While the real world is filled with reactionary politicians trying to curtail everybody’s — but especially women, and especially teenage women’s — access to proper sex services, TV is abuzz with countless positive portrayals of sex. From the #relevant Degrassi: Next Class to the animated shenanigans of Big Mouth to the emotionally charged first season of Sex Education (all of these shows are on Netflix, by the way), a subscriber might be led to believe that humanity is, indeed, heading towards a more sex-positive world.
Not all these portrayals are created equal, however, and when we do a side-by-side comparison of Sex Education and Big Mouth, it’s clear that the former is not only a better example of television but a brilliant model for how to portray the topic of sex ed going forward.
Big Mouth, and the Failure of Sneaky Feminism
The concept at the core of Big Mouth is a hilarious one. Focused on teenagers Nick Birch (played by Nick Kroll), Andrew Glouberman (played by John Mulaney), and to a lesser, extent female student Jessi Glaser (Jessi Klein), as they navigate the arrival of puberty, the show cleverly anthropomorphizes the concept of puberty in the form of hormone monsters that only the kids can see. These monsters (played by Kroll, and Maya Rudolph) give the kids the ability to have direct and hilarious conversations that cut to the core of teenage, though admittedly mostly male, angst. Maya Rudolph’s Hormone Monstress, in particular, has some of the show’s best one-liners, and it’s worth watching for those alone.
There is a lot of good here. The show is, by its very nature, sex-positive. For example, there is a scene where Jessi talks to her genitals, which are also anthropomorphized. I found it to be both informative and empowering; as her genitals say:
“Of course I’m not scary. I’m you, and I’m very fun.”
The show has some drawbacks, though.
For one, it comes from a very privileged perspective (all the principal writers are white), and that creates some obvious problems. There is a black character named Missy (played by Jenny Slate) who is from an interracial family, and the show never dives deeply into how that might lead to a different set of sexual issues than her whiter counterparts. There is also a depiction of a mentally-disabled character, Coach Steve (also played by Kroll) that I found to be quite offensive.
The biggest problem, though, has to do with the concept of sneaky feminism. If you are unfamiliar with the concept: sneaky feminism is basically an attempt to incept feminist concepts into a work without the audience being aware of it. In the words of Urszula Pruchniewska:
“A distancing from explicit notions of feminism was also used as a strategy to, paradoxically, advance the goals of feminism: through making the goals and values of equality more “palatable” by distancing themselves from the contested concept of feminism, these writers “sneak” feminism into their audience’s lives.”
It’s politics without getting “too preachy.”
In order to achieve this tactic, writers often have to diffuse the directness of their message so their (more conservative) audience doesn’t feel too attacked.
Big Mouth has moments of stunning directness deserving of praise (there is a song about body positivity in the second season that I love), but too often much of the show’s emotional moments are undercut by comedic gags. The plot is in service of the comedy, and that makes it hard to take Big Mouth’s more serious moments, well, seriously.
For example, if we were to judge the actions Andrew’s father Marty (Richard Kind) seriously, we would undoubtedly see them as emotionally abusive. Throughout the show he ridicules his son, calling him a “sex maniac,” a pedophile, and actively telling Andrew he doesn’t love him. We are supposed to view these moments as funny, and they are outside of the context of his relationship with his son, but within that context, they are abusive and flat.
When the show switches to more serious moments, it will sometimes use over-the-top action to break the tension. When Andrew “humps fronts” with fellow student Lola (also fucking voiced by Kroll) in episode six of season two (Drug Buddies) and then later breaks up with her, we are meant to feel like he is in the wrong. He used her for sexual gratification knowing that he didn’t like her, and the show uses this situation to draw a loose connection to the #metoo movement. The girl students stage a protest of him, and in episode seven of the second season (Guy Town), he gives a tearful apology.
That’s fine. I am all for nuanced conversations about sex, but the thing the show seems to forget is that Lola, upon being broken up with, breaks Andrew’s arm. Lying to obtain sex is not okay, but neither is aggravated assault. Are we supposed to just ignore this abusive behavior? The show certainly does. What behaviors do we take in context and what behaviors do we ignore? The show never bothers to explain, and that makes it really difficult to take anything said or done at face value.
Another character named Jay Bilzerian (played by Jason Mantzoukas) lives in utter poverty. His mother is negligent. His father is abusive. His brothers beat him up, and more often than not such abuse is depicted as funny. For example, we are supposed to think it’s hilarious that his brothers feed Jay and his friends' cum on a cracker (Jizzcuits), even if we are somewhat appalled by it. We are meant to think the sad, misinformed statements Jay’s character says (e.g. things like “I haven’t smoked pot since the third grade”) are funny, even though they are symptomatic of a pattern of abuse that I don’t find funny at all.
The tone is all over the place, and that makes it difficult to know what moments we need to embrace, and which ones to ignore under the banner of comedy. You, as a liberal audience member, might view the Planned Parenthood episode as a stunning political endorsement, but because it ends with Coach Steve speaking directly to the audience and saying “I can’t forget the liberal elite for their awesome agenda” I am left confused. I see that line as a joke, but it is possible for an audience member to take that statement seriously, and while I disagree with that interpretation, the show’s murky message doesn’t help prove that viewpoint wrong.
The message is too diluted.
