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Who called the fun police? Cultural criticism is taking itself a bit too seriously

Tuca and Bertie. Credit: YouTube

June 17, 2019   6 mins

It’s funny, when you think about it, that the highest praise people give Game of Thrones concerns the ‘world’ that its creators imagined. I don’t doubt that George R. R. Martin spent a long time thinking about the geography and history of Westeros. But considering he writes ‘fantasy’, is the world he creates really so fantastical? Or just Lord of the Rings with more nudity?

If you want a truly fantastical world – a place where evolution has gone cubist and the boundaries between animate and inanimate cannot be taken for granted – you might prefer BirdTown, home of Tuca and Bertie.

Tuca and Bertie is an animated sitcom on Netflix about an anxious wannabe pastry chef named Bertie and her off-the-leash best friend Tuca. Bertie is a songthrush, Tuca is a toucan, and they live in an apartment building in a sort of an avian version of New York.

Bertie’s boyfriend is a robin. Her colleagues include a pigeon and a cocksure rooster. But BirdTown also contains other animals (migrants presumably) and the odd human (since we’re animals too, right?)

There are also anthropomorphic plants who walk around on two legs – including a sexy leaf lady who lives across the hall from Tuca and occasionally takes her top off. Some of the buildings have breasts. Mobile phones periodically sprout arms and legs. And the subway trains are giant snakes.

All this emerged from the imagination of Lisa Hanawalt, a rare female in the male-dominated world of animation. Her anthropomorphic art provided the look (and, clearly, a lot of the deviance) of Netflix’s other animated masterpiece, Bojack Horseman, co-created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. That show is about a washed up 1990s TV horse, and it’s set in a half-animal, half-human Los Angeles called Hollywoo.

Tuca and Bertie is a bit like Bojack, but in a major key. What it lacks in male angst, it makes up for in unhinged feminine joy. Comedians Ali Wong and Tiffany Haddish clearly had a blast doing the voices. And yet if you were to read about it without having seen it, you might imagine it was all rather serious and worthy, with a capital hashtag.

The Guardian has described it as a “feminist fairy tale”. The New York Times applauded one storyline involving Bertie’s macho/predatory boss, Pastry Pete for revealing “dark truths” about the restaurant industry. In the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum frames the show (along with Fleabag and Bojack) as part of TV’s wider reckoning with #MeToo. “[These] plots are not so much about individuals as they are about the systems around them, and the troubling sensation of recognizing a bad pattern by seeing that you are part of it”.

I detected a similarly portentous note creeping into the reviews of Cuz I Love You, the recent album by the American rapper-singer-flautist Lizzo. I like Lizzo. It’s hard not to. Her signature song, ‘Juice’, is about how great it is to have a big bottom and it will not fail to make you smile.

“It ain’t my fault that I’m out here makin’ news / I’m the pudding in the proof / Gotta blame it on my juice,” she runneth over in the chorus. Another of her songs, ‘Soulmate’, is about how masturbation is fun. “True love ain’t something you can buy yourself / True love finally happens when you by yourself”.

But again, if you had read about Cuz I Love You without having heard it, you might imagine that it was a sombre march upon serioustown. ‘Juice’ becomes a “statement” about “body positivity”; ‘Soulmate’ is an “empowering” message about “self-care” and “sex-positivity”.

Lizzo can make masturbation seem like a political act”, notes the NYT critic Craig Jenkins. That’s better than making a political act seem like masturbation, I suppose, but still. Why must we turn juice into gruel?

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Lizzo’s music is less deserving of critical attention than Radiohead or Kendrick Lamar or Joni Mitchell. Nor that Tuca and Bertie’s exploration of female friendship is somehow less ‘important’ than Bojack Horseman’s treatment of male depression (which, by the fourth season, becomes about the least interesting thing about Bojack anyway).

And it’s not as if these critics are making this stuff up, either. Hanawalt has explicitly said that Pastry Pete was inspired by some of the creepy male gatekeepers in the comic book world. By the end of the season, we realise why Bertie is so anxious, and we’re deep into the jelly of trauma, abuse and recovery – albeit in a storyline that involves a battle with a giant crab on a lake made of jam.

