If you’re anything like me, you might never even last through an entire preview for a show like Big Mouth. Created by Nick Kroll and starring Kroll, Jessi Klein and John Mulaney, Big Mouth is an animated series that gets really real about the embarrassment and weirdness of going through puberty. The main characters, a group of middle-school boys and girls, are at the mercy of their various uncontrollable demons: Maury the hormone monster (Kroll), Connie the hormone monsters (Maya Rudolph), the horny ghost of Duke Ellington (Jordan Peele), and, in the second season, the ominous Shame Wizard (David Thewlis), who has a British accent. Even individual pubic hairs get speaking parts (Jack McBrayer and Craig Robinson…you in yet?).
If not for my husband, who loves weird and embarrassing humor, I would never have registered the existence of this show. I doubt Netflix would even have attempted to recommend it to me, if only on the basis of its format and genre. Animated shows for adults just aren’t my thing, or at least I now tend to assume so from having been burned a few times. The programming on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, for example, universally tends to lean into the medium’s infinite potential for totally absurdist shock humor. I was one of the people who watched the famous Team America in college and found myself no longer laughing at “America Fuck Yeah” once it crossed over from montage parody into…how should I put this…sex acts involving excrement? It’s funny because you could never get away with an R-rating if this were a live-action movie! I felt like I was watching something that was determined to get me on its side with a few good jokes, then turn on me and laugh at my expense. The social pressure to find it hilarious was all the more intense for the fact that I was watching with a group of male friends. I could see why it was funny for them; the whole movie was for them in a way that it was not for me. In retrospect, I consumed a lot of pop-culture material during that time that was much more at me than for me. The misogyny of Family Guy (HOW is that show still being made?) isn’t even masked by the occasional great gag anymore; Peter is just the worst, and Lois is just his punching bag. Thinking of how I used to love it makes me feel complicit in the perpetuation of shows that don’t give a shit about how they make women feel.
In Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, Lindy West writes that “feminism is really just the long slow realization that the things you love hate you.” I am not categorically against gross and embarrassing humor, but I have often felt that it is categorically against me. There’s a lot of comedy out there about how men are just sad horny monsters and women are against them from the start – this is at the root of what I hear when I hear comedians defending Louis C.K., for example, as if brandishing his penis in front of an unwilling female audience is something he just couldn’t help but do. I am tired of comedic material that seeks to normalize the point of view that male sexuality is an unstoppable force and the rest of us better just get right with that. Comedy is at the present moment a complicated place for women to exist, both as comedians (I am sure, though I am not one) and as lovers of comedy. I used to love Louis C.K.’s comedy, on a very deep, personal level, in part because I felt included by him. I felt like he was talking to me, about me, for me. When we all learned not only what he did but, more importantly, how little personal responsibility he felt towards the women he hurt, I knew I would never feel included by him again. It actually made me mad at myself, in a way, because I felt I had been tricked into believing that he genuinely cared about women like me.
I think my trepidation about Big Mouth was rooted in this: what if I laugh at this show, only to see it, too, turn against me? But with a cast list that included Klein, Rudolph, Jenny Slate, and, in season two, Gina Rodriguez, I decided to give it a shot and trust it, if only to be able to say that I’d tried in good faith to like it. I actually think that this first-season trailer tracks perfectly with the arc of my relationship with the show (and please know that it is not whatsoever suitable for work or children):
I started out laughing at the sheer daring of the whole enterprise, and then shortly thereafter found myself alienated and feeling like the show was just appealing to dudes while at the same time shocking me with its willingness to be both blunt and gross. The male characters obsess over penises and masturbation. Jason Mantzoukas is there, talking about fucking a pillow. I feel like I’m watching an animated version of The League, only weirder. Then. somewhere in the middle, we hear the line “girls are horny, too!” and the hormonal roller coaster of the female characters actually takes over the second half of the screen time in the trailer. This is actually fairly descriptive of the show’s arc, as well, and perhaps it’s intentional. If you’re coming for Kroll’s voices and Mantzoukas’s outrageous takes on masculinity, that’s what you’re going to get in the beginning as we establish the universe of the show. But then maybe you’ll stay for Jessi Klein’s slowly simmering teenage-girl drama, egged on by Rudolph’s Connie the hormone monstress: “You wanna shoplift lipstick. You wanna listen to Lana Del Rey on repeat. You wanna scream at your mother and then LAUGH AT HER TEARS!”
The through-line of the show is best exemplified in a line that Andrew and Nick, voiced by Mulaney and Kroll, scream at each other halfway through the trailer: “everything is embarrassing!” “everything IS embarrassing!” Here’s the thing, though: boys don’t dominate the “embarrassing” real estate of this show. In the second episode of the first season, an unprepared Jessi gets her period on a class trip to the Statue of Liberty. While it’s humiliating and awful and funny, the show is not laughing at Jessi or grossed out by her; it feels for her. I will still never know how many people saw when I got my period unexpectedly at summer camp, when I was 12. It definitely went through my shorts, and I definitely had no idea until it was way too late. I still remember the panic that flooded (ha!) my entire body when I realized it was happening. People saw, for sure. I will never know which people or how many. I carried that low-level embarrassment around in the back of my mind for the remaining weeks of the camp session. It’s a story I have rarely told, perhaps out of a feeling that the world in general has little use for embarrassing stories of girls going through puberty and even interest in the reality of periods. Big Mouth, though, is as willing to talk and laugh about menstruation as it is about wet dreams. Girls get to be messy and messed up and insecure and horny as boys. Raise your hand if you were a girl in middle school who felt ashamed of [literally anything about your body] because you only ever saw girls represented as sweet and good and demure and understated! This show actually is for you. It sees you, it cares about you, and it may even give you hope that women can take up space in the world of awkward, embarrassing humor.