Big Mouth and Challenging the Dialogue of Consent
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If you open Netflix on a Saturday night, looking for something to a watch, chances are you’ll come across an explicit cartoon, looking to challenge all your sensibilities. Cartoons that seem to follow in the footsteps of the Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park. Cartoons typically fall into two categories, crude or kid-friendly. Big Mouth certainly falls under the former. The creators of and voices for Big Mouth, Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg brought us many “just get high to” movies and comedy acts. Big Mouth also strikes with their usual tone but does drill deeper with the help of other creators like Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett. The show is set in a typical middle America middle school and focuses on five focal characters; Andrew, Nick, Jessie, Jay and Missy.
How Big Mouth discusses consent is raw and telling and creates a solid foundation for how we should define consent. In the wake of the #metoo and times up movements, we have seen a global discussion take place on Facebook, Reddit and most likely in our own social circles. Discussing consent may lead to a splitting of people onto a spectrum. Those who condemned Harvey Weinstein, yet think “Grace’s” experience with Aziz Ansari was simply a bad date. The line between the two incidents is wide, however, they both represent our culture’s issue with how to define sexual consent.
Throughout the whole show, Big Mouth does comment on the conversation of consent. In Girls are Horney Too when Jessie is met with the horrifying debut that is confronting your feminine sexuality. The show’s creators offer an insightfully profound look at this journey and also touch on the issue of consent through the interaction between Jessie and Jay (that’s a whole another essay – stay tuned).
Before we dive into a discussion about consent, it’s important to begin with this disclaimer: violation of consent can happen to both genders. However, in Headpush, the episode delves into how men persistently suggest sexual activity to a woman, and how that builds on an already oppressing rhetoric. The episode plays on the current thread of sexual consent and how men and women respond and act on it differently. The idea being that men’s responses to the question of consent are out of ignorance and privilege and are bred from a patriarchal society. Whereas a woman response is guided by her experience with sexual oppression.
The question of consent
The rise of the #Metoo and #Timesup movement has instigated a global discussion on consent and what it means. These movements are crowded with people dispersing their opinions about these people with allegations of a violation of consent and autonomy. People who deem that a rape story is fashionable (Yes, someone has told me that) and there could not be another reason for victims coming forward. Questioning the autonomy of consent and how to define it is something that is under constant scrutiny.
School’s culture has (for now) been left out of the mainstream #Metoo dialogue and movement. People often ask me why I am focusing so heavily on women’s rights, when we as a collective society we have come so far. It’s true, we have come far, we have won battles, but not the war. We have bursts of movements that pop, and then disappear. Students should be aware of the problems they are facing, before coming face-to-face with them. Here’s where Big Mouth comes in. Big Mouth embarks upon the challenge of demonstrating how a budding middle schooler entering puberty may interact with a sexual experience inside of the patriarchy.
Who should learn about consent? Who should learn to be respectful? Who should learn to be polite?
Big Mouth certainly doesn’t shy away from the discussion. In these times, where men are fearing the call of accusation and accountability, Big Mouth takes the whole issue right back to the beginning: High School. The palace of awkward social encounters and sexual interactions. Where our minds are seemingly untouched, except by Maths, English, Science and History. We are considered too young to learn about the horrors and complexities of grown-up interaction. So, we must simply wait to experience them for ourselves in the ‘real world’.
Big Mouth smashes this preconceived idea for the high school environment. Demonstrating that young people are exposed to harsh realities no matter what rhetoric parents and educators feed them. And how they react to these realities is powerful and educational.
Cited in the Conversation, researcher and media activist Jean Kilbourne have said that, “Nowhere is sex more trivialized than in pornography, media and advertising.” Entering the ‘real world’ armed with nothing, but cliché memories and a gaggle of friends, sentences high schoolers to a life battling the internalised systemic form of our toxic sexual dialogue. Where sex either means too much to talk about or too little. It can be funny, romantic and even sexy, but it can’t be serious. Sex is something that connects with our most primeval instincts, so how these “instincts” manifest cannot possibly be harmful to society. Well, that’s the narrative we are told through popular culture, mainstream media and dare I say, older generations. But now is the chance to change that dialogue and it starts with the youngest of us all.
Talking about Consent
Big Mouth is certainly the type of show that turns heads. I mean, it sparked a Change.org petition. Now that’s some serious controversy. From their NSFW depiction of male masturbation to tackling issues with your own sexuality, Big Mouth may seem like its simply covered most of the things we’ve seen before but, in an uncensored platform. However, underneath, it’s breaking boundaries.
As a woman who watched a lot of 90s cartoons, including Kim Possible, Daria, The Proud Family, Power Puff Girls, The Simpsons – the list could go on, I have never seen the raw telling of what puberty is like for a young girl. Big Mouth, however, has journeyed to the next level and entered the harsh reality of a pubescent young woman experiencing the fully-fronted fist punching that is the patriarchy. And their portrayal is not buried under layers of satire or metaphors. It rips open the issue and bleeds it dry without any consideration for your comfort or your sensitivity. Not even a token pad or tampon in sight.
Whilst exploring all facets of puberty, Big Mouth uses one episode to focus particularly on consent.
Headpush is a daring conquest into the present minefield that is consent. And not only does it successfully manage to portray an enlightened conversation for adults watching, it also offers a standard for sex education in school.
The arch of the position is Andrew and Milly who play witness to the infamous headpush practised by Daniel. Their initial reaction to witnessing the action is sadness and confusion. Despite having never been acquainted with sex, or dating, they instinctively know what they have seen is wrong. And that message has unbelievable power.
Andrew’s and Missy initial instinct after witnessing the headpush from Daniel is to tell Nick. They make no effort to hide what happened, and a hurt Leah watches on. Seeing Andrew and Missy talk with Nick about the incident and Nick’s dismissal, leaves Leah even more upset
“You guys are crazy. Daniel is the man.”
Nick’s dismissal empowers Leah to expose Daniel in front of the whole party.
“He’s a headpusher.”
This is the action we need to teach our youth. When you witness something, you think is wrong – talk about it. Tell someone, say something. Words have power. Evil thrives in secrecy.
Whilst this cartoon is not culturally appropriate for young kids, the content in each episode can be repurposed in a nice kid-friendly package, without losing its power. Teaching kids about the definition of consent. Teaching young girls, it’s okay to say no. Changing the dialogue for the next generation is how we affect lasting change. The change that historic women have fought for is still in progress, so let’s be a society that keeps fighting for equity in everything we do and say. So, one day we may see that change we have all been fighting for.
For now, though, the fact that a crude, watch-while-high cartoon on Netflix advocates for radical change, is progress. So, thanks Big Mouth – with love from humanity.
Get to know the editor
Sean Bradley is the editor behind the scenes at Fatally Narrow. He is a true literature enthusiast and feminist comrade, who never fails to pick up on my misplaced commas.