininity to fit comedy’s masculine culture. She is funny because she is feminine not in spite of it, something many are threatened by—women included.

Sophie Lennon, a woman comedian from another generation, did compromise her femininity and therefore her authenticity. Threatened by Midge, Lennon continues to interfere in her career, proving patriarchy is not merely enacted by men but also by women invested in maintaining the status quo.

On top of comedians like Lennon, Midge faces the obstacle of family expectations. This season these expectations manifest in her relationship with Benjamin. The two are initially set up by Midge’s mother, and while annoyed by the maneuver, the two fall in love. As Midge waits for Abe to approve of their engagement, she gets a call from musician Shy Baldwin inviting her to join his tour as an opening act. Midge immediately agrees without pause or consideration for her potential marriage. It only dawns on her after the fact that she chose being a professional comedian over being a wife.

On the one hand this is thrilling, but on the other hand, she must now go through life alone. In the season’s final monologue, Midge says, “I understand now. Everything’s different. I can’t go back to jello molds. There won’t be three before thirty for me. I just made a choice. I’m going to be all alone for the rest of my life. That’s what I just decided in a five minute phone call. Amazing isn’t it?” The past two seasons built to this moment of bittersweet realization: Midge is complete without a husband but in turn must learn how to be alone. Watching Midge build to this moment of self-discovery is cathartic, especially for the fiercely independent women watching. Midge’s story is our story, and that is what makes it marvelous.

Video Essay: Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple from Shelby Dill on Vimeo.

In the above video essay, I explore academic debates about Shirley Temple’s films and their representation of cosseting. Cosseting is defined by the OED as “to care for or protect in an overindulgent way”. On one side, academics argue Temple’s cosseting of the male characters in her films is a form of pedophilia. Other academics disagree, stating the above argument is “presentist” or lacks important historical context. I set out to determine where I stand in the debate.