January 11, 2021

Binging Bob’s Burgers: Social Class, Shrimp Cocktail, and First-Generation College Students

LT Rease author headshot LT Rease author headshotBy La’Tonya Rease Miles and Colby King

La’Tonya Rease Miles is the Dean of Student Affairs at Menlo College

Have you been binge watching any particular shows during the pandemic? We were talking recently about how we have both been watching Bob’s Burgers with our families. 

If you have not seen Bob’s Burgers, take a look at this one-minute clip from earlier this year which shows the family operating their burger shop in a socially distanced way.  In the clip, the owner’s children create a song about their boredom.

Bob’s Burgers addresses many sociological  issues in ways that are new and interesting for animated television shows. The Belcher family runs a small, struggling restaurant in a coastal town. Each month, Bob struggles to cover rent for the building in which the family both lives and works, and the family embarks on adventures in and around their seaside town. 

Throughout the series, the family encounters contexts and characters that illustrate a diversity of life experiences, exposing viewers to perspectives not often depicted on television.

A few episodes have highlighted the role of worker solidarity. Writing for the blog Labornotes.org, Kelly Gilbert discusses how the Season 9, Episode 3 episode “Tweentrepreneurs” illustrates a slowdown and a strike as labor actions can conquer a divide-and-conquer management strategy. Later that season, in the “What About Blob?” episode, Gene Belcher saves a bioluminescent blob of plankton from being bleached by the local yacht club.

Many fans appreciate the justice-oriented escapades the show often depicts.  There is even a reddit.com thread titled “Bob’s Burgers is woke AF.” In the first season, Bob takes a second job driving a cab to make extra money and, among other things, befriends a group of trans women. These women  are depicted as full characters, not oversimplified as victims or oddities, and they  become recurring characters in the series.

While the show does these interesting things, some fans and critics have raised concerns, too. For example, the actor who voices “Marshmallow,” the black trans woman character, has been voiced by a cis white man. But as Alex Bollinger at LGBTQNation reports, the show creator Loren Bouchard has expressed regret for this casting decision and suggested that this will change.

One of Colby’s favorite episodes is “Mo Mommy Mo Problems.” The story in the episode is that, in celebration of Mother’s Day, Linda Belcher convinces her family to spend the day touring expensive open houses on an island not far from where the family lives. This episode resonated with Colby for several reasons. He remembers going to open houses with his parents as a kid. What this episode captures well is the working-class Belcher family members’ sense of imposterism, or the sense of not belonging. While Colby typically thinks about imposterism as a challenge many first-generation college students overcome, it is fun and also affirming to see it portrayed among this family. While the open houses are billed as “open” events, Bob and the children express self-conscious concern about whether or not they truly belong there.

A key scene in the episode involves Linda eating shrimp cocktail from a table at one of the houses. The scene portrays the strains of class and cultural mismatch, as well as highlights the role cultural capital plays when we navigate social contexts. First, Bob suggests to Linda, who is wearing a dress, that she might be overdressed. Linda agrees, reflecting, “I know--all the rich ladies are wearing yoga pants.” Then, attempting to reassure herself, Linda says to Bob, “At least I’m doing a great job acting like I’m not here for the free food. Look how casual I am when I eat this shrimp.”

Of course, Linda is not all that casual. She pops one shrimp, and moans with delight. As she pops a second shrimp into her mouth and moans again, Bob points out to her that she is moaning, seeming to be concerned that she might be embarrassed. Linda, though, shamelessly retorts, “It’s shrimp, Bob!” Then, the episode breaks into a song about shrimp and houses, while Bob and Linda are shown eating shrimp, finger sandwiches, and drinking champagne at several open houses in quick succession.

Colby also identified with this scene because of a similar past experience involving a shrimp cocktail, of all things. His dad was a laborer at AK Steel in Butler, Pennsylvania, and the company offered a competitive college scholarship, the AK Steel Sons and Daughters Scholarship. During Colby’s senior year of high school he applied and was one of twenty recipients of these scholarships. Colby and his parents attended a banquet dinner awards ceremony, which was part hosted by the company. Colby recalls experiencing a similar sense of imposterism at this event. His dad pointed out that almost all of the families there, or at least the ones he knew from the Butler plant, were from “management,” as opposed to being “hourly,” like him.

Like Linda and Bob, Colby and his family were self-conscious about how they were dressed, as they rarely wore dress clothes for anything other than weddings and funerals. They were also self-conscious about what they ate and how they ate it. The meet and greet event before the dinner is a particularly strong memory for Colby. This event was his first time doing something that would become pretty common in his academic career--making small talk in a hotel ballroom while juggling a drink and a plate of hors d'oeuvres.

