“Big Mouth” Confronts Its Race Problem
The animated Netflix series gives its Black, brown, and queer characters more depth this season. (Spoilers ahead.)
Halfway through the latest season of Big Mouth, Netflix’s sex-positive animated hit following the lives of suburban middle schoolers outside of New York City as they experience the joys and pitfalls of puberty, the fourth wall is broken.
On a daytime bus trip to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, DeVon (Jak Knight) compliments Missy Foreman-Greenwald (Jenny Slate) on her “tight” new look, specifically her braided hairdo. His girlfriend, a white student named Devin, immediately adds her two cents with condescension fully on display. “Wow. So cute. You have Black girl hair now. I never really thought of you as a ‘Black’ Black girl,” Devin says. When the students arrive at the memorial, DeVon approaches Missy to apologize on behalf of his girlfriend’s cringeworthy moment of blatant White Nonsense™.
“It's just that I'm really struggling with my racial identity right now. My mom's white. My dad's Black. I'm voiced by a white actress who's 37 years old. Ugh! It's all very overwhelming,” Missy says, explaining why Devin’s comment affected her. Missy’s detail of her quandary is both hilarious and a reveal of the limits the show has faced when it comes to authentically exploring the facets of her character’s experience as a Black person. And it’s a prickly issue that had been on the minds of the series’ creators for some time, Nick Kroll, one-fourth of the brainpower behind the show’s conception, recently told Vulture. “Our writers really have been engines pushing us to tell more nuanced stories about identity,” he told the outlet. “We realized this is a show about different kids, all with their own personal journeys with puberty.”
Arguably that, at least in part, is what makes this season the most nuanced and resonant yet. While many people have gone through — and survived — the awkward process of puberty, the ordeal is not the same for everyone. Big Mouth embraces the gags and jokes that originally made it a sensation when it premiered in the fall of 2017 (there’s no shortage of poop and masturbation jokes), but the series is now fortified by its willingness to delve deeper into how being part of a marginalized community influences a person’s experience of growing up. Though Missy’s transformation and reckoning with her race is one of the season’s most thoughtful arcs, the show continues this theme in other areas too. There are two queer storylines — one involving a young trans girl and another with a gay student — both of whom experience distress when they encounter rejection from people (a reluctant crush and a parent in denial, respectively) who do not completely embrace them because of their queerness. The writers’ decision to broaden the experience of puberty beyond that of the endlessly covered straight white male adolescent, along with their readiness to course-correct in real time, has made the show more enriching and insightful.
In June, in the aftermath of global protests against police brutality in the US, Jenny Slate informed fans via Instagram that she would no longer be voicing Missy. The decision to play Missy, according to Slate, was a “flawed and racist” one. "I acknowledge how my original reasoning was flawed, that it existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy, and that in me playing 'Missy,' I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people,” she wrote. Though the majority of Season 4 has Slate still voicing Missy, by the end of season, Black actor Ayo Edebiri takes over the role.
The choice to quit was Slate’s alone, though the announcement rubbed some viewers the wrong way. It was, per one annoyed commenter on Slate’s post, politically correct “horseshit.” It’s a difficult conversation and, unfortunately, one with no readily available solutions considering how few animated characters of color there are in general.
People also have differing stances on the matter. Dante Basco, a Filipino American actor, recently told Vox about his own experience with vying for animation roles, saying he has benefitted when race and ethnicity were considered thoughtfully in the casting process. “I don’t know if [racially conscious casting] is necessarily important on every single thing ... I always tell people that if I had to wait around for a Filipino American role, I would not have a career,” he said.
And as Lauren Michele Jackson wrote for the New Yorker this summer, the well-meaning changes to make animation more inclusive that erupted this year could become muddled. “It would be folly, though, to ask that the categories of creator and creation—cartoonists and actors, writers and characters—align neatly,” Jackson writes. “Cree Summer, a black voice actor whose dominance in the field rivals that of Mel Blanc, has delighted as a mercurial lavender poodle and a tiny-toons tot, a ponytailed teen bully and an Atlantean princess, plus at least a hundred more characters, some black and some not. Such is the power of a voice that seems to come from nowhere—it can become anything.”
The conversation around race-conscious casting isn’t new. Another popular Netflix series, BoJack Horseman, was criticized for casting Alison Brie, who is white, as Diane Nguyen, who has a white mother and Vietnamese dad. In a 2018 Slate interview, the show’s creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, talked at length about his regrets when it came to “color-blind” casting. “I was just casting whoever was great and I wasn’t really thinking about their race, and then I was surprised to discover all the people I thought were great were white people,” Bob-Waksberg said. He said he felt that the show was hindered by having an all-white cast, which also hurt the series in terms of the show thoroughly getting into the character’s culture and heritage. “We did a complete disservice to the character by making her so white,” he said. “Obviously what white-coded means is subjective, and there are Asian women who relate to Diane and I don’t want to discount their experiences. But I do think we have avoided stories that could have been more interesting because of my own fear and guilt about the casting.”
