Netflix’s Big Mouth Is Redefining How We Learn About Sex
Sex is weird. It’s sticky and messy and heady and Big Mouth is sharing all the grisly details with a new generation of kids who’ll grow up enjoying better sex lives for it, according to sex experts and educators.
But Big Mouth – which, in the words of writer Nick Kroll, is ‘coming of age all over the place’ – has proved divisive, as illustrated by each and every 21,000 down votes the season one trailer has received, in comparison to the meagre 9,000 thumbs up.
Here’s what all the fuss is about:
One self-titled ‘activist mommy’ even petitioned Netflix to take it off the streaming service using the hashtag ‘No Big Mouth’, after claiming it ‘sexualises adolescence’ and uses ‘arguably pornographic images to depict the experiences of its teenage characters’.
Other misguided critics have dubbed its brand of humour ‘disgusting’ and likened it to ‘peadophilia pushing’. They’re totally off the mark, but they’re not alone.
Over 115,000 people have signed the Citizen Go petition to get Big Mouth cancelled, at the time of writing.
The petitioners, in simple terms, don’t want their kids watching Big Mouth. Luckily, it’s a cartoon created by adults for adults, and rated TV-MA by the FCC thanks to its well-written ‘crude language’ and poignant ‘sexual situations’, which means it ‘may be unsuitable for children under 17′, rendering the naysayers’ efforts to ban it completely futile.
But, now that’s taken care of, their knee-jerk response is indicative of a wider societal stigma around open discussions about sexuality.
Melissa Pintor Carnagey, Founder of Sex Positive Families, told UNILAD these fears can come from restrictive religious beliefs; sexual trauma; sensationalised portrayal of sex in media; and, the misguided belief that talking about sex with young people will lead to them wanting to have sex, ‘though research continues to prove this is untrue’.
The licensed social worker continued:
People also can be misinformed about the concept of sexuality, viewing it as being only about sex and something people age into. The truth is, sexuality is with us from conception until our last breath. It encompasses many experiences that are biological, psychological, social, political, spiritual and much more; it is not just about sex.
Fearing discussion about something as human as sexuality is what contributes to shame and silence around sexual health, which keeps young people at greater risk for unsafe and unpleasant experiences around their bodies and relationships with others.
While no one’s saying we should fire up the projectors and roll in the VHS-compatible school TV to get Year 7s to examine stills and sub-plots of Big Mouth, we, those brave souls who survived puberty, can learn from it and do better for the next generation going forth into battle.
Indeed, Pintor Carnagey, who teaches sex ed to tweens and teens in schools, says she wouldn’t recommend the show to under 16s who’re watching Big Mouth in secret with no other support for their questions related to sex.
But, for both teens and adults the show ‘takes the shame and silence out of sexual health’:
The show definitely speaks to our current generation of adults and parents who did not receive consistent or shame-free sex education growing up.
When adults take time to connect with their own early sexual health experiences, they can be more effective mentors for the young people in their lives who are needing support along theirs.
To be clear, it’s okay to shy away from Big Mouth.
Maybe it wasn’t your cup of cartoon entertainment tea when a 13-year-old called Jay Bilzerian filled a pillowcase with warm lentil soup and made sweet, savoury love to it in episode three of season one, Sleepover: A Harrowing Ordeal of Emotional Brutality.
Maybe you got the ‘ick’ at the thought of Jessi Klein, a seventh grader, meeting her talking vagina (voiced by the inimitable Kristen Wiig) for the first time in a handheld mirror.
Maybe the plot doesn’t put you in the mood for ‘Netflix and Chill’. Maybe it does. No judgement here. Maybe you just don’t like the style of animation.
But at some point, we’ve all got to ask ourselves why some people, through no fault of their own, feel so squeamish about the perfectly natural trappings of puberty and the subsequent sexual exploration.
Personally, I’m biased. Big Mouth is, in my humble opinion, the best thing to land on the small screen since an alien evoked the Big Bang by penetrating a pre-humanity Earth with its penis.
From the moment its opening credits play, the shows sets itself apart as an anthem of relatable absurdity; a hymn sheet almost all of us can sing from as we belt out the soulful refrain to Changes – a Black Sabbath classic – as covered by Charles Bradley.
It’s as if BoJack Horseman, the dark brooding type, met Frasier Crane, with all his superior wisdom, they joined forces and nuzzled into your brain, plucked out its inner-workings and spat them out onto the telly with all the bizarre off-the-wall gusto of Rick and Morty.
Sprinkle in a few Westchester school kids who’re charismatically clueless, their omniscient hormone monsters who could step in for The Thick Of It‘s Malcolm Tucker at any moment, as well as some embarrassing parents reminiscent of your own, and you’ve got yourself a show about puberty, my friends.
Between heads which explode upon discovering girls can be horny and a plethora of cameos from dead famous people throughout history, it is grotesque, gross-out humour at its finest.
Big Mouth‘s dream team of co-creators, Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett, turn 20-minute viewing sessions into a messy, confusing, hilarious, revealing experiences, much like adolescence itself, in the name of entertainment.
As Maury the Hormone Monster says, accidentally voicing the very reason Big Mouth works so well, ‘maybe if it’s animated, we could get away with it’.
Just don’t call them ‘puberty fairies’. The Shame Wizard and Hormone Monsters, Connie, Maury and Rick, are the crowning jewel in a show which manages to make all the dark moments of puberty okay, and ‘play a clever role in deconstructing the often confusing experiences of young people going through puberty’, according to Pintor Carnagey.
