No Shame Monster“Big Mouth” Sweetens the Bitter Pill of Puberty

Jenny Slate as Missy on Big Mouth (Photo credit: Netflix)

Since its September 2017 premiere, Netflix’s animated comedy Big Mouth has broken new ground with its crude humor and frank conversations about adolescent bodies, sexuality, and desire. The puberty comedy is one of the few successful adult cartoons with a female co-creator—writer/director Jennifer Flackett—and six of the first 10 episodes were written or co-written by women. But Big Mouth’s push to achieve gender parity is more than symbolic; each episode offers a different perspective than what’s employed in other adult-animation shows such as Family Guy, Rick & Morty, and, most egregiously, South Park.

On South Park, a show Big Mouth shares several shallow similarities with, girls only appear when the plot demands and they’re often the object of desire or the butt of the joke. This is exemplified in episodes like “The Ring” wherein Kenny’s girlfriend Tammy is hypnotized by the Jonas Brothers. The episode supposedly addresses the nefarious nature of Disney and how the Jonas Brothers use their influence to control the sexual lives of adolescent girls—basically acting as baby-faced agents of evil. But within this plot, young girls’ burgeoning sexuality and desire for romance is simply a hilarious device in a conspiracy that’s predictably uncovered by the show’s main group of adolescent boys who, in the world of South Park, aren’t as easily distracted as their female classmates.

The episode ends with Kenny getting a blowjob from Tammy, contracting syphilis, and dying. People rarely die from contracting that STD, but why should logic get in the way of casual misogyny? Luckily, if you want a more truthful portrait of adolescent sexuality with accurate information about STDs and genuine humor, Big Mouth has that covered. In its second season, the show uses its horny-adult-cartoon coating to sweeten some of the more bitter pills of sexuality, bodies, and relationships, and unsurprisingly, the most poignant episodes are written by women. Kelly Galuska pens two of the more socially and emotionally complex stories, “What Is It About Boobs?” and “Dark Side of the Boob.”

The first episode deals with the well-worn territory of a girl returning to school after a break, realizing she’s more developed than her classmates, and unintentionally creating a rift in the school’s social structure. Suddenly, other girls are thinking more about their bodies and asking why they haven’t developed in the same ways as Gina (voiced hilariously by Gina Rodriguez). And her male classmates are wondering why they’re so drawn to Gina and if they’re jerks for suddenly being attracted to her because of her body. While other shows would spend the majority of the episode contemplating the boys’ conundrum, “What Is It About Boobs?” centers on Jessi (Jessi Klein) and Missy (Jenny Slate) grappling with their body image.

The centerpiece of the episode is the body-positive anthem “I Love My Body” sung by Connie the Hormone Monstress (Maya Rudolph) in a Korean spa as a plethora of naked women of all races, shapes, and sizes dance, sing, and show off their unique bodies. It’s a positive and affirming moment that quickly puts one of the season’s major themes in place: rejecting shame. Shame is embodied in the second season by a character literally named Shame Wizard (David Thewlis). He floats through the season, planting seeds of doubt and sowing discord in the minds of all the characters, creating conflict that all comes to a head in “Dark Side of the Boob.”

In this episode, Shame Wizard uses a class sleepover in the school gym as an opportunity to make all the kids feel so bad about themselves that they turn on each other. At first it works, but then the kids start talking to each other—and realize they’ve been played by the wizard. The episode then becomes a fascinating indictment of how shame can cause us to hurt ourselves and each other. 

By far, my favorite episode of the second season is “The Planned Parenthood Show,” written by Emily Altman. It’s unabashedly a message episode that uses informational classroom videos to explain various misconceptions about Planned Parenthood. The first sketch, a Star Wars spoof titled “The Vagilanties,” is especially interesting in light of Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning Star Trek-inspired episode “USS Callister.” In the sketch, Missy is the captain of uterus-shaped spacecraft that glides through a woman’s uterus in search of a possibly cancerous cyst.

Unlike “USS Callister,” which functions as a reminder that insecure white men often aim their anger at Black women, “The Vagilanties” puts a Black woman in the captain’s chair. There’s a special emotional resonance in taking a pop-culture item many of us know and love and using it to represent a brighter future; it’s a demonstration of how our society could be if we prioritized women’s health.

Big Mouth | Clip: I Love My Body | Netflix

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The second sketch, “Miss Conception,” is the most informational skit for teenagers who are thinking about having sex. It’s set up as a Bachelorette-style dating show wherein Nick’s older sister, Leah (Kat Dennings), is the lucky lady trying to choose between a condom, the pill, an implant, an IUD, the diaphragm, and the pull-out method (personified by an irresponsible-looking white man). Each form of contraception tries to convince Leah that they’ll benefit her most. The sketch hilariously personifies the choices every person with a vagina makes when they become sexually active.

But perhaps the most poignant sketch is a montage set to music with almost no dialogue at all. As “Groove is In the Heart” plays, we’re given a story of Andrew’s mother having a one-night stand after a fun night at a dance club. Soon she learns she’s pregnant and makes the decision to get an abortion. Then, she meets Andrew’s father, they fall in love, and when she’s ready, they have a child. Unlike the other sketches, which are canonical short stories, Andrew is slightly traumatized by his mother’s story. It’s striking that Andrew’s “traditional” mom, not Nick’s sexually open parents or Jessi’s separated queer mother and pothead father, had one of the most contested medical procedures in the country. In fact, it’s the show’s way of emphasizing how normal abortion is.

And that’s ultimately what makes Big Mouth so refreshing—it uses its humor to make subtle yet powerful statements about life. The heightened gags and impressive joke density work in its favor, revealing the absurdity of society and how sex complicates the way we treat each other. The episodes written by its female writers are shining examples of how Big Mouth uses its satire to punch up, and that is what sets it apart from its more nihilistic predecessors.

In the past, stories of adolescent sexuality and desire on television were often only focused on boys—with girls as a mystery or a conquest. Big Mouth evens up the score, and more than once, tilts it towards the girls, highlighting their frustrations over being evaluated for their bodies and their complicated perception of older, more “fully-formed” women. The female writers of the show understand this minefield, making Big Mouth one of the most even-handed portraits of adolescent puberty.

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by Jourdain Searles
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Jourdain Searles is a writer, podcaster, comedian and cinephile who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She loves tequila, the cinema and drinking tequila at the cinema. You can follow her deranged rantings on Twitter.