In the same episode where Devin attempts to downplay Missy’s Blackness, titled, “A Very Special 9/11 Episode,” DeVon mentions code-switching, a foreign concept to the biracial middle schooler who has been so sheltered by her parents, who raised her in a “post-racial household.” If this is something that’s lost on Missy, it’s undoubtedly not a tactic the woman playing her, Slate, has ever had to employ in order to function in the world. Slate’s interest in playing the role was well-intentioned in the beginning, but it also perpetuated the idea that white people can do anything — including portray someone of a different race — more competently than someone who is actually Black. It may not be exactly the same as, say, blackface or planning an elaborate ruse like Jessica Krug or Rachel Dolezal or women who “blackfish'' in terms of insensitivity, but it’s definitely on the spectrum. Avant Strangel, a Black voiceover actor based in Paris, convinced a casting director to replace a white colleague who couldn't nail a James Brown accent with someone Black, according to an interview he did with Vulture about the whitewashed world of voicework in July. “It’s simple: Hire the appropriate person of color for the roles. Anything less is just an aural and oral blackface. And any white person telling someone to ‘sound more Black’ deserves a punch in the throat.” Though there may be no malice intended when white actors have been cast as people of color in contemporary voicework roles, the performances are inherently stripped of authenticity.
Big Mouth has had its share of deserved criticism, including its poor explanation of pansexuality in Season 3, but Kroll, who was recently profiled in the New York Times, genuinely listens to feedback. “You have to look at the note. And take an honest look at yourself. And when we honestly took a look at that scene, we can say we didn’t do it as well as we wanted to,” Kroll told the Times, referring to the show’s portrayal of pansexuality.
Being conscientious about which actors nab certain roles is a way of returning authority to people who have had a shared experience with the person they’re playing. You could argue that tackling the casting process in this way is just identity politics, but it’s not that clear-cut. Natalie, a trans character who makes an appearance this season, befriending the redhead Jessi Glaser (Jessi Klein), is played by Josie Totah, who is trans. Hiring people from more marginalized communities also gives these people career opportunities that can be hard to come by. “The issue is that trans people often can’t even get in the door. They can’t even get auditions. We’re not even considered for parts that aren’t trans, so when we can’t even get in the door for trans roles it just leaves us in a completely untenable situation,” Jen Richards, an actor and activist, told the Chicago Tribune in 2018.
Totah’s Natalie shares a kiss with a boy from camp in a nearby wooded area, but the boy then insists they return to camp separately. In private, he can show his affection for Natalie. In public, they have to play it cool. Though the series could have explored this more, the boy’s timidity, though not explicitly stated, is couched in a fear of being perceived as different from other straight boys because of his attraction to a trans person. The moment is brief, but it’s affecting, exemplifying what the series excelled at this season: fleshing out the coming-of-age experience for characters who aren’t white and straight. This same idea could be applied to the character Matthew, whose relationship with his mother becomes strained when she discovers sexts between her son and his boyfriend. Andrew Rannells, who is gay in real life and has voiced Matthew since the series began, evokes a sincerity when channeling his character’s feeling of parental alienation, a feeling that’s not uncommon for many queer people.
What’s apparent from the conversations that have cropped up in the last few years is that taking time to be considerate about which particular actor you’re going to employ for animation work could make the product better. As Bob-Waksberg said in the aforementioned interview, Alison Brie is an “incredible” actor — which is precisely why her casting was so irksome, as interviewer Inkoo Kang pointed out. “On a certain level, it’s because that character is so moving that it hurts a little bit more,” Kang said, to which Bob-Waksberg agreed “one hundred percent.” In the wake of Slate’s decision to step down, other white actors followed suit, including Kristen Bell. who was cast as a biracial girl on the show Central Park, and Mike Henry, who played the Black animated character Cleveland Brown for more than two decades. And The Simpsons, the longest-running animated series, announced it would no longer cast white actors as characters of color, a major decision considering the controversy the show endured after its poor handling of criticism for its portrayal of the Indian American character Apu.
People who see calls to be more thoughtful and inclusive during the casting process may see this approach as rigid and uncompromising, but it’s actually the opposite. The more opportunities voice actors of color are given to play characters who share their identity, the more avenues there are for nuanced and authentic depictions. ●