Warning: This article on Big Mouth discusses childhood sexuality, pedophilia, and CSEM (child sexual exploitation material). If these topics are triggering for you, please do not read. Take good care of yourself.
Big Mouth is a Netflix original animated comedy series covering the topic of puberty. It’s one’s typical adult animated show, carrying with it plenty of raunchy humor and far over the top scenarios. Many people slam it for its explicit depictions of young sexuality, as it explores its characters’ developing sexualities in detail. Some go as far as to accuse the creators and fans of the program of being pedophiles. Joking or not, this reaction to Big Mouth’s content troubles me for a plethora of reasons, ranging from technical to extremely personal—and I’m gonna talk about all of it.
The way people respond to cartoons these days can be very intense, sometimes bordering on absurd—and this is coming from someone whose main source of comfort often comes in the form of cartoons. This being the case, many cartoon fans will take things depicted in them very seriously (which they sometimes should).
What is considered alarming when it comes to depictions of kids in media has been shifting for some time now, especially in cartoon spaces. Adult fans who sexualize cartoon pre-pubescents are finally being rightfully shamed and shunned after years of hiding behind “it’s just a drawing”. Adults lusting after young characters under the guises of being a “shotacon” or “lolicon” and “not a real pedophile” are horrendously common in kids’ fandom spaces, and are more than deserving of the shunning.
Big Mouth is certainly not a kids’ show, but people in these cartoon fandom spaces who have learned to sensitize themselves to seeing child characters drawn in any sort of sexual context have still found issues with it. One could actually argue that Big Mouth being an adult program makes it worse, because, in a sense, it is inviting grownups to watch child characters engage in sexual exploration. That being said, I think this critique is wholly unwarranted and deeply wrong.
The show does, in fact, show its preteen characters in sexual situations, but does not invite us to gain some sort of sick pleasure from it. Big Mouth’s purpose is to explore developing sexuality in a comic fashion and there is nothing pornographic within the content that involves the child characters. Yes, there are scenes of masturbation, but they are censored and drowned in comedic tones. The show does not want its adult viewers to creep on animated kids, but to laugh at and reflect on their own experiences. It is deeply personal, many cast members even sharing names with their characters. It is not someone’s twisted fetish—it is someone’s memories.
There are some sequences wherein the kids’ genitals are drawn, though, which many of the show’s critics have seen as cause enough for heavy questioning. In the episode “Ejaculation”, the character Andrew (voiced by John Mulaney) accidentally exposes himself to his friend Nick (voiced by Nick Kroll), and there is a brief shot of his penis. In the episode “Girls Are Horny Too”, the character Jessi (voiced by Jessi Klein) receives a tour of her vagina, which is depicted with eyes and a mouth (and is voiced by Kristen Wiig). There are a handful of other instances, but these are probably the most famous and are the ones I’ve seen get brought up the most. It is completely understandable why some viewers would not feel comfortable watching this, but it provides no grounds for accusing the creators and fans of being mentally disturbed.
Pornography is the depiction of genitalia and sex acts in order to provide a viewer with sexual stimulation. All depictions of genitalia and sex acts are not made for this purpose, and Big Mouth is most certainly not. There is nothing inherently pornographic about naked children. To be quite frank, I find it troublesome that some people’s immediate reaction to a drawing of a naked child is “it’s child porn”. I’ll say it again: there is nothing inherently pornographic about naked kids, or depictions of sexual acts, or nudity in general, or even genitalia, and there is nothing about drawing a naked child that makes the artist inherently questionable. There is a very big difference between illustrated CSEM and what is seen in Big Mouth. For example, if one were to compare it to some actual CSEM, such as Boku No Pico, it would be very easy to see that difference. Big Mouth utilizes its imagery as a tool for comedy and nostalgic reflection, whereas Boku No Pico’s imagery is very obviously fetishistic, exploitative, and explicitly intended for those aforementioned “shotacons” (and before anyone asks, yeah I watched it when I was a teenager for sh*ts and giggles. 10/10 would not recommend to anyone with eyes).
Now, I haven’t explained “Why Big Mouth Matters” yet, so here it is, and here’s where I get personal.
