What’s up Wisecrack, Helen here! It’s been a minute, but Jared’s giving me the mic today to get brainy with you about Big Mouth, the Netflix series that puts a spotlight on everyone’s most discomforting season of life: Puberty. A few of you have asked us to cover Big Mouth but coming up with a good angle admittedly hasn’t been easy. On the surface, Big Mouth isn’t the most profound thing in the world.
I mean, it’s basically what you’d get if the Simpsons and Degrassi gave birth to a weird sex ed class that’s set to the tune of catchy parody songs about menstrual blood and “doing sex” on a woman. “Hey Rick, it’s not weird that I haven’t, y’know, done sex yet, right?” But we saw a couple possible angles from a neuroscience and psychology standpoint that maybe sorta kinda work, which is why I’m here to walk you through ‘em. So, grab your bag of dicks and hold on tight for this half-baked breakdown of Big Mouth.
And yes, spoilers ahead. But before we get to that, wanna let you guys know this video is sponsored by Betterhelp, the online counseling service. You might be aware that there was some controversy surrounding the company. We’re aware too and have addressed these concerns in our Philosophy of True Detective video. The link’s in the description, if you want to check it out. Long story short, we all believe in the value of speaking to someone on a regular basis and we think Betterhelp is a good option for people who think online therapy is the right fit for them. So, stick around till the end of the video for more info, and now back to the show. Ok, so, for those of you who haven’t seen the show, here’s a quick rundown.
Big Mouth covers all your standard puberty plots. In season 1, our heroes have their first kisses, wrangle with their sexuality, knock up a bean-filled pillow – you know, typical teenager stuff. Most of this is on account of the Hormone Monsters, big hairy creatures who are constantly telling our heroes how to live their lives and, more importantly, where to put their genitals [“There we go, visualize, focus, interesting, yeeeeess”]. In season 2, they’re basically doing the same things, but with a new shoulder devil thrown in the mix: The Shame Wizard. All these youthful foibles gave us our first pitch: The crazy pubescent brain. Scientists find Human adolescents fascinating for a reason: Their rapidly-changing brains make them like no other creature on Earth. In the words of neuroscientist Frances Jensen, teenagers are “like Ferraris with weak brakes,” which is why they’re more prone than adults are to doing erratic shit, like giving in to the thrill of shoplifting or running away with your not-boyfriend and his pillow-slash-baby mama [Pam? Scorpion? Jay? Who are these pillows? We’re his family. Who the F*ck are you b*tch?]. That’s because the part of the brain that’s responsible for what we call “executive functioning” – which includes things like making rational decisions – isn’t all the way developed yet.
All of this madness kicks off during puberty, when the brain begins to undergo a whole lotta changes that will eventually turn you into a grown-ass human being – maybe [Oh, Hey Nick! Coach Steve? How ‘bout an awkward reaching fist bump my dude? What are you doing here? Oh. I still go to the pediatrician. I am what is known in the medical community as a man-baby. You’re the man-baby Steve.]. And you might be saying, no shit. While scientific explanations of something we all mostly know is a worthwhile endeavor, it’s not exactly a Wisecrack video. So, I’m gonna give that pitch like a C-. That leaves us with our second almost-angle: Shame. There was a bit of buzz around the Shame Wizard when Season 2 debuted last fall, because A) David Thewlis, AKA Professor Lupin from Harry Potter, voices the Shame Wizard and does a kick-ass job, and B) the character is just so good and something all of us have dealt with.
But apart from throwing a wet blanket on the Hormone Monsters’ schemes, does the Shame Wizard actually reflect our lived experience of shame in a unique and thought-provoking manner? Well, what IS shame, anyway? It may be best described by contrasting it with guilt. Now, guilt is feeling bad about something that we’ve done, while shame is feeling like we’re fundamentally flawed as the people we are. Or, as the Shame Wizard puts it during Andrew’s trial: [“Now the state shall prove that Andrew Glouberman didn’t do a bad thing. Yeah. He is a bad thing! Oh.”,] So, along with all the warm fuzzy feelings of first love or lust or whatever, puberty also brings an awful lot of shameful self-loathing. It’s a common refrain that the older you get, the fewer fucks you give. And in that vein, Big Mouth asks: How does our shame change as we age? [“You’re just a thirteen-year-old man who took what he wanted. Ah. Like me, I live balls out and I give zero f*cks”] The Shame Wizard shows up as a little voice in Andrew’s head after he gets caught jerking off over Leah’s swimsuit [It’s going to be fine.
No, it’s not. What? She saw everything. Who said that? She’s going to tell everyone.”]. He proceeds to follow the kids around berating them for the things they do, much to the chagrin of the hormone monsters [“Just give the kid a night off. Give all the kids a night off.”]. But as far as the show tells us, the Shame Wizard doesn’t have any power over adults. Despite the fact that their behavior is way more messed up, like Jessi’s mom cheating on her dad and then banishing him to the basement and Jay’s parents generally being sleezy assholes [“I will happily abandon my family to get you the divorce settlement that you deserve.”]. I mean the poor guy’s mom gets drunk and forgets to pick him up from school on a daily basis, then sleeps with his teacher, all while his dad is out banging other women and getting criminals off the hook.
And these adults all seem to avoid shame court. This gets really interesting in the context of the relationship between the Shame Wizard and clinically-certified man child Coach Steve. He’s the only adult that we see interacting with Shame, and he’s apparently immune to it, even though he sleeps with the mother of his student and so-called best friend and knocks out a fellow teacher with a bat. You might say the Shame Wizard can’t get to Coach Steve because he’s just plain dumb. But even if that’s the case, it still doesn’t change the fact that the teens are the only ones who are visibly tormented by the Shame Wizard. But for the sake of science, was 13-year-old you just being melodramatic when you felt like holing yourself up for the rest of your life after you called your English teacher Mom? Or was your brain actually conspiring against you? While admittedly there’s not a ton of clear-cut evidence that teenagers are more shame-ridden than adults, there is some.
