Image credit: Netflix (Big Mouth)
When I first started watching Big Mouth, I was expecting another Family Guy-type cartoon – gross out humour, slapstick violence, and deeply problematic jokes at the expense of marginalised people. But when 13-year-old Nick saw his best friend Andrew’s penis while he was changing at a sleepover less than five minutes into the first episode, I was very confused. And I nearly hit the exit button when Andrew masturbated to a cat shaped clock in the very next scene. I thought: “why are there naked children in this animated sit-com?” I kept watching because I was unsettled, but also intrigued – and the Netflix series didn’t disappoint.
Many of us have gone through the horror of puberty, and this cartoon manages to capture sensitive topics like sexuality, self-pleasure and even ADHD with care, but also humour. What I didn’t expect however, was the way Big Mouth would cover race. Through the lens of biracial teen Missy Foreman-Greenwald, the viewer gets to experience the many facets of the Black teenage experience, and the complexity of growing up as a Black teen with identity issues in the Western world.
The recently released series four perfectly illustrates the frustrations of having an identity crisis come to a head, forcing Missy to stop avoiding her emotions and instead begin to express her feelings outwardly. Her journey of self acceptance really begins when she visits her father’s side of the family in Atlanta, Georgia over the summer, where her older cousins, voiced by comedians Lena Waithe and Quinta Brunson, give her a full makeover, most notably braids with extensions.
The problem with getting her cultural education from three people she doesn’t often interact with, is that it’s not well rounded. Initially, she repeats her cousins’ slang and begins drinking ginger beer, committing to ‘being Black’ in the only way she knows how, before realising there’s no one way to be Black. They also introduce new language to her, as Lena refers to Missy’s dad as “corny” and “siddity” and Quinta escalates the common phrase “men are trash” to “n****s ain’t shit” – but Missy is shocked and claims she can’t say “the N-word”.
“She repeats her cousins’ slang and begins drinking ginger beer, committing to ‘being Black’ in the only way she knows how, before realising there’s no one way to be Black”
Not only does Missy feel like she can’t say it based on the way she sees her Blackness, but the character was also voiced by a white woman, which opened a whole other can of worms for the show this summer, forcing the writers to confront its diversity issue. Due to this, the original actress Jenny Slate, stepped down from the role of voicing Missy to make space for a black voice actress and Ayo Edebiri replaced her in the season four finale. By having more people of colour in the writers’ team, Big Mouth tries to make sure that our experiences are told as accurately as possible.
And so it’s unsurprising how relatable Missy’s storyline is. Initially she feels validated by her new look, even being excited to show her parents, but then the moment is tarnished after her white mother describes her new hairstyle as “different”, and questions if it’s “manageable”. Missy erupts, calling both of her parents out for not teaching her anything about being Black as a child. By being raised in a “post-racial household”, Missy doesn’t have the tools to fully form her identity, leading to her struggling to connect with the other Black people in her life, further isolating her.
Then a popular Black jock in her school, Devon, teaches her about code switching, a technique used by people of colour to fit in within different environments such as the workplace and home. His ‘code switch’, shown as a literal dial on his arm, has settings such as ‘saccharin sweet’ for suburban moms, and ‘respectful grandson’ for older black people. The lesson is delivered as a bittersweet ballad in which we start to see more of who Devon is at his core; we realised that throughout the series, his white cheerleader girlfriend had repeatedly tried to change his Blackness to fit her vision of who he is, even making him mispronounce his name to rhyme with hers to be ‘the Devins’.
Devon’s core message – that black people often have to be chameleons for social acceptance and survival – is reflected in the penultimate episode when the characters are facing their biggest fears. Missy is trapped in a house of mirrors, being quashed by her lookalikes representing each aspect of her personality. The climax of this scene sees her recreate herself from fragments of the mirrors, a metaphor of how she now accepts every part of her identity.
“By being raised in a ‘post-racial household’, Missy doesn’t have the tools to fully form her identity”
This scene resonated with me on an intimate level, as while I was raised by two Black parents in a typical West Indian household, I would often be one of two Black girls in any class. Code switching was a huge part of getting through school; exaggerating my Yorkshire accent, wearing straight weaves, and trailing behind my friends at the weekend to go and see The Twilight Saga which I had no personal interest in. When Missy babbles about history and the fiction she reads, I cringe because that was me at that age, and I quickly learnt to suppress that. Now I’m an openly queer adult, I’ve found that I’ve had to come to terms with myself as an individual, and unlearn self-hate and internalised racism.
As a character, Missy Foreman-Greenwald is a welcome change in Black girl representation. Growing up, many of the Black teen characters I saw on screen were portrayed as bullies, living in poverty, or as victims of abuse. Missy comes from an interracial household with two loving, highly educated parents. She’s also a three-dimensional character – she joins protests with her friends, writes erotica, and dates – without her race having to be present in all of the conversations.
However, as a result of being raised in a home where race isn’t discussed, Missy emulates the only blackness she knows: her cousins. This exemplifies that living in a world that doesn’t acknowledge race is dangerous for the formation of our core identities: how can you know who you are, if you don’t understand the history or reality of your culture?
Clearly, Big Mouth isn’t made for children; it’s made for adults who have already been through puberty, validating commonly shared experiences both from teenage years and even those they may be going through now. Through Missy’s journey, Big Mouth has proven it understands the complexity and variety of the Black experience.