TV Shows, Pop Culture

The Netflix show “Big Mouth” has the most realistic portrayal of puberty I’ve ever seen – and it’s embarrassing

Ah, those dark years when everyone's embarrassed and everything's embarrassing.

What was puberty like for you?

When I think back to my experience, I’m reminded of how cringe-worthy it was. I felt uncertain of everything: my relationships, my body, myself. Despite the fact that I had a generally open-minded, sex-positive family who taught me about the science of puberty, I felt utterly alone in my confusion and embarrassment.

As an adult looking back, I now know that I wasn’t alone. Everyone was embarrassed, and everything was embarrassing.

“Everything is embarrassing” is a beautiful truth that’s mentioned in the pilot episode of Netflix’s new series, Big Mouth. It’s an apt slogan for the series, which explores the awkwardness of puberty. Like Bojack Horseman, another well-celebrated Netflix series, it’s an adult animation that uses seemingly silly and unrealistic situations to explore universal truths.

The series follows a group of middle-schoolers. 

Andrew, one of the main characters, is entering puberty. He’s accompanied by a ‘hormone monster’, named Maurice, who represents the hormonal, primal voice in Andrew’s head. Andrew’s classmates include the slow-developing Nick, hyper-masculine Jay, soft-spoken intellectual Missy, and Jessi, who is unfortunate enough to get her first period in white shorts on a school trip.

[bctt tweet=”When I think back to my experience, I’m reminded of how cringe-worthy it was.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Some of the storylines on Big Mouth are purposefully ridiculous and silly: Jessi’s hormone monster, Connie, has a millennia-old on-off love affair with Maurice, and Jay impregnates his own pillow. Despite this, I found myself relating to these pre-teens. The show is silly, but still one of the most honest and realistic representations of puberty out there.

The way children and teenagers are represented in the media isn’t great. 

They’re often one-dimensional, static characters or stereotypes that suggest that the screenwriters are embarrassingly out-of-touch with children. 

Consider 8 Simple Rules, a show with an older teenage girl obsessed with boys, makeup, and popularity, a middle-child that is a smart, reserved and cynical girl, and the youngest child – a boy – who’s shown as annoying and not-very-bright. The exact same family pattern appears in the Dunphy children of Modern Family. 

Those same, tired stereotypes appear across movies and series of all genres.

The issue with these stereotypes is that they don’t remain on screen. It affects the way children see themselves, and it affects the way adults treat children. When we fail to see children as human, we forget to advocate for their rights, to give them quality education on important things like sex and puberty, and to pay attention to their emotional and mental health needs.

Big Mouth is unusual because the children are depicted as human. 

The child characters are interesting and complex, and they grow and change throughout the season in more than just a physical way. 

Missy, a smart, thoughtful girl, could easily have been pigeonholed as the stereotype of a book-smart girl who isn’t interested in boys or popularity like Alex in Modern Family or Kerry in 8 Simple Rules. Instead, Missy actually goes through the uncertainty and growth that puberty brings: she has a kind of sexual awakening, pursues a forbidden love, and tries very hard to impress the popular girls at school. Missy is exactly me at the age of twelve.

[bctt tweet=”The way children and teenagers are represented in the media isn’t great. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Similarly, the friendship between Nick and Andrew is tender and sweet. 

Very few friendships between teenage boys are represented in the same way. They fall out a few times, but they ultimately try to care for and comfort each other.

The show is unafraid to get painfully real. 

It’s purposefully cringeworthy, so that the audience cringes with the characters instead of just laughing at them. It explores truths, deals with issues like consent and sexual orientation, and isn’t afraid to bust stereotypes – I mean, there’s an episode called ‘Girls Get Horny Too’, which is something I needed to know as a teenager. What’s more is that the show actually has a lot of scientific information about puberty.

When I watched the first episode of Big Mouth, I wanted to scream that it’s too late for me to be watching this now.

 I needed to see this sort of representation when I was a kid who didn’t know that other girls also get horny and that consent is important. It seemed somewhat pointless to make this relatable cartoon for adults who could only consume it well after they’ve endured puberty.

 It’s not really a show for children: there are plenty of dick jokes, a lot of swearing, and many explicit depictions of sexual acts.

[bctt tweet=”The show is unafraid to get painfully real.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Truthfully, though, adults need to see three-dimensional child characters more than children too. 

Children know they’re human: it’s when we become adults that we forget the humanity of our former selves. 

When the media reminds us how human we were at that age, we remember to treat children as human. We remember to advocate for their rights, to support them, and to ensure they’re receiving an education that makes them a better adult.

I watch Big Mouth in the hopes that one day I can offer a young adolescent what I needed at that age: a sympathetic ear, some solid scientific information, and commiseration with someone who’s at the age where everything is embarrassing.