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The 'Big Mouth' tweet-storm teaches us something about telling somebody else’s story

Big Mouth follows a group of near-adolescents in suburban New York.

Big Mouth follows a group of near-adolescents in suburban New York.  

The Netflix show is a near-perfect example of a burgeoning sub-genre we like to term 'Explainer TV'

Last week, Big Mouth, one among Netflix’s several animated shows for adults, found itself at the centre of a tweet-storm. Created by Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, the show (whose third season released last week) follows a group of 7th graders in suburban New York as they go through puberty. Big Mouth has been praised for its frank, imaginative and often surreal narratives negotiating sexual coming-of-age — that is, until last week, when a two-minute clip from the new season, featuring comedian Ali Wong, came under sharp criticism.

The clip in question showed new student Ali (voiced by Wong) introducing herself to the class and declaring that she’s pansexual (“Pansexual means I’m into boys and girls and everything in between”), prompting one of the protagonists, Nick (voiced by Kroll), to enquire how that was different from being bisexual. She then offers the following, mixed-metaphor-laden explanation: “No, bisexuality is so binary. Being pansexual means my sexual preference isn’t limited by gender identity... It’s, like, some of you borings like tacos, and some of you like burritos. And if you’re bisexual, you like tacos and burrito. But I’m saying I like tacos and burritos, and I could be into a taco that was born a burrito, sure, ’kay, or a burrito that is transitioning into a taco. Comprende? And honey, anything else on the fucking menu.”

Wong’s initial line (“boys and girls and everything in between”) amounts to a kind of erasure of trans boys and girls, implying that they don’t really represent the gender they transitioned into. The follow-up unnecessarily complicated the definition of pansexual, as several transwomen on Twitter pointed out, in order to make its taco-burrito joke. Eventually, Goldberg apologised on the show’s behalf on Twitter, admitting that the scene had “missed the mark”, and promised to do better.

Lessons to learn

Big Mouth is a near-perfect example of a burgeoning sub-genre, one that I like to call Explainer TV. Although Hollywood is still extremely white and straight-dominated, the last two decades have seen many successful shows focus on hitherto suppressed stories — African-American family sitcoms (Black-ish), lesbian dramedies (The L Word), immigrant comedies (Fresh Off the Boat), and so on.

These are often stories about minorities, people oppressed for their identities, one way or another. And while these shows are not aimed at white audiences, creators do hope that somewhere along the line, some lessons will seep through. Big Mouth, of course, is a bit different because most of the protagonists happen to be white kids. But the Explainer TV tag still fits because of its tonality — a certain ‘gather around, kids’ insouciance that is common to all of the shows mentioned above.

If the events of last week have taught us (and hopefully, the makers of Big Mouth) anything, it’s this — if you want to tell somebody else’s story (in Big Mouth’s case, this was sexual minorities such as bisexuals and pansexuals), the thing to do is to hire someone from the group you’re trying to represent on screen. Wanna make a show about a man transitioning into a woman? Hire a transwoman to write the thing. Wanna make a film about black scholarship kids and how they struggle to fit into WASP-dominated colleges? Hire a couple of such kids as consultants right away, and then figure out the rest of the writers’ room.

Portrayal sans representation is so 2009, after all.

Aditya Mani Jha is a writer and journalist working on his first book of non-fiction.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 1:04:40 AM |

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