Between toilet humour, dick jokes and the attic-dwelling ghost of Duke Ellington, Netflix’s animated series Big Mouth has dealt with sensitive topics like depression, masturbation and consent in a responsible and surprisingly warm-hearted way.
Created by Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, the show follows a group of seventh graders and their sexually-charged hormone monsters as they attempt to navigate all the classic teenage growing pains.
The show took on a fresh topic in season three episode ‘Rankings’ when it brought in a new classmate, a soccer-playing, pansexual Ravenclaw named Ali (voiced by Ali Wong). Big Mouth may get points for putting the infrequently-represented pansexuality at the forefront, but when it came to its attempt at explaining the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality it completely missed the target and managed to insult the bi, pan, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming communities in one shot.
Before I go off on one, I should make it known that I am not bi or pan. I’m gay. But I’ve been misrepresented before, and I can tell you that it sucks. However, in my experience I’ve found that it sucks a bit less when the misrepresentation is unintentional as opposed to scathing, and with the promise of a free pass to Hell. But as unintentional Big Mouth’s misrepresentation was, it was still extremely disappointing, especially with the show’s track record of consistently being extremely woke for a gross-out animated sitcom.
“Pansexual means I’m into boys, girls, and everything in between,” new girl Ali explains as the class looks on, gobsmacked. When Nick confesses he thought that was what bisexual meant, she continues, “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 taco and burritos. But I’m saying I like tacos and burritos, and I could be into a taco that was born a burrito, or a burrito that’s transitioning into a taco, comprende? And honey, anything else on the f**king menu.”
It doesn’t take a bisexual to figure out what’s wrong with that. Bisexuality (sexual attraction to two or more genders, or to your own gender as well as others) and pansexuality (sexual attraction not limited to gender identity) have been subjected to misrepresentation for years, but now that other people are getting the hang of words beyond ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, more and more films and TV shows (though still not enough) are including different sexual identities in their stories.
Which makes it all the more jarring that a show as socially aware as Big Mouth could mess up so badly. Many viewers know the difference already and have been quick to catch the hiccup, but those that didn’t might be taking what Big Mouth says about bi and pan people as gospel.
What’s maybe worse is the fact that Big Mouth didn’t seem to realise that its definitions of the words were wrong. Out to do good, it rolled with assumptions without even stopping to do a quick fact check. That’s the key point. This kind of situation — and others like it — can be avoided simply by hiring more LGBTQ+ writers in writers rooms.
When shows create queer characters, we want them to feel authentic. The only way to do that is to hire authentic queer writers to write them. We don’t expect every show to hire one of each sexuality for the sake of filling a quota, but even a gay person could have at least stopped the conversation and said, ‘Hey team, I don’t think that’s what bisexual means…’ and called some bi and pan writer pals in before it was written into the script for good.
After the backlash, the Big Mouth creators were quick to confront it head on, posting a statement explaining the situation on Twitter: “We missed the mark here with this definition of bisexuality vs pansexuality, and my fellow creators and I sincerely apologise for making people feel misrepresented,” wrote co-creator Andrew Goldberg.
“Any time we try to define something as complex as human sexuality, it’s super challenging, and this time we could have done better. Thank you to the trans, pan, and bi communities for further opening our eyes to these important and complicated issues of representation. We are listening and we look forward to delving into all of this in future seasons.”
The fact that the statement came with an upfront apology can lead us to believe that Big Mouth genuinely wants to do better, and it can start with its writers room.
There could well have been bi and pan people contributing to the writing efforts, but the fact of the matter is that the episode absolutely reads like there weren’t. Instead, it feels like the writers heard a definition of ‘bisexuality’ back in the early noughties and ran with that, presuming that everything we knew about queer identities back then – when same-sex couples outside of the Netherlands couldn’t get married and cis people barely knew trans people existed – was still the same in 2019.
Cultures constantly change and LGBTQ+ culture is no different. Media as influential as television is both blessed and burdened with a public responsibility to help it change in the right direction.
As Big Mouth seems to genuinely care, what can it – and other shows like it – do now to help right the wrongs?
In an ideal world, it would rewrite the harmful parts of the episode, as opposed to removing it completely and taking its pansexual representation with it. But in the long term, shows like Big Mouth could start with hiring writers who actually have real life experience of the types of minority-specific stories they’re writing.
That doesn’t mean having a token gay writer to pen the queer storylines – a lot of the bigotry against bi, pan and trans people actually comes from within the larger queer community.
If shows want their stories and characters to be believable, they have to hand power over to people qualified to create them that way. The same can be said of men when writing women, cis people who write trans stories and white people who write stories about people of colour – they need to open the conversation out and involve creative imaginations other than their own. No matter how good a writer you are, there’s no substitute for authentic, lived experience.
Despite the mishap, it’s still great that Big Mouth is attempting to break boundaries and portray topics that traditionally don’t get enough screen time. Instead of shying away from stories you don’t feel qualified to write about properly, just hire and support people who are. Misrepresentation might be worse than no representation (depending on who you ask), but no representation is still pretty dire. And on top of being harmful to marginalised communities, it’s also very, very boring.
Big Mouth seasons one to three are streaming now on Netflix.
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