Susceptibility to shame decreased as kids entered young adulthood in one study, something the researchers thought might have to do with the fact that as your brain matures, it’s better able to regulate emotions. And this makes sense when you think about how teens process emotions compared to adults. Teens are known to pick up on social and emotional cues that adults just filter out. They also spend more time thinking about the way others see them, traits that psychologists think are from an evolutionary standpoint supposed to help them make friends. This has the unfortunate side effect of making them a lot more easily embarrassed and maybe even ashamed. In a kind of creepy study where people were told that they were being monitored over video, teens were more likely to report feeling embarrassed than either adults or children. And parts of the brain associated with social emotions were a lot more active in teens during this scenario. Some scientists think this might have to do with the influx of hormones during puberty, aka the hormone monsters showing up. So theoretically, being rejected as a teenager is harder to swallow than when you’re an adult because your brain is more sensitive to social emotions, making the whole experience a lot more painful.
Big Mouth also does a really great job of highlighting the relationship between shame and depression. The Shame Wizard antagonizes pretty much all the kids at some point, but none of them are hit quite as hard as Jessi. All she wants is for her family to be together, but she winds up responsible for her dad getting kicked out of the house after she steals his weed gummies. The Shame Wizard bears down on her hard [“Was it worth it Jessi? Just to get hella faded” “No”], only to return in full force after she slut shames Gina. Gina refuses to forgive her and calls her a hypocrite, ultimately leading to Connie being replaced by the Depression Kitty and Jessi being locked away in a padded room in the Department of Puberty [“I should get up, it’s kind of weird to be in bed in the middle of the day” “No it’s not”]. Both guilt and shame are linked to depression, but it’s been argued that shame might be more potent in actually causing depression than guilt. That idea kind of offers an explanation for why Jessi is the only major character who winds up depressed, despite the fact that shame impacts everyone.
Obviously, her home life is significantly more messed up than anyone else’s, except maybe for Jay. But I’d argue that Jessi’s shame runs a lot deeper than that of her friends, because the consequences of her actions reflect more negatively on her character than her friends’ do. Even though Andrew feels shame for being a quote “pervert,” his masturbation habits can easily be adjusted [“Actually I don’t think I am going to jerk off inches from my best friend’s face tonight.
I am better than that”]. But Jessi can’t go back and fix the things that lead her to believe she’s a bad daughter and a hypocrite. That combined with the fact that her family’s support is kind of lacking, makes her more prone to depression, something she can only get out of – literally – with the help of her friends [“Yeah, the men saved her” “ugh”]. In the end, Big Mouth tells us that the best way to deal with shame is communication. [“I do need help. I wanna talk to that therapist.] While having a free-for-all at a middle school sleepover isn’t exactly the most practical solution, being willing to talk about the way we feel keeps us from feeling alone. After all, whether you’re an awkward middle schooler in the throes of puberty or a famously dead jazz phenomenon, life…
Is a f*cked up mess. [“Life is a f*cked up mess. Life is a f*cked up mess.”]. We’d might as well laugh about it. So yeah, I’m gonna give that pitch a solid B. That’s partly because shame is admittedly the low-hanging fruit here. Sure, we can cite studies that confirm our basic understanding of shame all day, but it’s kind of one note. Maybe the Shame Wizard could’ve broached the idea that shame has some benefits for your psyche and society at large, an idea that’s been argued by psychologists and philosophers alike. The kids sort of touch on that at the close of season 2 [“I wanna be a good person too, I do” “Oh, you do, you see, we’re not so different, are we?”] but they don’t really explore it in any meaningful way, so we don’t have enough detail for a meaty discussion.
Still, Big Mouth really kills its illustration of the power of shame during puberty. And smart stuff aside, if you’re a Homo Sapien who has or is currently going through puberty, Big Mouth is really relatable. But what do you think, Wisecrack? Is a whole video on the Rock of Gibraltar in order, or is there some other hot take you guys wanna see? Drop us a line in the comments, [“ho ho ho. You think you’re excited? I just found out Dip n’ Dots isn’t fluorescent guinea pig doodies”] and before you go this episode is sponsored by Betterhelp, the Online Counseling service. Betterhelp operates worldwide to pair people with licensed professionals who they can talk to on their computer, tablet, phone, whatever. As I said earlier you might be aware that there was some controversy surrounding the company last year. We’ve been following it closely and we’re still confident that Betterhelp is a good option for people who think online therapy is the right fit for them.
For a full breakdown of the issues brought up, please reference the end of our True Detective video. We’ve popped a link in the description. I’m all about breaking down the stigma of getting help for mental health issues and something I really like about Betterhelp is how it makes it easy to get counseling for people who might otherwise feel uncomfortable about therapy. Everyone in the office has tried their service, they’ve liked it, and some are still using it regularly. The certified counselor I was paired with was attentive, professional, and smart – definitely on par with any local therapists I’ve seen. Having said that, even in real life, you don’t always click with your therapist. Trust me. I’ve been there. And then you have to schedule another appointment in another office, which can be super discouraging – not to mention take forever.
But that’s one of the great things about Betterhelp. If for whatever reason, you don’t connect with your therapist, you can get paired with another professional in under 24 hours. And if you’re at all dissatisfied with your experience, Betterhelp is offering a full refund. So, if online counseling sounds like a good fit for you, go to betterhelp.com/wisecrack to get paired with a certified professional within 24 hours. And with that, I’m out. Peace..