Although “Tuca & Bertie” navigates difficult subjects such as mental health and sexual assault, creator Lisa Hanawalt isn’t trying “to be overtly political or topical” with her series.
“I’m just telling stories from my point of view — things that affect me and my friends, and the things we’ve experienced,” she said.
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The adult animated sitcom revolves around best friends Tuca Toucan (Tiffany Haddish) and Roberta “Bertie” Songthrush (Ali Wong), two anthropomorphic bird women living in the fantastical city known as Bird Town. In the recently completed third season on Adult Swim, the series highlighted two topics seldom covered on screen: menstruation and reproductive health. “So many of the women I know suffer from endometriosis, from PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome], from cysts,” Hanawalt said. “It’s such a huge problem, and it’s surprisingly difficult to diagnose.”
In Episode 2, Tuca suffers from a chronic condition related to her menstrual cycle, causing severe abdominal cramps, heavy bleeding and nausea.
“I chose Tuca because she’s such a fun-loving, extroverted character that this seemed like more of a barrier [or] an obstacle for her. Her health issues are in direct contradiction with her personality, and she’s not the type to want to stay home in bed — and I relate to that,” Hanawalt explained. “She feels very depressed by having her movement impeded, so it really started from there.”
Determined to alleviate her extreme period pain, Tuca undergoes multiple tests at the hospital to get a proper diagnosis, only to leave hours later with inconclusive results.
“It seems like years and years of doctors dismissing you is very common,” Hanawalt said. “I’ve experienced doctors shrugging off my symptoms, and it just seems like our medical establishments are not designed in a way to make any of this easy.”
The series conveys a raw, unfiltered look at this taboo topic, yet still captures how menstruation is natural and even empowering. Every time Tuca gets her period, she is enveloped in a bed of flowers, illustrating glimpses of beauty within her monthly anguish. At the end of the episode, Tuca’s new partner Figgy tends to this metaphorical garden.
“It’s very sweet because it’s someone that loves her and is caring for her, and we should all be so lucky,” Hanawalt said. “But it’s also a little creepy, like, he’s burying her alive. That was me thinking about how relationships can have that comforting but also suffocating [feeling].”
Tuca’s debilitating periods worsen throughout the season; by the season finale, the show literally explores the female anatomy, as Bertie embarks on a journey inside Tuca’s uterus.
During her quest to remove a growth from Tuca’s ovaries, Bertie encounters a surreal realm filled with imagery linked to Tuca’s emotions and memories, including a manifestation of Tuca’s late mother.
“Everything that’s going on with [Tuca] is strongly tied to fertility,” Hanawalt said about Tuca’s mini-world inside her uterus. “She’s a character who’s always really wanted to have kids, and this might affect that. She also has a complicated relationship with her mother and the loss of her mother at a young age, so all of that is mashed up together.”
Hanawalt was one of the more than 400 showrunners who signed a letter to Netflix, Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, and other major studios about enforcing safety protocols for employees in anti-abortion states, Variety exclusively reported in July.
Although this season’s themes are pertinent to the current state of reproductive health in the U.S., Hanawalt is unsure whether “Tuca & Bertie” would explore abortion rights if renewed for another season.
“I’m specifically trying to find stories I haven’t quite seen before, [or] I haven’t seen them told in this specific way I would tell them” she explained. “This [season] ended up seeming a bit topical, but that’s what’s in the ether.”
However, Hanawalt does believe that the apathy deterring certain viewers from watching a series like “Tuca & Bertie” is similar to the “lack of empathy” that allowed “the overturning of Roe v. Wade to happen.”
“The amount of misogyny that still abounds in our culture and our laws is stunning,” she said. “There’s a certain segment of the population who, if they see something like Tuca’s storyline, they’re just going to zone out and think that they can’t relate or it doesn’t affect them.”
To Hanawalt, one of the “best things that fiction or fictional TV allows us to do” is to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
“Why would you only want to project yourself [onto] a character that already represents you, and already has your voice and your point of view? What’s the fun in that?” Hanawalt asked rhetorically.
“If I can sympathize with Tony Soprano, I think people should be able to see through the eyes of an anthropomorphic toucan woman,” she said with a laugh.
Season 3 of “Tuca & Bertie” can be streamed on Adult Swim and HBO Max.
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