The first time I heard the word “sex” was when my problematic best friend Olivia told me that sex is when a man and a woman take off all their clothes and pee on each other. We were in the first grade. For the next several years, I would continue to ask my mom where babies came from, continuously unsatisfied with her answer. “I prayed for you and God blessed me with a child,” she would say. But how and why did she get pregnant? If God created me, why wasn’t I just zapped directly onto the earth as a child? I wanted specific answers! I didn’t learn what sex actually was until the fifth grade, when my pediatrician recommended I read “What’s Happening to My Body?” Book for Girls. The book answered all my questions and prompted me to ask plenty more. I didn’t fully understand everything, but I knew it would be weird to ask; I sensed that my parents and peers were uncomfortable talking about sex.
Fast forward 10 years or so, and I discover Big Mouth, the show based on best friends Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg’s real-life, embarrassing preteen experiences. The animated Netflix show about middle schoolers navigating the horrors of puberty fosters an open and necessary dialogue about sexuality. “The whole reason we made the show is because we believe that the more that this stuff around puberty and sexuality is talked about, the healthier people will be,” says creator and voice actor Nick Kroll. “My hope is that the show gives a platform and vocabulary for kids to talk to their parents, each other, their educators about what they’re going through. You feel very alone at that point in your life. It’s very helpful in general for kids who are at that age to see that this is happening to everybody.” Big Mouth aims to break down the stigma surrounding sexuality by openly discussing our culture’s misconceptions, fears, and anxieties, as reflected in the psyches of Nick Birch, Andrew Glouberman, and their friends at Bridgeton Middle School. The show is written for adults, but it tackles the many preteen challenges of shame, identity conflict, depression, and more.
Young adolescents often lack the language to talk openly about their experiences, but Big Mouth offers that language through personification. Hormone monster Maurice and hormone monstress Connie are the angel/devils that drive the main characters, encouraging them to explore their sexualities in sometimes healthy, but mostly unhealthy ways. The Shame Wizard haunts Andrew with self-loathing whenever he spirals into feelings of worthlessness and guilt. The Depression Kitty attempts to capture and isolate Jessi, feeding her spoonfuls of soupy ice cream and telling her to nap constantly. These characters illustrate the many challenges that come with growing up, allowing the show to give voice to the middle school characters’ constant internal conflicts.
The show is extremely vulgar, cringe-worthy, and frankly disgusting at times, filled with an obscene amount of dick-jokes and genitalia puns. The vulgarity definitely aims to create comedic shock-value. However, by vocalizing the writers’ crudest, most shameful, disgusting thoughts, it also creates an openness about sex, which is an extremely uncomfortable topic in our culture.
Americans love sex. But we hate talking about it. Advertising and media is consumed by hyper-sexualized images of both men and women, but we can’t talk about reproductive or sexual health without inciting heated debate. The stigma around sexuality is perpetuated by ignorance. Only 27 states and DC mandate both sex education and HIV education, and only 17 states require program content to be medically accurate. With no reliable education, kids learn about sexuality through the media, which often contains misinformation and problematic messages about sexuality and gender.
Big Mouth tackles the lack of education about sex and healthcare directly in Season 2’s The Planned Parenthood Episode. After the first season, co-creators and executive producers Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett attended a talk by Sue Dunlap, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. She asked the roomful of writers and producers not just for donations, but also for stories that involve Planned Parenthood. What resulted was an episode dedicated to debunking the many myths about Planned Parenthood and sexual health. The episode begins with Coach Steve, the happily inept adult-child, teaching a lesson on sexual education. The comically stupid teacher barely knows what sex is, much less how to educate about sexual health, and so the students spend the episode teaching him about reproductive healthcare, STDs, and the many services offered at Planned Parenthood. One student Jay claims that Planned Parenthood is an “abortion factory,” but Missy reveals that Planned Parenthood also offers cancer screenings. In a skit modeled after The Bachelor, Nick’s 16-year old sister Leah chooses a form of contraception. She chooses the Pull Out Method before her mother crashes the show and tells her she will use both The Pill and Condoms instead. In another horror style skit, Andrew imagines the terrifying consequences of Blue Waffle, an urban legend that many kids believe is a real STD. Towards the end of his nightmare, he stumbles into a Planned Parenthood, where a clinician tells him Blue Waffle isn’t real and encourages him to get tested for other STDs that are real.
At the end of the day, Big Mouth is a funny cartoon that aims to entertain, not educate. But Big Mouth’s honest approach to sexuality opens a broader conversation about the way we talk about sex in our country, especially within our education system. Children don’t receive the honest, diverse, informative, up to date education they need in order to understand their own sexual health, much less one another’s. This lack of communication about sex only furthers unrealistic expectations about sex, as well as sexual violence against women and sexual or gender minorities.
The future of America’s sex education system is unclear given our current political polarization, but there are some resources available. Sexplanations is a YouTube channel that offers free, entertaining, shameless sex education online. Clinical sexologist Lindsay Doe discusses a wide range of topics, from “Disability and Sex” to “How to Eat Ass.” The videos present information in a fun and entertaining way that encourages open dialogue.
Big Mouth isn’t a substitute for sex education by any means, but it is a great starting point for opening a dialogue about sexuality. I love bonding and laughing with friends about the shared trauma of our adolescent years, often exchanging embarrassing stories that mirror different plots in the show. I hope future generations are able to start that dialogue sooner, with a solid base of well-informed sex education to work from.