Big Mouth: A Problematic Fave

I’ve been obsessed with “Big Mouth” even before the day it first aired. If you haven’t heard of it, “Big Mouth” centers around two middle school friends, Nick and Andrew dealing with all the classic middle school issues we all know and wish to forget. While the subjects are middle schoolers, the show is certainly made for an older audience.

It has everything: discourse on toxic masculinity, puberty, John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, even an illiterate gym coach to keep things interesting. I’ve always hated shows like “Family Guy” that buy cheap views with offensive statements and played out stereotypes, but “Big Mouth” seems like it’s trying to achieve a little more than that. Sure, they’re never one to shy away from a raunchy joke (I’m thinking about a certain Garrison Keillor bit in particular) but beyond that, the show parodies our education system and how we handle the most awkward phase of life.

This latest season is no different. In the very first episode, the kids are faced with a sexist dress code that obviously punishes the girls for being girls and excuses the boys’ obnoxious behavior around them. In response, the girls stage a “slut walk” at the school. While the girls all plan to wear intentionally revealing clothes, one girl, Missy, doesn’t feel comfortable. Awkward, nerdy, and in love with Nathan Fillion, Missy feels more comfortable in her usual overalls and yellow shirt––even after being called “a minion” for wearing it.

Rather than accept her for who she is, Missy is called a traitor and shunned by the rest of the girls for her outfit. While still coming ready to protest, the other girls on the show can’t seem to find a place for her and the movement ends up spiraling out of control. While filled with its usual crass humor and tangents, this episode struck a chord with me.

In the ever-evolving feminist movement and the digital age setting the backdrop for my own middle school years, behaving like a “real feminist” felt impossible for me. Things that were empowering for other women felt scary, foreign, and out of line with my naturally introverted lifestyle. Clothing can certainly be freeing for some, but trying to deal with a barrage of social pressure and adopt a hobby just to make a statement to the world is a lot to put on a seventh grader’s shoulders.

Though certainly done with humor, “Big Mouth” captures the real truth of growing up in a progressive town as a young girl. While there certainly are advantages to a community pushing for change, it also means dealing with the traditional standards of womanhood from one side as well as the expectation of rebellion from the other. Juggling the pressures of society and the expectations of older feminists to carry on a legacy all while dealing with puberty is a complicated minefield that “Big Mouth” tackles with grace.

While I could go on and on about all the things I like about the show, in the week since the newest season aired, there has been increasing controversy surrounding one bit in particular.

A new student, Ali (voiced by Ali Wong) enters the class and identifies herself as pansexual. She describes her sexuality as “into boys, girls, and everything in between” differentiating it from bisexuality which is “so binary.” While her poised definition seems correct to uninformed viewers, many people were upset by the biphobia presented in this statement.

Describing pansexual as escaping the binary and being inclusive of trans people also sends a message that bisexual is the opposite––restrictive and exclusive. It allows pansexual people to feel a sense of superiority over bisexual people when the labels were really created to allow people a sense of greater freedom and ability to understand themselves. It also communicates to trans and nonbinary people that they are not inherently included in bisexuality (or any sexuality, unless explicitly stated).

Bisexual activist Robyn Ochs describes her reasoning behind the bisexual label because, “ [she] acknowledge[s] that [she has] in [herself] the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

Though a complex and layered discussion about sexuality, most agreed that the scene in “Big Mouth” failed to capture these nuances.

In season one, Andrew (one of the main characters) struggles with his own sexual identity, wondering if he might be gay throughout the episode. Spoiler if you haven’t watched the show, but we find out within the half an hour that he isn’t gay--though not escaping without a song about it first. The episode was funny, of course, but I was slightly apprehensive about the fact that the (straight) creators used his possible identity as a source of comedy for half an hour before returning to the safety of his heterosexuality. While not the most egregious crime on television, it felt a little lazy and was a total missed opportunity for representation on the show.

I don’t think either of these things should cancel “Big Mouth” but I do want the writers to learn from these mistakes, especially when dealing with something as sensitive as sexual identity. Co-creator Andrew Goldberg apologized in a Tweet earlier this week, stating, “I sincerely apologize for making people feel misrepresented...Thank you to the trans, pan and bi communities for further opening our eyes to these important and complicated issues of representation…” While I feel like is a sincere and thorough apology, there are definitely some steps they could take to remedy these issues.

I won’t claim to know the sexualities of the “Big Mouth” writers’ room, but judging by these missteps, I’m guessing it’s pretty homogenous. If “Big Mouth” truly wants to tackle issues of sexuality and do it right, they need to hire people from the communities they represent. This season’s controversy should be a wake-up call. Despite the obvious problems the show had, they are clearly evolving.

Unlike the first season, season three included a bisexual character and a gay character as major storylines. Though they have a long way to go, the writers are expanding who is being given serious time in the show and what makes a serious storyline. As I enter the post-binge slump, I hope that the creators do some reflecting on the good and the bad of this season. I am eager to see more representation, diversity, and of course more Coach Steve next season.