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What Big Mouth gets right and wrong about bisexuality
Big Mouth dropped its third season on Netflix to the usual slew of positive reviews. The show, co-created by Andrew Goldberg and Nick Kroll, is a hysterically funny animated insight into the horrors of adolescence as imagined in a world where literal monsters act as puberty guides to bewildered teens. This season, the series took a welcome turn in regards to one of its funniest but least developed characters, which led to a great depiction of discovering one's bisexuality, quickly followed by a severely misjudged rebuttal of sorts.
Jay Bilzerian, voiced by Jason Mantzoukas, has always been something of an outlier among the core cast of Big Mouth. He's the most brazenly sexual and the biggest deviant of the bunch, with his preferred hobbies including eating his own semen and copulating with sentient pillows. In the first season (and for a big chunk of the second), while Nick, Andrew, Jessi, and to a lesser degree Missy, tried to figure out who they were and the safest way to navigate the treachery of puberty, Jay seemed to have everything set — or, at least in the pubescent minds of his friends, he was the one who didn't need guidance. Notably, Jay is the only kid from the core cast who doesn't have his own hormone monster. At one point, Maury, who shares a fondness for the "little f***ing freak," jokes that he may be his own hormone monster, suggesting a level of sureness that none of the other kids possess.
That changes in the penultimate episode of the second season when Jay, first on a dare then of his own volition, kisses Matthew, the only openly gay kid in school. The next day, he shakes off the incident, joking, "I barely remember or think about it at all the time." Of course, when he needs time to interrogate his inner plight, Jay then does what he does best: f***s some pillows, only now he's open to male-coded couch cushions too.
By Season 3, Jay is kind of lost. He feels stuck between binary notions of gay and straight because that's all he's ever experienced in his day to day life. With the exception of Matthew, all the guys in his life are into girls and his father is a strutting misogynist who sees any sign of vague weakness as "gay" and therefore something to sneer at. There's nobody for him to turn to since Coach Steve was fired (and pity the poor child who asks for life advice from him) and he lacks a hormone monster to push him in the right direction. Instead, he has Netflix.
Thanks to the streaming service's oddly specific algorithm, Jay is recommended a Canadian series called Gordie's Journey, about a man looking for his identity both in terms of his sexuality and his ambition to be a magician. It couldn't be more perfect for Jay at that moment in his life unless it had talking sex-pillows. He binge-watches the entire show hoping to find answers. Surely if Gordie (voiced by Martin Short) finds out the exact definition for who he is then Jay can too. When that doesn't happen, he grows frustrated until Gordie and the assorted ghosts who populate the show join him in a lavish musical number that explains the glorious spectrum of gender and sexual identity.
As with all Big Mouth songs, it's an absolute banger, but what makes it particularly wonderful is the ebullient joy of its central message: There are as many labels out there as there are people, they're all valid, you can be whoever you want to be, and you can change those labels as much as you want to. And so Jay realizes he's bisexual and he's ready to get down. Well, almost. First, he's got some more creative exploration to do, and that leads him to that greatest of outlets for coming to terms with one's desires: Fanfiction.
Missy and Jay collaborate on an epic genre-bending tale of romance, adventure, and horse fetishism involving Nathan Fillion (voicing himself) and Gustavo the man-horse from The Rock of Gibraltar, the historical novel that made all the ladies blush in Season 1. If Gordie's Journey was a way for Jay to realize his identity through the creativity of others, co-writing fanfiction is his way of taking the reins and finding out for himself, with all the strange and delightfully twisted scenarios his mind can conjure (and that's a lot given that he's Jay Bilzerian).
Many LGBTQ+ people will find Jay's journey familiar. In a queerphobic society that so often denies young people access to sex education and promotes abstinence and ignorance over knowledge, we turn to the tools we have readily available. Sometimes, it's a book where characters are romantic with one another across the gender binary and it is never positioned as anything but normal. Other times, it's the delight of hearing a comedian turn their past into something we can all laugh along with in relatable ways. We at Team FANGRRLS have talked a lot about the importance of pop culture representation and the crucial power that comes with being able to tell our own stories from our unique and valued experiences. You cannot be what you cannot see and an entertainment landscape that does not reflect the incredible and mind-expanding inclusivity of our own society is one that leaves us all ill-equipped for the future. Big Mouth, as crude as it is, keenly understands that in Season 3 and used that dynamic to flesh out one of its weirder characters in a way that feels so painfully and familiarly human. If the people in Jay's life won't affirm his sexuality then it's great that there are still things out there to let him know he's not alone.
That's what Big Mouth gets right about bisexuality. Alas, in Season 3, it also dropped one hell of a clanger that undid a lot of that great work.
This season saw the introduction of a new character, Ali (voiced by Ali Wong), who proudly announces herself as pansexual to the class. When asked by Jay if that's similar to being bisexual, she dismisses his claim and claims bisexuality is too binary for her, then offers an explanation of her own identity involving a questionable food metaphor that's neither funny nor accurate. The message given here was that bisexuals are only interested in cis men and women, which is simply not true. The showrunners ended up apologizing and admitted they missed the mark with this moment. While it's good that they did so (there are so many writers who would have just doubled down and started screaming about "woke culture" instead), it was something that felt all the more disappointing because Big Mouth had spent three seasons being better than that moment.
Big Mouth is a show that, despite its unabashed immaturity, has always strived to be honest and empathetic about adolescence. Amid those plentiful masturbation jokes are insights into body shaming, toxic masculinity, the double standards applied to girls versus boys, hormonal anguish, and pornography. This is a series that lets you know that all those awful, seemingly world-ending emotions are valid and normal and universal. That's not to say it whitewashes reality, even in this world where such concepts are utterly elastic. Jay experiences biphobia when he comes out and even Matthew dismisses him as just another gay guy who's too insecure to come out, a common insult lobbed at bisexuals. This feels real and well-thought-out, whereas Ali's description of pansexuality feels like a mockery of the concept designed to punch down.
This is a show that has set its standards high and its audience expects more as a result. That's a good thing and far preferable to the alternative. Big Mouth has the power to be so much more. Potentially, it could be the show that does for some kids what Gordie's Journey and fanfiction did for Jay.