“Big Mouth” Endlessly Explores Sexuality, but Still Stumbles on Queerness

Ali, voiced by Ali Wong, on Big Mouth (Photo credit: Netflix) 

I was excited when I learned that Ali Wong would be voicing Ali, a new pansexual character on the third season of Netflix’s Big Mouth. Given that there are few pansexual characters on television and Big Mouth has historically explored multiple aspects of sexuality, it felt only right for the animated series to delve into pansexuality and other sexual orientations. Unfortunately, the show missed the mark this time: When Ali introduces herself in the “Rankings” episode, she mentions to her classmates that she’s pansexual and explains, “Pansexual means I’m into boys, girls, and everyone in between.” When another character says, “I thought that was bisexual,” she quips, “No, bisexuality is so binary.” Ali continues, “Being pansexual means my sexual preference isn’t limited by gender identity. …It’s like, some of you borings like tacos, and some of you like burritos, and if you’re bisexual, you like tacos, and burritos. But I’m saying, I like tacos, and burritos, and I could be into a taco born a burrito, or a burrito, that’s transitioning into a taco. And honey, anything else on the fucking menu.”

The joke definitely didn’t land the way Big Mouth’s writers intended for it to. “I had several concerns with the way [Ali] attempted to delineate distinctions between pansexuality and bisexuality, but as a nonbinary person, I was struck most by how she claimed that bisexuality was ‘so binary’ (an outdated and largely incorrect assumption) but then went on to describe pansexuality with incredibly binary terms,” says Eleanor Magnuson, a queer, nonbinary, trans woman. “Using ‘burritos’ and ‘tacos’ as stand-ins for genitalia is not only a dangerously dichotomous construction of the spectrum of biological sex, but also shows a troubling view of trans people—that we are nothing more than a set of genitals seeking to be affirmed through medical transition.”

It felt strange for Big Mouth to discuss gender in such a binaristic way while also giving Ali such a condescending inflection as she says the word “binary. Clearly, someone in the writer’s room knows that binaries aren’t great, but then they explained bisexuality through that exact same lens. Ali’s definitions of “bisexuality” and “pansexuality” presents bi people as people who don’t date trans people or who don’t date nonbinary or genderqueer people, which isn’t true. As Magnuson explained, this idea that trans people are “other” also has dangerous consequences for trans people because it’s dehumanizing. “The scene just perpetuated the gross idea that bisexuality is trans-exclusive and people who identify as pansexual are the only people who are attracted to trans people,” says Morgan, a 22-year-old queer person. “Bisexual and pansexual people have so little good representation in mainstream media, it’s a disappointment that a popular show like Big Mouth would drop the ball so easily.”

GladRags


The idea that a “special” sexuality has to exist for people to be attracted to and love and care about trans people is gross, and simply incorrect: a straight man can be attracted to a trans woman just like a straight woman can be attracted to a trans man. Someone can be bi and be attracted to women and men, or women and nonbinary people, or men and genderqueer people, or people of the same gender and different genders from them. While pansexual people might say they’re attracted to people of all genders or that gender doesn’t play a large role in their interest in someone, there is still overlap between pansexuality and bisexuality. Some people identify as both, while other people identify solely as bisexual or pansexual because it’s the identity that feels right for them.

The idea that there has to be one single definition for each sexual orientation is a common misunderstanding of sexuality, and it’s an idea that many bisexual and pansexual people have never agreed with. Sexuality is complicated and nuanced, which is something Big Mouth has mostly taken into account as its preteen and newly-pubescent cast of characters stumble their way to adulthood. For example, Jay (Jason Mantzoukas), one of the show’s core characters, has joked throughout the first two seasons about being attracted to people of various genders. He laughs when he asks his male friends if they like boys, too, before quickly changing the subject or mocking the very idea. But during the Season 2 episode “Smooch or Share,” he kisses Matthew (Andrew Rannells) and makes it clear that gender doesn’t play a huge role in his ability to be attracted to someone. Jay continues to echo this idea during the show’s third season.

