If Big Mouth is serious about shamelessly tackling these uncomfortable topics, they need to do better—for both the queer and the BIPOC community.
By Shin Hye Koo
One of the reasons I got into “Big Mouth” was its honesty and its refreshing take on tackling so many issues that teenagers (and adults) experience throughout our lives, like sexism, sexual orientation, and the destruction of the American nuclear family. The animated show is ambitious, insightful, raunchy, and hilariously honest. Season 3 was no different, but in the episode “Rankings,” the show bit off more than it could chew.
The episode has been accused of oversimplifying pansexuality, and despite the apology from the creators and writers, there is something else that I feel has not yet been discussed. In this particular episode, we are introduced to Ali, a pansexual Asian character, voiced by Ali Wong. There are very few queer Asian woman characters in media, and as a queer Asian woman myself, I really wanted to connect to this character. But, what was supposed to make her relatable ended up making her even more foreign to me.
The show focuses on the sexualization of women who identify as bisexual, pansexual or queer, and attempts to use the introduction of this character to discuss the differences in how queerness (and coming out) is accepted between men and women. Throughout the episode, Jay struggles with his own sexual identity, and with the “hot” reception Ali gets, he becomes convinced that his own coming out would be received in the same way. When he comes out, however, Jay experiences the rude awakening that—surprise—double standards are a thing. Despite the efforts made by the writers and creators of the show, the episode fails to use the obvious opportunity of discussing the politics of coming out as a BIPOC, and overlooking this seems to be a serious faux pas.
According to the Williams Institute of UCLA, less than 2% of Asian Americans make up the LGBTQ+ population—a stark difference compared to white Americans who make up 58%. Within this community, 21% are Latinx, 12% are Black, and approximately 1% are Indigenous people. This isn’t because being LGBTQ+ is racially determined—far from it—it’s that many BIPOC face different pressures and expectations that are not only culturally informed, but imposed upon us by Western society. Not only do we face pressure from our own families and our own communities, but post-colonialist power dynamics and racism can also inform why so many of us are in the closet. Speaking from personal experience, I definitely felt that my race and gender created challenges that prevented me from coming out as queer earlier in life.
As a girl, I felt uncomfortable coming out due to the sexualization of queer women. This is something that is addressed (albeit clumsily) in the episode. Ali finds herself the center of attention at her school, and it isn’t just because she’s a new girl. After she comes out as pansexual on her first day, she quickly becomes one of the most highly ranked girls on the list of girls that the boys find attractive. As Maury (our favorite vulgar hormone monster) sums up, her pansexuality makes her more attractive to the boys because her openness makes her seem more promiscuous (he mentions the possibility of a threesome, despite Ali never having mentioned that she would be open to having multiple partners). This sort of attitude is one that made me feel uncomfortable as a teenager, and it was further amplified by my race.
The fetishization of Asian women is nothing new, and I distinctly remember racialized catcalls such as “I’d like to try some of that sushi” being hurled at me throughout my teenage years. The overt sexual objectification of my racialized body is something that made coming out even more difficult for me. Yet, it seems as though it isn’t something that Ali (or the show) can be bothered to explore or address. The show goes out of its way to explicitly address that being a woman and pansexual does not make one more sexually available (Devin attempts to kiss Ali because of her pansexuality, and Ali turns her down angrily, explaining that that isn’t how it works). Yet, there isn’t a single moment in the episode where Ali is bothered by the fact that she is also objectified for her race.
Multiple characters, both male and female, comment on her “smooth porcelain skin” as one of her attractive qualities (along with her pansexuality), and this is a known stereotype associated with Asian women—with clearer, whiter skin seen as more attractive—that still pervades pop culture (see “American Dad” wherein Toshi’s mother is known to have perfectly smooth skin). Not once is Ali self-aware of her racial Otherness; something I find peculiar as someone who grew up being acutely aware of the fact that I looked different from the majority of peers at my school. Perhaps, this is a painfully clear example of how even “woke” white creators could never understand how race shapes one’s identity (and queerness) because they have not lived the experience themselves.
When Ali is used as a way to reveal Jay’s coming out and to exemplify the sexual objectification that queer women face, it becomes uncomfortably clear that Ali’s race is simply a haphazard attempt at creating more diversity on the show. Race, gender, and sexual orientation aren’t things that can be cherry-picked for the convenience of a story—these things all exist within a single person and make up various parts of who they are. If “Big Mouth” is serious about shamelessly tackling these uncomfortable topics, they need to do better—for both the queer and the BIPOC community.
Shin Hye is a freelance writer living in Montreal, Canada. When she isn’t writing about her millennial life as a third-culture Korean feminist, she spends her time pursuing her three passions: dogs, plants, and creating creative content about life as a woman of color. You can read more about her life on her blog, 20somethingwithdogs.com.