But that episode reclaims the right to be silly too. It features a wise owl (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) who makes delicate little dioramas out of broken shells. “I fill the shells with scenes from my life and dreams and I take it all very seriously,” she tells Tuca. Before bursting out laughing. “Just kidding! I like jokes.” Jokes! Remember them?

What I mean is, there is something a little absurd in this clickbaity tendency to judge all culture in terms of its political relevance. Anyone would assume that the most worthwhile thing art could do would be to comment on #MeToo, or empower the big-bottomed community – and the rest of the stuff (the funny stuff, the weird stuff, the stuff that you can’t quite get out of your head) were mere padding.

As Rebecca Liu has argued in regard to writers such as Phoebe-Waller Bridge, Sally Rooney and Kristen Roupenian, emerging female artists are often weighed down with an imagined “significance” relating to some message of empowerment – and not allowed simply to exist on their own terms.

There is an obvious problem with the “issues” approach when it comes to art made by women and minorities – it’s another form of ghettoisation. To frame Tuca and Bertie as a post #MeToo drama says: “Hey, don’t watch this if you’re not with the program!” People don’t tend to say that kind of thing about Game of Thrones.

Lizzo, meanwhile, clearly finds it all a little constraining:

All these fucking hashtags to convince people that the way you look is fine. Isn’t that fucking crazy? I say I love myself, and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so brave. She’s so political.’ For what? All I said is ‘I love myself, bitch!’

It all marks an impoverishment of our wider critical discourse – an unintended consequence of trying to expand it. Back in 2012, the Stanford professor Sianne Ngai wrote a fascinating book called Our Aesthetic Categories in which she attempted expand critical theory beyond traditional categories like “beautiful” and “sublime”. She chose to examine three “marginal” categories that had emerged in our late-capitalist era: “cute”, “zany” and “interesting”.

If you look at the sort of content people share on social media, you might see what she was getting at: we judge kitten pix “cute” and long-reads “interesting”. And then it becomes tempting to consider other categories too: “relatable” “relevant” and “problematic” are labels that crop up, over and over again. And they’re not necessarily positive.

The reductive charge of being “problematic” has already condemned the 1990s sitcom Friends in the eyes of half of the internet: so hard to look past the privilege of its all-white cast! And that’s before we’ve talked about the fat-shaming or homophobia. Vintage Simpsons episodes are newly vexed, thanks to the problematic portrayal of Apu. And can you listen to Strangeways, Here We Come anymore, given Morrissey’s views on immigration? Many people can’t.

But if “problematic” politics are enough to condemn songs and shows we might once have enjoyed (Johnny Marr’s guitar be damned!), the inverse must also be true. A show like Tuca and Bertie must be good because it’s coming from the right place politically, and because it has relevant things to say. It’s also doubtful it would have been commissioned prior to #MeToo.

But “relevance” of this sort is primarily a media category, not an artistic one. It’s what a journalist sent to interview an artist might be (regretfully) expected to wheedle out. It’s what makes for a hot take on Twitter. But it isn’t usually why most of us turn to art.

Artists can take us away from this world and point towards other possible worlds. It would be nice to think they could aspire to irrelevance – the sheer pleasure of creation. There’s nothing particularly relevant about John Coltrane’s saxophone on My Favourite Things and this is why I never tire of it.

So, sure, listen to Lizzo because she’s body-positive. But also because her rhymes are delicious and she’s as funky as a dog in shades. And it’s OK to watch Tuca and Bertie because it’s silly and playful and sexy, the talking plants really are something, and the cartoon form allows Hanawalt to go to places where conventional TV can’t go.

In collapsing the boundaries between human and animal, animal and vegetable – even animate and inanimate objects – it seems to me that Hanawalt has done something miraculous and Goddesslike. She has imagined a new world. So let’s not drag her back down to this one.

Richard Godwin is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics and technology


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