Emily Burt, founder of Fumble, an inclusive non-profit sex advice organisation for young people, agrees. Burt told UNILAD she started watching Big Mouth upon the release of its first season in October 2017 because she was as ‘intrigued’ as the rest of us.
Quickly, she grew to love the Hormone Monsters on a personal and professional level, she said, as both storytelling devices and comforting familiarities.
I can remember going through puberty myself – sometimes I would say and do things that made me feel like I was outside of my own head and going a bit mad – and they’re a wonderful embodiment of that sensation.
The monsters show adolescence can be something that happens to you, something we all have to go through, rather than those weird, messed up thoughts or feelings.
I also feel like Connie and Maury (and let’s not forget Rick) genuinely care about their kids, although they sometimes express it in unconventional ways.
Using the Monsters as a vehicle for sharing advice and debunking myths, Big Mouth promotes a healthier sexuality than anything I watched growing up, from Skins to Sugar Rush, in which all the beautiful people seemed to have it all figured out.
Certainly, the writers’ honesty, often recalling persona experiences from their younger years, exceeded Burt’s expectations.
But why are so many sex educators looking towards a crude, entertaining, side-splittingly funny Netflix original as a bastion of progressive sex ed?
Well, it’s a mercifully far cry from what’s taught in American schools – if anything is taught at all.
While teachers are limited by governance and legislation, and abstinence is scarily so often the party line, Netflix is airing episodes of Big Mouth which examine the role of Planned Parenthood in society.
Likewise, even after #MeToo, only 24 American states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in public schools, the Center for American Progress found, and of them, only eight states require mention of consent or sexual assault.
In season one, Big Mouth broke new ground with The Head Push, which narrated a guy’s attempts to force a classmate into a sex act she wasn’t willing to do. It was ground-breaking because the girl’s fellow students believed her.
Here in the UK, sex ed is still not compulsory in schools. In other words, some kids don’t even get the privilege of watching their teacher slide a condom onto a banana.
Burt also calls the UK legislation ‘past its sell by date’ and says it ‘is not inclusive, period.’ It hasn’t been updated since the turn of the century; the year 2000, to be precise.
It was a time of Napster and the first ever iPod. It was the year Kevin Spacey won an Academy Award for American Beauty and George W. Bush was elected 43rd president of the United States. A lot has changed. Tinder. Grindr. Sexting. D*ck pics. #MeToo.
When you think about it, a whole load of British 18-year-olds have grown up and become adults who learned almost nothing beyond the biological about sex in school, teaching themselves along the way, in the same amount of time it’s taken the government to wake up and update sex ed.
Now, adults are in charge of sex ed without having ever experienced the climate in which teens are trying to find themselves.
Burt described the average school syllabus, saying:
When it is taught it’s primarily about the science and mechanics of heterosexual intercourse; perhaps with a smattering of basic STI knowledge and periods, but not much else.
Big Mouth tackles all of the above in far greater depth, and more. You get episodes on everything from female anatomy and sexual pleasure, to pornography, consent, LGBT issues, and it’s all presented in an incredibly honest and relatable way.
Only this year did the UK government announce sex ed will become compulsory for school children from September 2020 and will include how to stay safe on and offline, as well as the importance of healthy relationships.
Education Secretary Damian Hinds said:
Many of today’s problems did not exist when we last gave schools guidance on how to teach relationships and sex education 18 years ago.
The action we’re taking is important to help support teachers and schools design a curriculum that will enrich their pupils in an age appropriate way.
The government consulted parents, experts and – most importantly – young people on what the new curriculum should look like, resulting in the 11-point Young People’s Manifesto: What We Want And Need From RSE.
Materials will be published in September 2019, so all remains to be seen.
What we know is this: If the government continues to patronise and attempt to pull the wool over their eyes, kids will simply go elsewhere to find out what they need to know.
It’s already happening, and has been for years. The more societal authorities try to blinker kids to the realms of sex, the more they’ll head online for information.
Indeed, NSPCC research suggests almost half 11 to 16-year-olds have seen pornography online. While porn can be a great way to explore your own sexuality, the adult industry cannot be held solely responsible for teaching young people about sex.
Failing porn, pop culture is usually the next port of call. So it’s important for these sex educators and professionals to champion the kinds of shows which help, not hinder, sexual development through the tough years of puberty for all who choose to watch.
After all, said Burt, ‘a lot of young people will be seeing content far more extreme and disturbing than anything ever shown on Big Mouth‘.
Pinter Carnegey chimed in:
Many of them have phones and handheld devices that with a few clicks can direct them straight to sexually explicit content, porn, sexting and social media that can perpetuate inaccurate messaging about their bodies and sexual health.
Now, more than ever they need mentors in their lives who are informed and not afraid to tackle talks about puberty, sex and relationships to help them make informed decisions throughout their development.
Having taught sex ed to teens she said one thing is certain, she says: Kids are ‘very curious about sex, puberty and relationships’ but ‘many do not have a safe space where they can share their curiosities’.
‘If they are old enough to wonder, they are more than ready for honest answers,’ she concluded.
Meanwhile, season two is out for your delectation and Netflix has renewed Big Mouth for a third season, after fans called for the show to follow Jessi, Nick, Missy and Andrew all the way into adulthood.
Burt, for one, says she ‘can’t wait’ to see what issues Maury, Connie and Rick tackle in their own unconventional way next.
You can watch the announcement courtesy of Netflix below:
Gird your loins, it looks like it’s going to be a rough ride reliving the hell of puberty from the safety of our sofas.
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