Since its release in 2017, the animated series Big Mouth has been one of my favourite shows. I’ve returned to it multiple times, whether it has been to get me through a long flight or the isolation and uncertainty of quarantine. Despite its graphic nature, it has become a personal comfort show and it continues to teach me new ways to approach my life and my relationship with myself.
Big Mouth follows the students of Bridgeton Middle School as they come-of-age. Though I understand why certain viewers could be turned off by the blunt way that the show tackles sexuality, adolescence, emotions, race and gender, I find this honesty to be its greatest strength. In a cultural atmosphere in which narratives about sex and puberty are often shrouded in shame and secrecy, the messages and lessons that Big Mouth posits are incredibly relevant. It is an adult show, made by those who were once awkward adolescents, lived to tell the tale and are now ready to laugh about and grow from their experiences. The show’s animation style also allows for big emotions to be personified by characters that our protagonists physically interact with. Symbolizing anxiety, puberty, depression, love and more, this gang of Hormone Monsters and assorted creatures perfectly embody the vast range of the adolescent emotional experience, contributing to the show’s unique visual style.
To celebrate Big Mouth being renewed for a seventh season, and to start the new year off on a fun, hopeful note, I’ve decided to compile some of my favourite episodes from the last six seasons, as well as the important topics that they cover. Hopefully, it encourages you to try out the show if you’ve never seen it or to revisit it if it’s been a while!
Season 1, Episode 2: “Everybody Bleeds”
Whether talking about masturbation, pornography, or getting your first period, Big Mouth has proved time and time again that it’s not afraid to ‘go there’. When Jessi gets her first period on a school field trip, she is required to depend on her male friend, Andrew, for help. This eventually leads to a discussion amongst their classmates about what it means for a person to menstruate, revealing the lack of knowledge that students of all genders are often given about their bodies and, subsequently, the lack of support. The most poignant moment in the episode comes in a conversation between Jessi and Nick, in which he apologizes for her getting her period, to which she replies, “Don’t be sorry. It’s normal.”
The lack of dialogue around menstruation is harmful for everyone. It means that the female body is often thought of as inherently dirty and period justice issues, such as access to menstrual products, are pushed further to the margins. Comprehensive sex education can change these narratives, encouraging a recognition and celebration of the power of the female body. The more we speak openly and honestly about periods, moving beyond conversations centered around pain and discomfort, the more we are able to dispel shame. Big Mouth does just that.
Season 2, Episode 3: “The Shame Wizard”
Throughout the show, shame becomes a continually recurring theme. In true Big Mouth style, shame is introduced as having a physical embodiment in the aptly named “Shame Wizard”. With his long flowy capes and ominous presence, the Shame Wizard is introduced into Andrew’s life after an unfortunate incident at his best friend Nick’s house. It isn’t long before the Shame Wizard overwhelms Andrew and puts him on trial in “Shame Court,” accusing him of being not only a pervert, but a fundamentally bad person.
Shame is often described, psychologically, as moving beyond how a person feels about their behaviour and instead focusing on feelings of self and a lack of self-worth. Andrew’s feelings of shame come to the forefront while he is in Shame Court and is told by the Shame Wizard that “He didn’t do a bad thing; he is a bad thing.” Shame has often been used in oppressive ways, reinforcing limiting rules for gender/sexuality and decreasing self-confidence. By visualizing shame in this way, Big Mouth once again opens a dialogue about this powerful, yet secretive, emotion, allowing audiences to consider their own shame-based thought patterns and how to confront this thinking in order to live more openly and authentically.
Season 3, Episode 2: “Girls Are Angry Too”
Big Mouth confronts another big topic in season three, choosing to tackle sexist dress code policies. After a number of school incidents involving inappropriate (and sometimes dangerous) behaviour from a number of male students, Bridgeton Middle introduces a strict dress code policy, which eventually devolves into the introduction of uniforms. It becomes immediately apparent to many of the young girls that their clothing choices and bodies are the only ones being policed. In protest, many of the students organize a ‘Slut Walk,’ dressing purposefully provocative in order to point out the disparity in the way that girls and boys are treated by the dress code. One student, Missy, feels uncomfortable dressing this way, and she instead chooses to show up to the protest in her usual overalls. This sparks a debate amongst the students about what it means to be a feminist and an ally and whether or not there is a ‘right way’ for them to protest the sexist dress code. Rather than giving an answer, the show demonstrates that conversations around feminist activism need to be continuous and that they are constantly evolving, adapting to new information and including more people within their vision. There is no one ‘right way’ to achieve liberation, and activism is enriched rather than hindered by different experiences. These are big conversations to have and as protest-leader Jessi states near the episode climax’s, “I think it might just be this long conversation we all have to keep having,” a conversation which Big Mouth continues to commit to.
