Julian Menjivar | November 30, 2017
While Netflix has a few interesting original productions, there is one that pushes the boundary, tests our comfort zones and heads in a different direction. Netflix’s Big Mouth is an animated series about puberty and sexuality as experienced by young tweens, teens and adults. It is a show that is awkward, fun, disturbing and confusing, yet gives a narrative that advocates for sex positivity, and views puberty as a natural and, frankly, is a much needed topic for open discussion.
Some may argue that Big Mouth is just another crass, inappropriate, and perhaps provocative, cartoon series. Others argue that, while humorous in nature, the show does a decent job addressing issues around puberty and sex. Episode 2, “Everybody Bleeds” depicts a scenario with girls who get their first period, and all that ensues. Jessi (voiced by Jessi Klein) is on a class trip to visit the Statue of Liberty, and, while wearing white shorts, gets her first period in front of some of her classmates. She struggles to navigate this experience, yet faces both internal and external difficulties, and is met with awkward responses. In the episode, there are societal representations, such as the Statue of Liberty and Jessi’s mother, who offer their perspectives about the terrors and hardships of womanhood. Yet the Hormone Monstress (voiced by Maya Rudolph) suggests to Jessi that puberty, feminine sexuality and becoming a woman are the best years of her life. She further claims that despite what others may say, she should embrace all that comes with it: the good, the bad, and everything in between…and ‘listen to Lana Del Rey and cut up all her t-shirts’.
The show arguably offers some diverse characters, such as persons of color, disabled persons, and those who identify on the queer spectrum. What is questionable is the show’s depictions of their approach to discovering their sexual identity. In episode 3 “Am I Gay?”, Andrew (voiced by John Mulaney) goes through his exploration of sexual identity, and attempts to sort out if he is gay, or not. He is offered advice from deceased gay icons, and is shown that being gay is ok, and can be a wonderful time. His Hormone Monster (voiced by Nick Kroll), though a crass and deviant being, doesn’t show judgement in Andrew’s exploration. While Andrew’s journey is generally met with support, he does face some criticism, and this comes from a comical standpoint for the audience. However, his portrayal of the queer sexual journey is stereotypical, and is a stereotype that has been traditionally seen as humorous but harmful. This episode does provide a perspective of exploring one’s identity, and offers a somewhat realistic struggle of finding one’s self. Yet there is some room for debate on how this episode tackles this issue.
As an audience, we are comfortable with shows that depict sex and sensuality as a fantasy, a sort of beautified, mystical portrayal. This includes perfect, desirable bodies, with musical playlists in the background, and the tantalizing forbidden chemistry of some characters, yet this is not how the majority of people experience sex and sexual identity in their daily lives. As is the case of Big Mouth, such a show that is honest and awkward in its portrayal is met with immediate attention and criticism, because audiences tend to prefer to experience a fantasy and forgo reality.
The purpose of Big Mouth is not to incite any inappropriate sensual desire or deviance, nor is it just another animated adult show that tries to humour audiences or find humour in a new angle. Rather, it tries to go beyond the awkwardness of puberty and growing up.
In episode 8, “The Head Push”, the central idea is how young girls and women are forced to do things they do not want to, and how people respond to sexual harassment and consent. This issue is portrayed in the most sexually charged and intricate scenario, a high school party, in which Nick’s sister Leah (voiced by Kat Dennings) is head pushed and, forced to perform a sexual act she does not consent to, by a young teenage boy. Immediately, she is slut-shamed, and Nick adopts a reaction that puts Leah down, rather than hold her harasser accountable.
Further in the episode, through her empowerment and strength, Leah decides to take initiative and come forth with what happened. Other girls come forward and share their experiences too, and it is through navigating and fighting for better treatment and to hold people accountable that Nick changes his views, and instead comes to support his sister. While the show handles such a situation with a twinge of humor, the message is that change can happen for the better, and people can come to a better understanding of what consensual sex and support are supposed to look like, and the positive effects that follow.
Some may find this show’s portrayal of puberty and sex inappropriate or distasteful and argue that such ideas are better left in a realm that is unseen and distant from the public sphere. Others embrace the openness of such topics as periods and sexual intimacy, and even harassment and slut shaming. Nevertheless, it is the direct manner that is shocking, and not the topics themselves that hits audiences hard. We are used to viewing sex, sexual identity, and sensuality as something foreign and invented in a way that is a fantasy, an alternative from the discomfort and realness of what we have experienced. What is interesting is that Big Mouth depicts realistic moments that offer a sense of comedic nostalgia, allowing us to reminisce about our own times with humor. Yet it does more than that; it allows its audience to bring to light these issues, and allows a platform for open dialogue where we can clear up the harmful misconceptions we have adopted and have become comfortable with.
Hello, beautiful people! My name is Julian, and I am studying Medieval Literatures and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. I am a Leo/year of the dog, my favorite colors are burgundy and black and my favorite dessert is dutch apple pie, especially with whipped cream. I love to study anything from the medieval era and literatures (though I also like other genres as well…), and my particular loves are Vikings, medieval mythologies, medieval women, medieval poetry, and analyzing social theories (Feminism, Gender, Class, etc.). And castles. Let’s not forget castles… I am from originally from sunny California, home of In-n-Out, flannels and bringing back vinyl and polaroids. I am so happy to be here, and I love everything in Edinburgh; the people, the buildings, weather-yes, even the Scottish winter!-, and of course, spending time with new friends from all over the world. Also, the key to making me the happiest person on earth is recommending a fantastic book, especially one that is inspiring to you, or exchanging a recipe.
Article edited by Laurie Beckoff and Sonia Garcia de Alba.