TV Shows, Pop Culture

Seeing yourself as a songbird: how “Tuca & Bertie” on Netflix gave women a mirror

Seconds into the pilot, my first thought was, “I wouldn't suggest this to my parents.”

The world of Netflix’s now-cancelled series Tuca & Bertie (2019) is ridiculous from the title sequence.

If you’re unfamiliar with creator Lisa Hanawalt‘s work (eg, Bojack Horseman) and her undefined line between human, animal, and hybrid, it may take a few frames for your brain to calibrate.

The world of T&B is an anthropomorphized menagerie. The buildings have breasts, the neighbor is a houseplant with legs, an ultrasound machine makes a getaway with his wife. There are birds in the sky, but that bird is in short shorts? In the way that Goofy and Pluto are both dogs, but only one lives in the house, T&B creates a universe where you’re never quite sure which animals are animals, which are people, or who’s going to start talking next.

Ultimately, it asks the question: in an animated world, is anything inanimate?

Still from title sequence featuring anthropomorphized building and building with billboard for "A Tornante Production". Via Netflix.
Still from title sequence featuring anthropomorphized building and building with billboard for “A Tornante Production”. Via Netflix.

Seconds into the pilot, my first thought was, “I wouldn’t suggest this to my parents.”

It’s not inappropriate per se, but niche enough to startle anyone who doesn’t actively seek out this kind of genre-bending content. But then I immediately found myself asking, “why not?” The series is not just relatable to Millennials, but also speaks to the emotionality of an age that existed for all generations. Whether Boomers want to admit it or not, they went through the same wobbling stability and unsureness that Tuca and Bertie are going through. Same panic, different phone size. 

In broad strokes, T&B is about two young friends trying to make something of themselves in a big city. It is in that way not all that dissimilar from How I Met Your Mother, It’s Always Sunny, New Girl or all the other look-at-my-life shows that built on the idea that everyone’s life is the same yet completely different. The plotlines aren’t unfamiliar. In one episode Bertie moves in with her boyfriend. In other Tuca is smitten with her deli guy. It wouldn’t be too hard to transpose an episode of T&B into another televised universe. The One Where Bertie and Speckle Try Kinky Sex or The Gang Goes To Yeast Week. 

Still featuring songbird Bertie leaning back in office chair, singing about spicy chips while holding a bag. Via Netflix.
Still featuring songbird Bertie leaning back in office chair, singing about spicy chips while holding a bag. Via Netflix.

The one major difference is that T&B is uncompromisingly female.

Tuca and Bertie’s medicine cabinets are overflowing, they freak out over break-ups, they struggle to pee in rompers, they aspire to become pastry chefs, they perform all the things that in a gendered world are feminine, only without the polish. It is this last bit that sets T&B apart from the women that came before them. Tuca and Bertie’s accomplishments come with cracks in them. Bertie lands a new position, but is immediately disheartened by the hours. Tuca stands up to her Auntie, but realizes she still needs her charity.

The world of these birds isn’t cruel or unfair, it’s just more realistic. More realistic at times than most live action. Perhaps because Tuca and Bertie can’t spend an hour in hair and makeup, they come across as about as ready for life as anyone else at any given moment. Something about how their feathers fall gives the impression that they’re capable of making the same mistakes as the viewer. 

This imperfection is not the imperfection of HBO’s Girls that gives the viewer anxiety-by-proxy. Nor is it the faux imperfection of Friends. T&B is not messy as in #GodBlessThisMess, but messy in the honest, tangled, take-your-ass-to-a-therapist kind of way. Women are rarely allowed to languor in this state without being self-deprecating, charactertured, or satirical. It is a space between being the overly-sexualized high-schooler and the mother.

Not a girl, not yet a Good Wife. Tuca and Bertie aren’t high-powered career women or perpetual girlfriends. They’re defined by their characteristics, not their jobs or relationships. Ally McBeal was a lawyer, Meredith Grey was a surgeon, Samantha wrote about her dating life. Tuca and Bertie… are Tuca and Bertie. The plot is driven by the facts of life– by Bertie’s fight with her boyfriend or Tuca’s attempt at a new job– but that’s not the first or the fifteenth thing that comes to mind when you think about the show. It is a show about two women figuring out their 30s. 

Still featuring anthropomorphized houseplant neighbor Draca smoking in her apartment while surrounded by turtles. Via Netflix.
Still featuring anthropomorphized houseplant neighbor Draca smoking in her apartment while surrounded by turtles. Via Netflix.

By cutting T&B, Netflix is deprioritizing this kind of storytelling. It’s saying more detectives with dead wives, more dramas about the same predominantly white period in English history, more glorification of serial killers. Not more women with anxiety attacks in posh grocery stories, women with pain-inducing reproductive systems, women with STDs and uncertain futures. No more pet jaguars. Without it, women on television can largely be described “pleasant.”

Self-identified people-pleaser Bertie would probably fight me on this one, but the women of T&B aren’t pleasant. They’re not ladies or any of those other annoying terms for women that diminish their very humanity. They’re just Tuca and Bertie.

It’s unfair that they only got one season. Still, I encourage you to savor those 10 episodes to see yourself in these songbirds. Here’s to hoping they find a new nest. 

#SaveTucaAndBertie