Season 4, Episode 5: “A Very Special 9/11 Episode”
A big moment of change for the show came in 2020, when lead voice actress Jenny Slate stepped down from her role as Missy, a biracial student, stating that “Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people”. In the midst of Black Lives Matter protests and an increased conversation surrounding racial politics, this felt like an important step for the show to make, and even more important was the way they incorporated this change within the show’s narrative. Known for its self-awareness and fourth-wall breaks throughout its first three seasons, Big Mouth continues that tradition in my selected episode, even having Missy go as far as to state that she is voiced by a white actress. Though the change in voice actress is not made until the penultimate episode of the season, my episode selection provides the perfect lead in, as it progresses the narrative of Missy’s racial uncertainty. As the season continues, Missy’s exploration of race becomes an important part of her identity and adolescent struggle, and, as she increasingly becomes more comfortable with her Blackness, she experiences a physical voice change (Ayo Edebiri replacing Jenny Slate), representing a powerful maturation process, both for her character and for the show.
As for episode five, it utilizes the experience of fellow Black classmate, Devon, who introduce Missy to code-switching. Illustrated physically in my chosen episode as a dial situated on Devon’s arm, code-switching is a performative change in speech and expression that a person embodies in order to allow them to move safely within specific spaces. In the episode, Devon shows the difference between the way he acts around white suburban moms as opposed to other Black people or his classmates, having a different personality for each situation. Big Mouth’s portrayal of code-switching is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the needed awareness of young Black people to recognize whiteness and be able to perform it effectively in order to ensure their safety. Second, it recognizes that whiteness is a construct, an ideal that is not inherent and that its oppressive power allows it to remain unrecognized by those who embody it. By calling it out, Big Mouth denaturalizes whiteness as the ideal or as the base from which all other racial identities and experiences should be compared. As Missy is entering this new world of exploring her racial identity, so is the show, demonstrating that Big Mouth’s success continues to be in its cultural responsiveness, willingness to grow and its relevance to modern audiences.
Season 5, Episode 6: “Best Friends Make the Best Lovers”
Toxic masculinity is an increasingly hot button topic, infiltrating sport cultures, the workplace and relationships and having many negative impacts. Big Mouth tackles these issues head on in this season five episode.
After experiencing a series of heartbreaks, a group of boys at Bridgeton Middle plan a “boy’s night,” during which they plan on getting out all of their adolescent frustrations by tearing down an abandoned house. It becomes immediately clear that these boys have never been given the space to express their emotions in a safe, healthy or meaningful way. Their only acceptable forms of expression are anger and violence, both of which are on full display at this “boy’s night”.
Toxic masculinity is a gendered box which limits the ways that men can express themselves and can relate with others, leading to increased sexual aggression, stoicism, homophobia and a need for dominance. One boy at the “boy’s night,” Andrew, having recently committed to healing his own toxic characteristics, takes it upon himself to open up a space where other boys can be vulnerable. While his friends are breaking stuff, getting injured and getting into fights, Andrew is encouraging them to express themselves, actively listening and providing them with a level of comfort that would often be viewed as inappropriate through the lens of toxic masculinity. Andrew’s role within his friend community is so powerful, in that it shows the importance of men creating community by being vulnerable and holding each other accountable. Conversations about patriarchy tend to neglect the harm that these power structures also inflict on men. By committing to confronting his own toxic traits and opening up that space for others, Andrew is imagining new ways that men are able to express emotions and relate to each other. He proves that it isn’t masculinity that is toxic, it is the dangerous and oppressive limitations we place on people (and label as ideal masculinity) because of the gendered lens of patriarchy.
Season 6, Episode 8: “Asexual Healing”
An often overlooked topic in the area of sexuality and sex education is the experience of asexuality. With the introduction of a new student to Bridgeton Middle in season six, we’re given a plotline focused on the experience of Elijah, a young man struggling with the lack of sexual attraction he feels towards his girlfriend. Feeling abnormal, Elijah searches for guidance from his family, his hormone monsters and from local sexual savant, Jay, all to no result. Finally, a conversation with his aunt allows him to recognize his own feelings of asexuality and to begin a path of self-exploration and acceptance.
Though season two of Netflix’s Sex Education also had a brief mention of asexuality, it is groundbreaking and exciting to have an asexual character’s sexual struggles become a main plot line with a multi-episode arc. Not only are we shown Elijah’s internal dialogue, but the show also explores his relationship dynamic, approaching the topic with consideration and respect, just further proving that Big Mouth remains relevant and continues to push boundaries.
So to answer the question, “Can TV teach us to be better people?,” in Big Mouth’s case, yes, especially if we are open to the conversations that the show is willing to have with us. Hopefully, we will see more of this open dialogue and radical self-acceptance on display in season seven!
You can stream all six seasons, now, on Netflix.
All image credits: Netflix
Hi! I’m Brynn, and I’m super excited to be writing on the blogs committee this year. I am a third-year Women’s and Gender Studies student with interests in film, feminism, theatre and social justice. Blog writing provides me with the perfect opportunity to combine all of these passions. I hope you will join me on my blog journey!