Kieren Williams praises Netflix’s Big Mouth for tackling big issues that are prevalent amongst teens today
‘It’s like… thirteen year olds… masturbating.’
I was trying to explain Big Mouth to a friend, and safe to say I was doing a god awful job. Not just because this show isn’t thirteen year old’s masturbating – rather it isn’t just that – but also because that brushes over how this show deals with some legitimately difficult issues that so many people (thirteen year old’s and us university students alike) face.
The premise of the show is pretty simple. It follows a group of kids going through puberty. And we’re all here so (I’d imagine) we all know what that’s like and the certain highs and lows that come with it. But, throughout, the show delicately and intelligently deals with a host of issues from sexual education, gender issues, being LGBTQ+, mental health, and more. Even more impressively, this is accomplished without sacrificing a millimetre of comedic value or humour throughout. It does this in a medium far more translatable than any of the dull, dusty sex education lessons I had through secondary school.
Season two, episode five, in particular, ‘The Planned Parenthood Show’ feels like it was written in direct response to the inadequacies of schools sexual education lessons. It deals openly with the truth of contraception, STIs, and abortion clinics – something my school was never able to do. They just gave us bananas to put condoms on. It delicately and intelligently deals with sex, sexual awakening and gender issues. It doesn’t shy away from biological animations showing our inner workings to explaining what’s going on behind them and always making you laugh and the lived reality of these for either gender. The show’s creator Nick Kroll said that female puberty is so often ignored in popular culture and this was something they wanted to show, and to fight. This is what needed to ensure that it isn’t so stigmatised and people will no longer continue to get grossed out by periods or the like.
Nor does the show shy away from confronting further gender issues like inequality and the patriarchy and breaking them down throughout the two seasons currently airing on Netflix. It does this mainly through Jessi (the main female lead), but also through the wider female cast on the show. This is seen in the second episode of the first season ‘Everybody Bleeds’ where she has her first period on a school trip. The show unabashedly deals with the inequality existing between men and women in our world and the double standards we face, with the second episode of the second season furthering this. It jokes about the sexualisation of women from an increasingly younger age but highlights this problem and other very real issues young women face. Season one, episode eight, does a short but impressive look at consent in the light of a ‘head pusher’ at a high school party trying to force Leah – the main character’s sixteen year old sister – into a blowjob. It shows how some people hide sexual assault behind a superficial layer of wokeness or beliefs of being owed sex. It shows how engrained into general sex culture problematic attitudes like this are.
The show broaches LGTBQ+ issues in a way which may seem problematic at first, but once broken down, it makes sense. It does it through the token gay character, Matthew. He is both sassy and mean, and has a love for the gossip and quips alike. And whilst this is often the normal stereotypical derivative work which we see across a thousand other shows (looking at you in particular Riverdale) Matthew breaks down his own stereotype in the second season, in episode one when he’s challenged by an older man to be more than the stereotype and to be his own man. Because he is still a man. On top of this, he frequently (read: twice) helps other male characters explore their own sexuality and come to terms with it – I could’ve used a Matthew at my school. But, it doesn’t just use him as a vehicle for others or fighting stereotyped gay characters, it confronts the often haunting issues LGTBQ+ children can face at school in the face of endless waves of masculinity and homophobia as they stand alone and deal with this loneliness. A dreadful reality for so many, but Matthew reminds them that, whilst it may feel like it, you’re not alone in the end. The men (boys? Men? Adolescents?) in the show swing from walking examples of everything awful men tend to do, to having brief interludes of compassion and understanding for their female counterparts. They briefly awaken to the struggles they face, but fall back to their oh so horny ways soon.
There’s so much more I could speak of in this show, but I’ll end with what hit home the hardest for me. It was one of the briefest issues it dealt with, right at the tail end of season two (I presume it’ll run into season three). It was Jessi’s depression. Throughout the two seasons Jessi goes through a lot – it turns out her mum’s possibly gay and cheating on her stoner deadbeat dad and she runs away, rebels, steals, and tries drugs. But, this doesn’t get away from the reality of her life, and it comes crashing home when the aptly named depression kitty (a personification of her depression – think giant purple Garfield whose butt is always shoved in the air) appears in her life in the penultimate episode of the second season. As someone who has, and does struggle with mental health problems, I not-so-silently cheer every time a TV show has the boobs (not balls, we’re saying boobs now) to deal with it productively and with the delicacy it needs. As I said, it is brief in what it says and does with it. But Jessi fights the ruts so many of us get trapped in, and struggles so hard with her own life and is mortally aware of it the entire time. Whereas other shows have come under heavy criticism for their own portrayals of mental health (looking at 13 Reasons Why-the-hell-are-they-doing-it-like-that?), like everything else, Big Mouth approaches it with sensitivity and a good natured humour. When Andrew sniffs and says Jessi should have told someone quite bluntly, I laughed a lot because I defy you to find someone with mental health problems who hasn’t got a friend who’s said that to them.
So yeah, Big Mouth is pretty damn great.
Maybe it is like thirteen year old’s masturbating … but maybe it’s also so much more.