Minor spoilers throughout.
Before the second season of Nick Kroll’s animated cartoon Netflix series Big Mouth, premiered on October 5, it was unclear in which direction he and his fellow creators (Mark Levin, Jennifer Flackett, and Family Guy’s Andrew Goldberg) would take it. While the new season turned out to boldly embrace its role as a medium for sex education, it could very easily have flopped had the creators given in to the complaints and controversy the first one garnered.
The cartoon, which centres around middle schoolers Nick (Kroll), Andrew (John Mulaney), Missy (Jenny Slate) and Jessi (Jessi Klein) navigating the ups and downs of puberty, was praised by many as refreshing and beneficial for youth. But it also garnered a vocal body of opponents, who called it inappropriate for children and “leftist propaganda” that pushes homosexuality and pedophilia.
Sound familiar? This rhetoric is much of the same that’s used to attack the 2015 Ontario sex-ed curriculum, which the Ontario provincial government recently repealed and replaced with an outdated interim version under the lead of Premier Doug Ford.
Like Big Mouth, the updated curriculum, which included lessons on consent, safe online activity, and masturbation, was controversial among (mostly conservative) parents who felt it too soon to introduce these topics to all children. And with these exact topics now missing from the interim sex-ed curriculum, Nick Kroll (perhaps known best for his role as “the douche” on Parks and Recreation) and his team are doing a better job of educating adolescents about puberty than Ontario public schools.
Big Mouth’s second season was an improvement on the first, ditching some of the crude jokes of its earlier episodes for lessons about bisexuality, slut-shaming, Planned Parenthood, and viral instant messaging, to name a few.
The show “does a really excellent job at communicating consent culture and dismantling misogynistic ideas, dismantling homophobic ideas,” Samantha Viarruel, 32 year-old Toronto-based sexual health educator, told me.
Viarruel, who also founded the Inner Development Project, a non-profit outreach-based organisation aimed at empowering young women and teaching self-esteem and interpersonal skills, noticed a number of vital topics in both seasons of Big Mouth that were revoked from the Ontario sex ed curriculum this summer, including the concept of consent.
In the first season’s eighth episode, “The Head Push,” main characters Nick, Andrew, and Missy attend a high school party and witness Nick’s sister Leah (Kat Dennings) making out with another party-goer. When he pushes her head toward his genitals to non-verbally pressure her into giving him a blowjob (a move called “the head push,” or “the mons push,” the act of pushing one’s mons pubis toward a partner’s head to encourage cunnilingus) the witnesses confront the perpetrator, who is totally unaware that he’d done anything wrong, and kick him out of the party. What ensues is a valuable lesson on consent: that verbal communication is the only way to go about requesting sexual favours, and once communicated, only a repeated and unequivocal “yes” from a sexual partner truly means yes.
The episode provides a nuanced look at power dynamics in sexual encounters and how commonly subtle power abuses take place. Yet, this lesson is not one that Ontario public school children and teens will learn in the classroom, as the concept of consent is notably missing from the interim curriculum.
Also noteworthy is the ethos of sex positivity in the show, Viarruel says, something that is lacking from the interim curriculum, which instead stresses the importance of abstinence. For example, when Missy’s mother catches her masturbating (an act which Ontario schools will also no longer teach kids) as a young girl in “Smooch or Share” (season 2, episode 8), she applauds her for experimenting with her body.
Teaching sex positivity to youth is vital in a “culture [that] wants to asexualize youth,” Viarruel says. The widespread fear over children learning about sex at too young an age, either in the classroom or on television, “is at the root of why we have problems with consent and rape culture, because these lessons aren’t being taught early enough.”
Also at the root of many forms of sexual stigma is shame, a concept that Big Mouth boldly unpacks in its second season with the introduction of the Shame Wizard (David Thewlis). Popping up at every embarrassing moment to whisper messages about their flaws into every character’s ear, the Shame Wizard is the most accurate reflection of how shame and insecurity plague—and ultimately harm—middle schoolers than anything I’ve seen on television.
The Shame Wizard’s most memorable appearance is when he pops up in the ear of Nick's love interest Gina (Gina Rodriguez) to admonish her for her sexual behaviour after news that Nick touched her breasts spreads like wildfire via text message. The episode gives a raw look at slut shaming and online harassment, both of which are not mentioned in the interim sex ed curriculum.
Like any mainstream comedy show, Big Mouth, of course, has moments which border on problematic, Viarruel says. The use of discriminatory language and the perpetuation of the concept of virginity (an unproductive social construct) at times distract from the show’s important lessons about sex, sexuality, and communication.
But to Viarruel, these aspects of the show are productive as tools to meet viewers where they’re at, masking real lessons in crude humour to transmit them subtly, in a way that's not preachy or overly complex to digest.
“If that’s the way that people are talking around you, there’s a certain level of normalization in that and so a cartoon that reflects that to you is gonna be more inviting in a way and then it’s almost like, a trap to like learn about shit,” she said
And regardless of what’s written into sex ed curricula, shows like Big Mouth may always have the upper hand over the classroom in terms of teaching ability, she admits.
“I’m all about disruptive modes of education, taking things that we might learn in a communal learning environment and learn it outside of formal learning environments,” Viarruel added.
“When you remove some of the formality of those power dynamics in a formal education setting, people can be more open to learning, and the ideas that stick with people are the ideas they relate to.”
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