In an unexpected and extremely welcome twist, Netflix’s puberty-centric animated comedy Big Mouth introduced biphobia only to shut it down immediately. Near the end of the show’s second season, the seemingly straight character Jay Bilzerian (voiced by ever-reliable funnyman Jason Mantzoukas) starts to develop attractions to boys—and boy pillows, as the show brings Jay’s faithful masturbatory aids to life, imbuing them with personalities, sex drives, and genders.
While a lot of pop culture would take Jay’s questioning to a gay or straight end point, Big Mouth seems committed to Jay’s bisexuality. In a telling exchange after sex with Pam, the girl pillow voiced by Kristen Bell, Jay explains the nature of his attraction to her as compared to Brad, the boy pillow voiced by Gil Ozeri. “Better than Brad, right?” she asks Jay. “It’s different,” he responds. “I kind of like it with both of you.” She’s not happy with that, and throws a bit of biphobia at Jay: “That’s bullshit. If you say you like boy pillows and girl pillows, it means you really just like boy pillows.”
What really stands out in this exchange is that at no point does Jay actually entertain Pam’s casual and painfully familiar bi-erasure.
As Bisexual Awareness Week kicks off with Bi Visibility Day today, it’s worth celebrating those corners of pop culture waving their bi flags high and proud, and my current fav on this front is Big Mouth—with all its chaotically hormone-filled scatalogical humour cranked up to 11—which returns for a third season October 4.
One of the most satisfying narrative developments in season two of Big Mouth was Jay’s surprisingly nuanced exploration of his own attractions to people of various genders. I’ve written before about the need for more and better representations of male bisexuality in films and on TV, and so far I’d call Jay a major win.
While no labels have been applied to Jay within the show, the official Big Mouth Twitter account effectively confirmed his bisexuality with a Jay-centric post on National Coming Out Day last year.
The scene referenced in the tweet was one in which Jay’s dog (a pit bull by the name of Featuring Ludacris) expresses pride in Jay when he embraces his attraction to both male and female pillows. Or a female pillow and a male couch cushion, to be precise.
After kissing the only out gay kid in school, Matthew (voiced by Andrew Rannells), during a game of “Smooch or Share,” Jay shares another smooch with Matthew in private. In the following episode and later Valentines Day special, Jay starts questioning his attractions and exploring his sexual fantasies with the aforementioned boy and girl pillows in a distinctly bi, rather than gay, way.
Jason Mantzoukas (right): the voice behind Jay Bilzerian. Courtesy of Netflix.
Jay’s self-confidence is admirable, and it feels like a huge step forward for bi representation onscreen. I sometimes wonder what a few role models might have done for me as a kid. I came out relatively late, well into my 20s. It wasn’t so much out of fear. I’ve been lucky enough to have a supportive family and social circle. Rather, I lacked strong reference points for my own experiences. For better or worse, we take a lot of cues from pop culture: how to ask someone out, how to kiss, what to talk or brag about, what to keep private. Weird as it may sound, finally seeing bisexual men on TV and in movies gave me a kind of permission by letting me know that what I felt was real—that who I am was real.
Only in relatively recent years did I start to get that from shows like Halt and Catch Fire, Sense8, Game of Thrones, and Penny Dreadful. None of those examples came during the formative years depicted in Big Mouth, when I could have probably used validation and role models most.
Big Mouth isn’t for children. Its TV Parental Guidelines rating is TV-MA, the highest possible rating for a TV show, akin to the MPAA’s R-rating for movies. Having said that, when did TV ratings ever stop kids from watching a show? Like every other millennial, I grew up on South Park. Despite its similar “cartoon for adults” status, we seemingly all found ways of watching it, whether that meant going to that friend with the easygoing parents’ house or watching TV when our parents just weren’t around or paying attention.
Regardless of whether today’s youth are watching Big Mouth, it’s a show I’d have definitely been seeking out as a kid, looking for any content with even the slightest aura of taboo. And I would have been better off for it. While South Park taught us how to be assholes and laugh at the very thought of caring about anything important, Big Mouth actually offers tons of positive messaging, all wrapped up in crass humour that keeps it from feeling coldly didactic. The “lessons” offered aren’t exactly the point, in and of themselves, but they’re the inevitable endpoint of every comedic set-up.
To be clear, nothing seems to be off limits to the show’s writers, and yet the punchlines inevitably include empathy for everyone onscreen. That’s frankly radical at a time when we still have to hear comedians offer limp excuses for “pushing boundaries” and “taking risks” by punching down and spewing bile.
In a perfect or even just decent world, creators would actually have to think about the ways they engage with culture, and that’s one of Big Mouth’s greatest gifts. It never takes the easy route and always actively and enthusiastically explores what it means to exist in the world today. Not every shot is a hit, but the good-faith attempt to unpack how humans relate to each other is admirable, and most of the time hilarious.
The kids’ experiences run the gamut from absurd and gross to painfully relatable. The show offers a table for everyone to sit at. One viewer’s absurd and gross is another’s “it me” moment of validation, with topics like consent, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, slut shaming, and plenty more all getting their moment.
The show sets up so many stereotypical representation traps for itself—including with Jay specifically—but it miraculously avoids falling into any of them. Jay comes from a broken home, and he’s seen as a sexual deviant who just wants to fuck everyone and everything.
These are big red flags for bisexual representation. The notion that bisexuality is actually just a byproduct of being compulsively or pathologically oversexed is a harmful and common stereotype. The Star Wars universe’s Lando Calrissian was dubbed canonically pansexual in the lead-up to the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, but most of the chatter around his sexual identity focused on how indiscriminately horny he is. He even flirts with his robotic second in command, the narrative went. Even setting aside that his robotic companion was coded as and voiced by a woman (the now Emmy-winning Phoebe Waller-Bridge), keeping any same-sex attraction entirely offscreen, the descriptions of Lando’s bisexuality are frankly invalidating. They make his sexuality seem like an addiction. Any hit will do, even if it’s a man.
Similarly, representations of bisexuality as a symptom of being fundamentally broken as a person have flourished for years. Penny Dreadful’s Reeve Carney (who plays Dorian Gray) explained away his own character’s attraction to men and women as “a response to a numbness within” in an interview with Logo, comparing Gray’s sexuality to the self-harming behaviours of a “cutter.” Because God forbid he simply enjoy the sexual company of people of all genders.
Importantly, neither of these pitfalls actually applies to Jay. His home life doesn’t explain his bisexuality, at least not in any negative way. His lack of role models or supervision do, however, leave him far more curious and open to new experiences than some of his classmates. While many kids have prescribed notions of what healthy sexuality is and should be, passed down through generations of heteronormative mythmaking, Jay is left to his own devices to figure out what he’s into.
There’s no magical secret to good bi representation. Just be willing to engage with us in all our complexities and diversity. That’s what bi visibility is actually about. And in this bisexual’s opinion, Big Mouth is really putting in the work and offering a model other creators would be wise to pay attention to.
It’s still early days. Big Mouth was recently renewed for a fourth, fifth, and sixth season, and I’m very excited to see where the show’s creators take Jay’s story. So far, they’ve given me faith that he’s in good hands.
Jay may be a little fucking weirdo, but he’s our little fucking weirdo, and I’m rooting for him.
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