Support the news
Want to listen to the full episode on this topic? Click here.
Meet the "hormone monsters."
They are the hairy, scary beasts of the Netflix animated series "Big Mouth" who torment the minds and bodies of middle-schoolers in the throes of puberty.
Everything is monstrously confusing, a little out of control and a very big deal. "Big Mouth" is funny and raunchy, and one of several streaming shows being praised for their bold and compassionate portrayals of teenage sexuality.
"We all found that time of life to be this potent time when you're trying to figure things out," says Jennifer Flackett, co-creator and executive producer of "Big Mouth," about the show's conception. "And we, at the time, had a 13-year-old son. We were just watching him kind of go through the throes of puberty. We were sort of thinking, 'Is there a way' — because we knew the show was going to be animated — 'to talk about that?' ... We wanted to kind of give a voice to that voice inside of you."
What does that voice inside of you look like? The "Hormone Monstress" Connie yelling at the character Jessi to "scream at her mother than laugh at her tears." And the "Shame Wizard" accusing the character Andrew of being a "loathsome little pervert." These are the kinds of chaotic internal monologues, indictments and worries we face in puberty.
"Sex Education," another Netflix hit, and Hulu’s "Pen15," are also changing the way teenage sexuality is shown on the small screen. Right now, only 24 states mandate sex education in schools, and 13 of them require the instruction be medically accurate. So teens go where teens go for comfort and camaraderie: to the culture.
And that culture is online. In Flackett's eyes, a show like "Big Mouth" would not be possible without the freedom streaming services provide.
"I think the show became what it is because we were on Netflix and because of the freedom that we had there," she told On Point. "Because there's no content restrictions and because they have just been the most incredible partners of letting us figure out what the show is and celebrating that."
"Teenagers are raunchy. And that time of life is disgusting in so many ways. And it's very honest. The series really does take away that shame of being a teenager that so many kids feel."Karen, On Point caller from Camden, Maine
For some parents, the show has gone beyond entertainment to serve as a teaching resource. Karen, a mom of two teenagers ages 13 and 17 from Camden, Maine, called in to say her family members all love "Big Mouth."
"It just really helps my husband and I communicate with our kids about sensitive issues in a way that's hilarious," she told On Point. "It's a lot. It's so funny. But, also, teenagers are raunchy. And that time of life is disgusting in so many ways. And it's very honest. The series really does take away that shame of being a teenager that so many kids feel."
For all of the work that these shows do to destigmatize and normalize the changes we go through as human beings, there remains a concern about just how sexually explicit some of the content gets. Do the shows go too far? Do we need to see sexual acts playing out between teenagers?
"Personally, there were times where I was like, 'I'm going to cover my eyes. I don't need to watch this scene,' " said Sonia Saraiya, TV critic at Vanity Fair. She was speaking specifically to the sex scenes in "Sex Education."
More than just cringeworthy, these scenes can also mislead younger audiences that might be learning about their sexuality for the first time. While it's important for kids to learn more about the people that they're becoming, sex in popular media runs the risk of narrowly defining what things are "supposed" to be like, said Shafia Zaloom, health educator at the Urban School in San Francisco.
"For kids who may not have an experiential contact or have had these conversations ... for them it's like, 'Is this what it's really like? Is this how I should be?' " Zaloom said.
Speaking for "Big Mouth," Flackett says it's an "honest depiction of what's going on."
"It was conceived with a slightly older audience in mind. We really felt like, you know, this is for college kids. But I have discovered for myself, as I talk about it with people, that if you are going through puberty, this is a show for you," she said. "I also say to all of my friends who say, 'Can my kids watch it?' I'm like, 'You watch it first and you decide.' "
Flackett also points to how "Big Mouth" tackles puberty for both boys and girls.
"We always knew the second show was going to be Jessi getting her period. We try to be as evenhanded as we can about boys shows and girls shows and really showing from both points of view," she said. "I obviously fight for those stories, but all my male collaborators fight for those, too. They really feel like that's what makes the show so special."
Support the news