But what Colby remembers most vividly is not that his family avoided embarrassing themselves with the food, or that they made meaningful connections with the other families and important people. What he remembers most is how impressed he and his parents were with the shrimp cocktail display on the buffet. There was a huge, multi-tiered platter of shrimp cocktail on ice! With the shrimp hanging over the edges of each level of the platter, it looked almost like a chandelier lowered to the table. For weeks after this event, they recounted to others the impressive size of the shrimp cocktail platter. To quote Linda Belcher, “It’s shrimp,  Bob!”

During La’Tonya’s Bob’s pandemic binge with her 19-year-old daughter, they jokingly speculated on the futures of the Belcher children based on their personalities and quirks.  They agreed that anxiety-prone Tina, the eldest child, would likely commute to a college close to home.  Louise, the youngest and the family maverick, might bypass university altogether to seek fame and fortune far away from their town. Poor Gene, the middle child with a heart of gold, would likely get snared into some arts-focused for-profit institution as he pursued promising opportunities that indeed are too good to be true.

None of the Belchers seem likely to have the typical college experience that is promoted on campus websites and within fancy brochures. Rather, like the average high school graduate, especially if they are first-generation to attend college, Tina, Louise and Gene seem more likely to have the so-called non-traditional experiences that actually are the norm these days.  

“My Big Fat Greek Bob,” (season four, episode four) explores some of the complexities of social class on college campuses. This episode finds Bob becoming an adopted member and hero of a local fraternity, the Betas. Featuring a variety of hijinks and silly pranks, the storyline echoes Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds, but in typical Bob’s fashion, there is a broader social critique at work. For starters, Bob becomes connected to the Beta fraternity because he is taking on extra work as a cook at their fraternity house. This new “gig economy “job is another reminder of the Belcher’s precarious financial situation.  

Working as a cook is the closest Bob can get to a college experience. It has been established in a number of episodes that Bob inherited the diner from his father and that working the grill is a family legacy that Belcher children may disparage, but will ultimately come to accept. Entering the workforce directly after high school makes sense for some graduates, particularly for those who need to contribute immediately to the family income. Unfortunately, many if not most jobs that do not require a college degree are low-wage positions. Although the steady pay may at first seem like a boon for a high school graduate, the salary peaks after around ten years or less and then plateaus.    

Before leaving for his new part-time gig at the frat house, Bob jokes with Gene that the fraternity brothers will have highbrow, country club-type names like “Chad,” “Trip,” “Skip” and “Chip,” which Gene quickly realizes are the names of “rich people.” But when Bob arrives at the Betas’s residence, he is surprised to find a rundown home badly in need of repair. He also is caught off guard when he learns that instead of Chip or Skip, the brothers are named “Pud,” “Turd” and “Hefty Jeff,” names that feel familiar to Bob.  

We quickly learn that the Betas are not a stereotypical privileged fraternity. Instead of being angry that their house has been TP’d, presumably by the rival Alpha house, Beta’s president Pud is grateful that they can at least re-use the toilet paper. The brothers also tell Bob that their motto is “If you rushed us, you’d be pledged by now” and that they “haze with hugs,” according to Hefty Jeff. As it happens, the Betas are outside of traditional hypermasculine norms typically found within fraternity culture.

Already an outsider to college life, Bob finds commonalities with these ordinary men, and for that reason college seems more accessible and less intimidating to him. In fact, Bob thrives in this world where he is the only person with a car and can drive the brothers around to prank the Alphas. Because he is older, he pretends to be a professor (specifically an adjunct professor--heh), and he saves the day when the police drive by. His burger grill skills are welcomed there and, according to the brothers, Bob has a “perfect body.” Having been embraced by the Betas, Bob insists to his son, “I’m basically a brother!” He also is a hero, something he is not back in the diner or the real world.  

Despite his initial wariness, Bob has been welcomed into this previously foreign space by people who are similar to him. The fraternity members also know what it’s like to make do and to live in a ramshackle house with no air conditioning. Bob’s entrance into Greek life, even as hired help, models promising practices for supporting non-traditional, first-generation college or other students with limited college history and exposure. It is important to recognize that these students bring considerable strengths with them to college campuses—including knowing how to grill a burger. In order for them to be properly welcomed and validated, they need to find connections, particularly with peers who get them.  

Bob’s Burgers offers valuable lessons for all of us, but especially for first-generation and working-class college students: Even when opportunities mean entering an unfamiliar social setting, there will likely be something (or someone) there that will be familiar to you. And even if that social setting is unfamiliar, you very likely already have important skills and a unique perspective that can contribute to that space. Those opportunities are for you, and you belong in that space as much as anyone does. Enjoy the shrimp along the way!

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