Review: Netflix’s ‘Big Mouth’ shares what growing up means today
I’ve followed Netflix’s animated series “Big Mouth” since it debuted in 2017. I’ve loved every minute of it since, including its third season, which was released on Oct. 4. But I know that it rubs some people the wrong way, and I can see why it does. The sexual jokes are blatant and graphic — which can feel especially inappropriate considering that the characters are middle schoolers — and visually, the show is a tad more grotesque than your typical animation.
On top of that, the show is just plain weird: Nick Birch (voiced by Nick Kroll), one of the main characters, has the ghost of Duke Ellington (voiced by Jordan Peele) living in his attic. Each pubescent character has a “hormone monster” — which are only visible and audible to the preteen they are associated with — that accompanies them and talks them through the ups and downs of puberty. Finally, another preteen character, Jay Bilzerian (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas), has sex with pillows, couch cushions and turkeys, eventually impregnating a pillow and becoming the father of another small pillow. “Big Mouth” isn’t for the faint-hearted.
But that’s what makes “Big Mouth” so great: it’s the perfect representation of the experience of transitioning into adolescence itself, and its realism peaks in season three. Throughout the series, the exaggerated perversion, the crude humor, the strange, surreal internal monologues that the hormone monsters create — all symbolize the roller coaster that is puberty.
We’ve all seen preteens go through a dramatic, self-centered, angsty phase and make fools out of themselves as a result. “Big Mouth” forces the audience to remember how overwhelming and strange trying to understand your rapidly changing body and identity can be at that point in life while retaining the humor of it all. It almost reminds the audience that we, as adults, have moved past those experiences and should be able to relate to the characters and laugh at our volatile, immature past selves. What the show lacks in propriety it makes up for with realism and nostalgia. Any discomfort you feel while watching comes from the knowing second-hand embarrassment of people who have been there.
That’s the strength of the entire series as a whole. What makes season three special is another aspect of the show’s identity: its representation of how modern issues add a different flair to the universal experience of puberty. The rapid development of values independent of parental ones, unstable self-confidence and the capricious emotional state of puberty applies to anyone, but seventh graders in 2019 have different concerns and different ways of understanding the way they relate to the world than seventh graders a decade or two ago. “Big Mouth” makes a point of understanding the psyche of today’s youth.
For example, Jessi Glaser (voiced by Jessi Klein), is an erudite and relatively mature character trying to understand feminism and how to reconcile her feminist ideals with her desire to be desired by her misogynistic, willfully objectifying and constantly lewd male peers. In season two, Jessi experiences insecurity about her body as she remains fairly flat-chested while all the boys develop crushes on another student named Gina, who suddenly becomes voluptuous as she hits her growth spurt. While criticizing her male peers for giving Gina sudden, unwanted attention, Jessi also wants to be more desirable and feels resentful and confused with herself for feeling that way.
In season three, Jessi’s insecurity and her relationship to feminism is explored in a more nuanced way in the second episode, “Girls Are Angry Too.” In this episode, after a male student gets “distracted” by a revealing outfit on one of the girls and gets into an accident in shop class, the school passes an extremely sexist dress code. In protest, the girls decide to come to school wearing their most provocative clothing, and when one of Jessi’s friends, a “late bloomer” named Missy Foreman-Greenwald (voiced by Jenny Slate) fails to follow through, Jessi implies that she agrees with the other girls who accuse Missy of being “a traitor to [her] own gender.”
In that moment, the show finally portrays Jessi as what she is. Despite the mature facade and her impressive eloquence — particularly around gender — Jessi is still only 12, insecure and hasn’t yet grasped an understanding that feminism means accepting and respecting femininity in all forms. If anything, for Jessi, her feminism is more of a defense mechanism to hide her insecurity so that she can act nonchalant about which girls are getting attention from boys.
This episode evokes some other characters’ development regarding understanding gender as well. Andrew Glouberman (voiced by John Mulaney) expresses frustration and annoyance at the girls’ protest, claiming that he doesn’t understand why the boys can’t call the girls sexy when they dress so provocatively. Andrew eventually has an outburst: “What do you b—es want from us?!” Nick, who wants to be an ally to women but doesn’t know how, hilariously corrects his friend “Woah, woah, woah, woah, Andrew, they’re not b—es, they’re sluts.” Nick goes on to apologize to Jessi and have a conversation about what he should do as an ally, while Andrew, well, took a different route. Spoiler alert: think accidental attendance at a Nazi meeting.
“Big Mouth” also explores sexuality across the spectrum. It probably wasn’t a surprise to viewers that “Big Mouth” was going to provide some sort of a take on queer issues. There is a flamboyant “out” character named Matthew (voiced by Andrew Rannells) and Jay is shown exploring his sexual desire toward both men and women from the start of the series. But “Big Mouth” again takes a more complex, more novel approach that is fitting for Generation Z specifically.
For instance, there are plenty of stories about gay or lesbian teens enduring social isolation or other forms of oppression as consequences for their identities. “Big Mouth” tastefully avoided this; Matthew is already out upon his first appearance without detailing his coming-out, and despite initially being the only out student at the school, is socially well-adjusted and respected and even gets into a healthy relationship by the end of the third season which he comfortably flaunts to his friends. What “Big Mouth” does tackle is something much more complicated: the negative stereotypes around bisexuality and pansexuality.
In episode eight, “Rankings” — the episode in which students rank their peers in order of hotness — a girl named Ali (voiced by Ali Wong) starts at the school and announces that she identifies as pansexual. Though “Big Mouth” failed to accurately define pansexuality — which resulted in co-creator Andrew Goldberg apologizing for the misrepresentation on his Twitter page — the impact Ali’s announcement has on the other characters and the show’s resulting exploration of sexuality as a factor in identity construction for today’s youth is undeniable.
Immediately, the boys are intrigued, mostly because they’re turned on by the thought of threesomes or Ali hooking up with girls. The girls are a bit confused and definitely very jealous as their rankings drop in favor of Ali and her “exotic” sexuality. Ali and her sexuality are immediately reduced to a sexual fantasy rather than a multifaceted identity, as is often the case for queer women.
Seeing that Ali’s pansexuality actually gave her social clout, Jay, who had not been ready to accept and share his bisexuality, finally comes out to his friends. However, he does not receive the same kind of welcoming response. Matthew, who was the first person Jay approached after coming out, dismisses his sexuality as a cover for actually being gay. His friends Andrew and Nick initially don’t believe him, saying that they suspected it was a “ploy for attention,” and then admit that they aren’t comfortable with his sexuality despite their readiness to accept Ali’s “more appealing” sexuality. The episode concludes with Ali and Jay sharing their complicated experiences regarding their sexual orientation to each other, serving as the season’s culminating representation of sexuality in for preteens today.
Current and realistic portrayals of what it’s like to grow up is exactly what “Big Mouth” excels at. Middle schoolers in this day and age — though they may be well-versed in social issues — are often still simply repeating what they’ve been exposed to through media or the adults in their lives. They only really begin formulating their own opinions and values through convoluted experiences in their adolescence that challenge or exceed the scope of what they’ve heard.
The growing pains of adolescence is a timeless concept that is well-executed in “Big Mouth” like many predecessors before it. But the show’s niche strength is that it contextualizes this experience through the perspective of today’s preteens in a way that balances humor with doing justice to the identity crises youth go through on a daily basis in 2019.
The show capitalizes off of the relatability of puberty while educating the audience on newer issues, and for breaking that generational barrier alone, the show deserves accolades.