He has sex with both a male and female pillow (Jay has a thing for masturbating with pillows, couch pillows, and also bath mats). Interestingly enough, we get more nuance from Jay’s interactions with his pillows than we do from Ali’s explanation of pansexuality. Jay tells the girl pillow, Pam (Kristen Bell), “I kind of like it with both of you,” to which she responds, “That’s bullshit. If you say you like boy pillows and girl pillows…you really just like boy pillows.” The insult doesn’t land, though, and Jay continues to explore his bisexuality and push forward until, encouraged by Ali’s coming out, he comes out as bisexual to his friends and classmates. The feedback isn’t all positive, but Jay continues being confident in his bisexuality.

The idea that there has to be one single definition for each sexual orientation is a common misunderstanding of sexuality, and it’s an idea that many bisexual and pansexual people have never agreed with. 

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Big Mouth’s portrayal of Jay’s bisexuality feels real, thoughtful, and intentional, especially when compared to Ali’s problematic definitions of pansexuality and bisexuality, which feel more random. Attempting to define bisexuality and pansexuality in such a “fun” way that limits and narrows the scope, Big Mouth failed those who are newly coming across the terms and will now associate pansexuality and bisexuality with generally outdated notions (and, for some reason, food). As I watched Big Mouth’s stumble, I thought of BoJack Horseman: They’re both animated series geared toward adults, tackle messy, complicated discourse largely through jokes, and both Netflix originals. On BoJack, much of the dialogue around sexual orientation is packaged into the character of Todd Chavez (voiced by Aaron Paul), credited as “TV’s first out-and-proud asexual icon.” Throughout the show’s first three seasons, Chavez is given increasing screen time.

He’s portrayed as naive and silly, but with a complicated inner-life that the show’s core cast doesn’t always recognize. His role is further deepened as we delve into his relationships. We meet Emily (Abbi Jacobson), Chavez’s former girlfriend, and they try to figure out why they aren’t on the same page. He tells her, “I’m not gay. I mean, I don’t think I am, but I don’t think I’m straight, either. I don’t know what I am. I think I might be nothing.” By Season 4, Chavez is attending groups where asexual people can meet other asexuals, and proclaims, “I am an asexual person. I am asexual. Feels good to talk about it.” Later, he goes on a date with an asexual person, Yolanda (Natalie Morales), and through his relationship with her (and his meeting of her extremely hypersexual family) viewers are able to watch Chavez further understand his asexuality.

Still, the creators behind BoJack didn’t nail asexuality right off the bat. For the first few seasons, Chavez’s asexuality plays a much more minimal role. It would’ve been easy for BoJack Horseman’s depiction of Chavez’s sexuality to feel flat and forced, but show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg brought in an asexual consultant to ensure Chavez’s portrayal felt real. “The idea of like, ‘Would an asexual character be too much for our audience to handle?’ It feels like no, they’re going to go with it…I would love it if like, 10 years from now, people look back at BoJack and watch some of our asexual episodes that describe what asexuality is and how it works and the different kinds of asexuals and go, ‘Duh. This is so boring. Everyone knows this stuff,” Bob-Waksberg told Bustle in 2018.

Big Mouth’s portrayal of bisexuality and pansexuality feels as if the show’s writers didn’t receive guidance from bisexual or pansexual people as they created Wong’s character. “As a bisexual who is dating and lives with a pansexual, we’ve discussed [the differences between pansexuality and bisexuality a lot],” Klaudia Amenábar, a bisexual social media producer, told me. “My concern [with Big Mouth’s portrayal] has been, does this come from a queer writer? Are they either bi or pan, and if they are, [are] they using their own definition of the two to inform that scene? All these scenarios scare me because many of these terms have different meanings. My main fear is that it’s either a straight person who did a quick Google [search] and then tried to make a ‘woke joke,’ or a queer person with their own interpretation that’s not a helpful representation.”

Ultimately, Big Mouth is all about going through changes, and the show has proven its ability to make an iffy scene sparkle down the road. I’m especially hopeful given Co-Creator and Executive Producer Andrew Goldberg’s recent apology which, though not perfect, is a start. Goldberg wrote, “We missed the park with this definition of bisexuality vs. pansexuality … Any time we try to define something as complex as human sexuality, it’s super challenging, and this time we could have done better…” Maybe, in future seasons, the show will more thoughtfully explain pansexuality. And maybe as Ali grows, her definition of her sexuality will grow and change, too, and with it, the universe of Big Mouth’s understanding of it.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.