Tuca & Bertie is like Bojack Horseman meets Broad City- hilarious and horny, but not afraid to address serious issues. And, given Bertie’s high strung, worry-wort nature, it’s no surprise that anxiety would be one of said issues.
(Spoiler alert from here on out, although the show has been out since May, so at this point it’s on you)
One episode about half-way through the season features Bertie enduring a series of anxiety-inducing events, then going to her apprenticeship at a patisserie where the fast pace, hot surroundings and constant physical contact from her chef exacerbate her condition.
As a line cook myself, much of Bertie’s reaction to this intense environment resonated with me. Although most of my anxiety on the line manifests itself as shaky hands and getting angry when being told to remake things and her episode climaxes in her… uhh… climaxing (no judgement- no one can deny it’s a good way to blow off steam).
It’s no secret that the restaurant industry and mental illness go hand in hand. Pastry Pete’s cries of “Faster! Bigger! Better! More!” are common demands in the industry, and the constant pressure takes its toll. Many cooks turn to smoking, drinking, and harder drugs to relieve the stress of the work day. I was even like this at one point, and it wasn’t until I had officially became a regular at the liquor store closest to work that I realized the path I was headed down.
The physical contact is one that tends to set me off the most. Especially on narrow lines, cooks will tend to push you aside as they try to get past- in tight quarters there’s no such thing as personal space.
However, there is one major difference between Bertie and I, and that is that much of Bertie’s anxiety is caused by being a woman and feeling powerless in a male-driven society.
Most of the aforementioned anxiety-inducing events were some form of sexual harassment, varying from catcalling (or at least what she perceives as catcalling, because at that point she had already begun downward spiraling) to a creepy plumber letting himself into her apartment, getting in her personal space, and reminding her that he has a key to the place. This all culminates in Pastry Pete forcefully grabbing Bertie’s arm and shoving her head directly above a boiling pot he wants her to watch, which while some may argue is not inherently sexual, but still violates her personal space and reinforces a power imbalance, making Bertie feel even more powerless.
In a later episode, Pasty Pete gives the same “hands-on” treatment to another female apprentice, who calls him a creep and storms out. Pastry Pete dismisses her for not being able to handle the “rigors of the job,” and Bertie feels ashamed for not considering that this behavior was abusive sooner. And while there still might of been some ambiguity to the situation out of context, Pastry Pete shows his true colors in the season finale when, after Bertie quits and attempts to open her own bakery, he uses his influence in the city to blacklist her from local suppliers and kitchen spaces. And it isn’t until Tuca manages to record a video of Pastry Pete grabbing Bertie by the head and berating her that his abusive ways are revealed to the public.
Full disclosure- I am a man, and as such don’t really know to what degree I am qualified to speak on the #MeToo movement before sounding patronizing or full-on white knighting. However, reportedly 90% of women and 70% of men in the restaurant industry have experienced some form of sexual harassment, with some cases eventually becoming big enough to topple media empires as large as Mario Batali’s.
Given some of the crude, vulgar comments I’ve heard from coworkers and chefs alike over the years, I’m inclined to believe it’s all true.
Ultimately, Tuca & Bertie does an excellent job tackling these issues. They aren’t afraid to look problems like mental illness and misogyny head on, but with enough jokes in between to keep it from feeling too ham-fisted. The way the characters are developed as the series progresses makes it feel like these issues are genuinely just part of their daily lives, as opposed to some cheesy “very special episode” style PSA. And because of that, when they decide to get real, it all feels that much realer.