When I was around 13, I felt weird and ashamed and awkward about my developing sexuality. Much like many other kids, whenever I would have a peek at something racy, I’d feel shame afterwards. This is because I was led to believe that sex was a gross, naughty thing, as many of us are while growing up. This is a normal occurrence that ebbs away as we learn to understand what sexual desire is and understand ourselves and what we want—that is, if we ever reach that point of self-acceptance.
As I got closer to 15 and had a good understanding of what I was into and learned to not be ashamed of my sexuality, I noticed something: a complete shutdown and shunning of any kind of young teen sexuality. It was a rejection of something so natural that I felt and was beginning to accept, and resulted in my understanding that everyone thought I was disgusting for feeling what I felt. Young sexuality is awkward and silly, but it shouldn’t be talked down to in such a fashion. Discovering sexuality, sensuality, and what we like (or don’t like; asexuality is beautiful and normal, too!) is an amazing time, yet it’s so rare that it’s properly discussed.
Young peoples’ intimate moments are not inherently pornographic, and should never be viewed or portrayed as such. We demonize sexuality, especially in young people, when really, it’s a natural, yet so often suppressed time that we shouldn’t feel we have to shy away from. Through art, we can explore these intimate parts of life in a safe way, and these parts include growing up and everything that comes with it. We sneer at tween sexuality, view it as revolting and vile to see visualized; we rate beautiful films about childhood like Eighth Grade R and shun things like Big Mouth for having the artistic freedom that animation grants to explore the pubescent experience further, and that makes me really sad.
Thinking back, it would’ve been nice to have reassurance that I wasn’t feeling things that were wrong. Big Mouth was the first time I saw that part of my life portrayed with care and love, and it felt so, so good. When I watch this show, I’m not looking at kids “going at it”; I’m looking my own life, my own memories, and a part of me that is still hurting.
Now, I see people my age doing the same things 20-year-olds in 2014 were indirectly doing to me. By insinuating that the depiction of kids’ genitalia is inherently pornographic and revolting, by suggesting that portrayals of children exploring sexuality is wrong, we build the grounds for a bunch of other young teens to grow up like I did; feeling bad, ashamed, and not able to feel at home in my own skin until I turned “of age”. I don’t know that I ever truly accepted that it was okay for my 13-year-old self to be a horny bastard until I saw it normalized in Big Mouth. Through this show, I’ve been able to accept myself and all my past selves, and have been able to start healing.; that matters.
It’s pretty much inevitable that some people watch Big Mouth for the wrong reasons, and it’s entirely possible that there are creeps working on it. But that is to no fault of the show, and is no excuse to assume that anyone who doesn’t feel similarly about it as you do is sick. Consumption of media is so much more complex and personal than that.
I’ve taken a lot of sh*t for liking this show. It’s about as imperfect as any other raunchy, immature adult cartoon, but I have to defend myself for liking it where I don’t have to for those other shows. That frustrates me, because I should not have to justify myself for identifying strongly with fictional depictions of childhood experiences. Almost every time I have so much as mentioned it in casual conversation, I’ve been asked “why” in a way that suggests that the person asking thinks I’m extremely weird. It is perhaps one of the most annoying, tedious things I have ever had to deal with in fandom discussions at best, and offensive at worst. Getting up in arms about this show’s details isn’t helping anyone, only hurting.
When we treat depictions like that of Big Mouth as something to be condemned, we engage in a lot of harmful ideas. We turn our attention to it instead of actual harmful individuals who put real children at risk, we further perpetuate the idea that child nudity and sexuality is pornographic or vile, and could very well cause harm to individuals who like the show who could now concern themselves with whether or not they are truly disturbed. That last one hits home as a person living with OCD; it’s actually quite common for individuals with OCD to suffer intrusive thoughts pertaining to sexual crimes. Should they take these thoughts seriously, it can cause them immense pain and suffering.
Thankfully, I’m seeing less and less of these outlandish critiques of the show as I excommunicate such individuals from my internet spheres. I think most people can grasp that there is nothing inherently sinister about the program. But even so, the fact that such criticisms exist is so disturbing to me that I can’t help but feel this level of concern.
If anything, I hope this article can accomplish a larger understanding of what Big Mouth and things like it can mean to people. There is no reason to look down on those who enjoy it. Sure, we can tease and have our little jests (it’s an ugly looking show and I am a silly goose for liking it, blah blah), but there should be no question of one’s morals. We can all be better than that.