In the movie Superbad, Seth (Jonah Hill) dances with a girl at a party. He's pleased with this achievement — until she leaves, and Seth discovers a small period blood stain on his jeans. He's disgusted. This was a big moment in Superbad, so much so that my friend Nick recounted it for me at lunch after the movie came out. In laughing at the joke, we sympathise with Seth, who's grossed out. We should really be empathising with the girl, though. After all, the joke is at the expense of her exploring her newfound sexuality at a party when her period ruins the whole encounter. It hinges on shame.
In Big Mouth, a new animated series for Netflix, Jessi (voiced by Jessi Klein), gets her period during a field trip to the Statue of Liberty. She's wearing white shorts. Mortified, she hides in the bathroom. For comfort, she turns to an animate Statue of Liberty, who moans, "Periods are nothing but pain and misery." (The statue has a thick French accent. She also smokes a cigarette.)
"Is there anything good about being a woman?" Jessi wonders.
The statue responds, "Well, if you're very lucky, a man will jack off at you on the subway."
Jessi and the girl from Superbad are in the same position — they're mortified, courtesy of their periods. But the humour of Jessi's situation hinges on her unmet expectations of womanhood, not shame. It's the female side of puberty humour, comedy real estate that's sparsely populated. For every ten jokes about balls dropping and voices cracking, we hear maybe one about the terrors of becoming a woman during adolescence. Call it the dick joke divide: People would rather joke about penises than vaginas. And then, when vaginas do come up, they are treated with disdain. Ew, that thing bleeds?
Big Mouth is chock full of puberty humour. Created by the comedian Nick Kroll and his childhood best friend Andrew Goldberg, the show is nothing if not a rumination on the gross parts of growing up that we all experience. The first episode features a group of penises playing basketball. The second has tampon singing "Everybody Bleeds." There's a hormone monster who provides sage advice to pubescent boys. There's also a hormone monstress who gives advice to pubescent women. Big Mouth reflects a gender parity that's not quite present in other shows of its ilk.
This only happens when women get in the writer's room. According to Jennifer Flackett, who executive produced the series with her husband Mark Levin, the man-to-woman ratio in the writer's room was about 55/45. (Flackett told me over the phone it was 60/40, then later amended the number.) Flackett explained that even though the show was the brainchild of two men — Kroll and Goldberg — it was always going to span gender experiences.
"From the very beginning, we knew the second episode would be about Jessi getting her period," Flackett said. "We knew the tampon would sing 'Everybody Bleeds.'"
The producer insists this was an effort from the entire staff of Big Mouth — this was going to be a show about women's puberty just as much as men's.
"There's a lot about girls and puberty and sex that doesn't get discussed in the way that boys talk about it," Flackett said. "We really wanted to give a voice to it."
Everyone has seen a drawing of penis by the time they're ten — you don't have that with vaginas!
During her interviews with writers, the men would discuss masturbating. Women writers would recount horror stories about getting their periods. That's what they were familiar with talking about. Coming-of-age sexuality for women, especially in pop culture, is usually horrific — like the bloody sink in It, or the bucket of blood in Carrie, or Sansa Stark's (Sophie Turner) panicked reaction to her first menstruation in Game of Thrones. Female sexuality is treated like a monster — like the demogorgon in Stranger Things — not a joke between friends.
"This idea of women's purity is just an ongoing thing — of people wanting to protect them," Flackett said. "There's something kind of scary about it."
Emily Altman, one of three main women writers for the show (Kelly Galuska and Jess Dweck are the other two), pointed out that penises are actually easier to animate than vaginas. Or, to be technical, vulvas. In the third episode, titled "Girls Are Horny, Too," Jessi meets the hormone monstress (voiced by Maya Rudolph), who introduces her to the vagina. The vagina (voice by Kristen Wiig) encourages Jessi to masturbate. Jessi's genitals have plentiful screentime in this episode.
"Oh, my God. We went through so many [vaginas]," Altman said when asked about the illustrated vulva. "It's funny because we didn't have intense conversations about the penises."
And the penises are plentiful in the show. Besides the basketball game in the first episode, there's a storyline that involves a bag of furry, quivering penises.
"We're so accustomed in our culture to seeing drawings of penises all the time," Altman said. "They're devoid of anxiety and tension.Everyone has seen a drawing of penis by the time they're ten — you don't have that with vaginas!"
The conversation about the vagina went like this: It needed to be just as funny and light as the penis. How funny is the penis? Silly enough that there's an entire show on Netflix about phallic graffiti. The illustrated vulva couldn't be too sexy, or too cute. Altman says an early iteration was rejected because it wore a bow.
"We were honouring the fact that this should be just as straightforward and human as the many times you see a dick throughout the show," Altman says.
The team had a similar discussion about the hormone monstress, a vision in furry womanhood who screams just as much as she cries and loves Lana Del Rey. She's just as gross as the hormone monster, voiced by Nick Kroll. (The hormone monster owns the bag of furry penises, since you asked.)
"Her boobs were a huge conversation," Altman said. "Like, how big should they be? How pert should her nipples be? There was a lot of really passionate discussion in the room of just making sure that we're not looking at this as an object to be turned on."
A big part of this was finding women animators.
"You've really got to go looking for them," Flackett said. But it mattered. Flackett recalled how she felt when she screened the second episode, "Everybody Bleeds," for the first time.
"There's that moment where Jessi looks at herself in the mirror and the wings [of her pad] are hanging out of her underwear," Flackett recounted. "And there was this collective — like a sigh or a sound of recognition. The guys in the room said, 'I've never heard a sound like that before.' The women, it meant something to them." It's period humour that doesn't hinge on shame.
Maybe a year after Superbad came out, my best friend Daisy bled onto her beige chair in music class. The boys in the class laughed. The girls hung their heads, embarrassed by our fallen comrade. Would that we had a tampon singing "Everybody Bleeds" to help us laugh through our discomfort.
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