Sex Education and the Value of Directness
Sex Education exists in a media ecosystem so different from Big Mouth it might as well be a different planet. Set in the UK, the plot of this series is about the son of a sex therapist, Otis Milburn (played by Asa Butterfield), who teams up with an undervalued student at his school, Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), as well as his best friend Eric Effoing (Ncuti Gatwa) to sell sex counseling advice to the students at his local school. The show is also hilarious, but none of the gags undercut the emotional center of the story, and that, in my opinion, is what makes this series better at handling a topic as sensitive as sex ed. In essence, the show has opinions and it’s not scared to tell you them directly and plainly.
The thing that I noticed immediately about this show is that because it has a point of view, the conversations Sex Education can have with its viewers are far more complex and nuanced. When Otis is contemplating whether he should even engage in counseling his peers in the first place, in episode 2, he indirectly talks to his mother Jean Milburn (played by the fabulous Gillian Anderson) about the pitfalls of therapy. The advice she gives him is incredibly insightful:
Otis: Mum…what makes a good therapist? Just curious.
Jean: Well, I guess some therapists get into it for the wrong reasons. They do it for money or status. They think of it as a career rather than a vocation.
Otis: But it…it’s just a job.
Jean: Sure. A job where one wrong word could trigger a nervous breakdown, resulting in decades of emotional damage. A good therapist, a, you know… a “good” therapist, I guess understands the weight of that responsibility.
Immediately from this conversation, we know that this show isn’t going to portray subject matter like abuse callously and for laughs. When it does happen — and it does happen — there is a point to the abuse. The show’s bully character Adam Groff (played by Connor Swindells), for example, suffers a similar sort of emotional abuse that Andrew does, but unlike in Big Mouth, we see the emotional impact of those actions. This character is a bully and acting out, because of that neglect.
In the seventh episode of season one, Adam clashes with his father at the school dance. “I hate you!” He yells while forcibly closing his father’s mouth. We learn to empathize with that pain and come to see Adam as a three-dimensional character struggling to understand both how to live under his authoritative father’s rule as well as come to terms with his own suppressed homosexuality.
Big Mouth’s Jay is also a suppressed queer character who engages in minor bullying, but he is never able to move past being a gag because the show isn’t willing to engage in subject matter that raw. Big Mouth can’t help not being funny, even if that undercuts its message.
Sex Education not only has the capacity to be serious but relishes in moments that straddle the intersection between painful and downright hilarious. Like with Big Mouth, it also has an episode about reproductive services. In episode three, Maeve has to get an abortion and asks Otis to be the person who picks her up after her operation.
Yet, where Big Mouth’s reproductive episode could never move past rote liberal talking points on “why Planned Parenthood is good,” Sex Education gives one of the most nuanced perspectives on the issue that I have seen in media in a while. We not only see Maeve's perspective, but the perspective of a woman (played by Lu Corfield) who has received many abortions, and the pain and humor that comes with that (seriously, she has the episodes funniest and saddest moments). We also see Otis’s perspective picking Maeve up from her appointment as well as the opinions of the anti-abortion picketers outside. None of these people are caricatures, but well-rounded characters, and while the show clearly comes on the side of reproductive health (as it should) it’s definitive perspective allows us to reach a greater understanding on this issue.
It also bears mentioning that the show prioritizes diverse perspectives way better than Big Mouth has so far done. There are multiple queer characters (both main characters and side characters), multiple people of color, and the gender dynamic is a lot better. You can tell that this diversity is a part of the show’s overall perspective, and not just tokenism.
We see this highlighted best with the main character Eric. His arc on the show doesn’t shy away from his black and queer identifiers, and highlights how they create further barriers when navigating his sexuality. We see Eric getting bullied. We see him struggle with his father, and butt heads against the school administration.
These barriers, however, are not tragedy porn, and while Eric is placed in some truly horrifying moments, he also experiences moments of true joy. His relationship with his father — a man who gradually learns to accept his son’s sexuality — is beautiful and provides a great model for parents in a similar situation. We also see Eric’s friend Otis struggle with how to be a better ally in a way that is meaningful and ties directly into the story.
These are lessons audience members benefit greatly from seeing, and I simply can’t say the same for Big Mouth, which provides no similar road maps for its audience other than vague calls for empowerment. That's a shame because sex education is a contentious issue, and we need more than just jokes.
We Need Sexual Humor With A Point
Sex ed is incredibly important, but within the United States, abortion and contraception have been limited in many states and municipalities due to reactionary religious and political beliefs. There are still federally funded abstinence programs, and limitations on abortion are being passed with alarmingly frequent regularity. Proper sex ed is not a universal right. Even to this day, an adolescent’s access to proper contraception depends largely on the political leanings of their community, and guardians.
If you are going to take on something as relevant and important as sex ed, and want the credit for doing so, then you need to broach this subject matter seriously. When you dilute your message, you make your story confusing and less impactful.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be funny. I laughed a lot during Sex Education (oh Lily, how I love your penis aliens), but I also learned a lot. The show widened my perspective on issues I thought I was well versed in, and did so in a way that paradoxically did not seem preachy at all.
Contrary to popular opinion, when you have an actual perspective on what you are writing and tie that perspective into the story, it doesn’t always lead to 60-page Randian monologues. It can create compelling stories that have natural dialogue and good narratives.
Hopefully, future shows will take a page from Sex Education’s playbook, and tell stories with a point to them.
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