The premiere episode of the Netflix animated series Big Mouth, aptly titled “Ejaculation,” opens with a sex-ed class of seventh graders learning about the uterus for the first time. As the boys wonder whether or not it’s called a “vagina” or a “uterus,” a mysterious, unstoppable horny force appears: Maurice the Hormone Monster. Once he arrives on the scene, even the word “fallopian” becomes too much to bear.
The Hormone Monster insists the only way he’ll go away is if Andrew Glouberman, an early bloomer (and main character), masturbates. “Let’s go to the bathroom and climax into that thin toilet paper,” Maurice insists. Andrew runs out of the classroom for fear of “Jackson Pollocking” in his pants, which — spoiler alert — he does at a school dance at the end of the episode.
For many of Big Mouth’s intended viewers, everything about this moment was a relatable reminder of what a disgusting nightmare puberty was, down to the terrible school toilet paper. Now three seasons later (that debut episode is from September 2017), the show has covered everything from the orgasm gap to slut shaming, porn addiction and pillow-humping. It even tackled consent before the dawn of #MeToo.
In episode eight, “The Head Push,” Leah, the older sister of Andrew’s best friend Nick, throws a party when their parents leave town. At first, the party is portrayed like most high school parties — filled with lots of underage drinking, teens hooking up and one kid who won’t stop doing magic tricks. During it, Andrew and his love interest Missy have their first kiss while playing Seven Minutes in Heaven. In the closet, they also witness Leah making out with her crush Daniel, who, despite Leah’s protests, pushes down her head repeatedly in an attempt to force oral sex. When they leave the room, Leah, Missy, Andrew and the rest of the drunk partygoers turn against Daniel, throwing him out of the party (and throwing up in his hat).
“This show does a great job of showing both vulgarity in a light and funny manner but also approaching and explaining modern issues for young people in straightforward and honest ways,” redditor njdevilsfan24 posted on a thread about the episode.
“When the dudes actions came out, the WHOLE PARTY saw him turn from charismatic-leader-guy to creepy-self-absorbed-douche, and it was beautiful for a show where the first episode contains big dicks playing basketball,” added ChickenWang98.
Nick Kroll and his Big Mouth co-creators have said that their overall goal with the series is to obviously entertain, but also to honestly convey what this universally horrifying stage of life is like. The latter has resulted in an audience of parents who are using the show’s honesty and humor to educate their kids about sex and puberty in a completely new way.
“I wish this was a show when I was 14. It’s raunchy, explicit and perverted but guess what, that’s how your 14-year-old thinks and probably acts around their friends. But it also helps you feel less alone,” one parent of a 2-year-old posted on Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization where parents can review what content is suitable for children and debate the educational merits of shows like Big Mouth.
“It’s actually opening the door for good questions from my 8-year-old son: What’s a vagina? What’s an STD? What does gay mean? While watching the show, it makes it a little easier to answer when he is laughing about it,” another mother wrote.
Of course, there are moms and dads who also refer to the show as “pure unadulterated crap” and “sick and not funny.” Or as user Jamesp.weigel put it: “My brief encounter with the show included a 12-year-old masturbating and going to a sex shop, a 13-year-old sending dick pics to his cousin and 100 jokes based on the winning formulas of ‘dick, dick, orgasm, repeat.’”
Still, a majority of the 80-plus reviews are raves from parents who think Big Mouth is an unexpected educational resource for teens for that exact reason — it’s so raunchy and absurd that, again, kids are laughing too hard to even register that they’re learning.
To Shafia Zaloom, a health educator at the Urban School in San Francisco and author of Sex, Teens and Everything in Between, it’s not entirely surprising that a scene about getting a boner in sex ed would accidentally turn into legitimate education. As a mother who watches the show with her 15-year-old son and an expert who’s consulted on the series, Zaloom explains that as media has changed (namely, streaming services being at our fingertips 24/7) and the way we talk about sex has changed (more crudely and openly than, say, even in the 1970s), Big Mouth has found itself smack-dab in the middle. “If your kid is already watching Big Mouth, seize the opportunity to have a conversation,” Zaloom tells me. “If they aren’t watching, their friends are, and they’re exposed to it anyways.”
Laura watches the show with her 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. She notes that the storyline where Nick is concerned that his penis is small and hairless and that he isn’t going through puberty as fast as his Andrew was especially helpful. “They’re experiencing their lives through the show and then in real life,” she explains.
This is precisely why television is such an effective tool in teaching kids about sexuality — it’s like when someone brings up an embarrassing problem “their friend” is having. And so, instead of talking about their own hormone monsters, kids can talk about their buddy Andrew’s and learn a lot more than they might have otherwise. “The show allows for a little distance. It’s not too personal, invasive or interrogative,” Zaloom says. “Kids love to talk about their observations of other things, and media allows for that.”
The third and most recent season, released last fall, touches on even more apt themes in this regard. The season opens with Andrew in the throes of rejection from his ex-girlfriend — as well as his peers — after getting too aggressive with her new boyfriend. He takes his feelings of insecurity and isolation to the internet and is quickly conscripted by a Proud Boy-inspired group.
For parents and educators, the possibility of getting red-pilled after a breakup may not be as familiar as getting a boner in health class, but for kids today, it represents one of the many risks the internet presents to their maturing minds. And when they see it on the show for what it really is — an old dusty gym filled with uninformed losers — it reduces the risk that they’ll actually spend their teenage years on 8chan or Gab.
All that said, the show’s potential benefits will definitely be lost in translation if kids are left to watch it by themselves, Zaloom warns. Not to mention, a parent who joins them on the couch for a few episodes builds their trust that mom or dad isn’t going to freak out when they start to watch porn, have to deal with a creepy teacher or question their sexual orientation or gender identity, because no such freak-outs occurred when those things exact same things happened on Big Mouth.
“Parents are the primary educator in their child’s life,” Zaloom says, “and this includes sex ed.”