From 'Big Mouth' To 'Pen15,' TV Is Taking On Teen Sexuality
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Editor’s Note: A gentle warning to listeners across the country. This hour addresses mature subject matter that some may find sexually explicit.
With Meghna Chakrabarti
New streaming shows are changing the way TV talks about teen sexuality. We look at how the small screen is taking on the secret struggles of puberty.
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Jennifer Flackett, co-creator and executive producer of “Big Mouth.”
Sonia Saraiya, TV critic at Vanity Fair. (@soniasaraiya)
Shafia Zaloom, health educator at the Urban School in San Francisco. Author of the forthcoming book “Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between: The New and Necessary Conversations Today’s Teenagers Need to Have about Consent, Sexual Harassment, Healthy Relationships, Love, and More.”
The Shows We’re Discussing
From The Reading List
Vanity Fair: “Netflix and Pen15 Are Changing the Way TV Does Teen Sex” — “Since its debut in 2017, the Netflix animated series Big Mouth has brought alt-comedy to middle school, allowing performers like Jenny Slate and Jordan Peele to dissect and re-enact the vicissitudes of youth. Though it could be used as a guide for teenagers, it’s become a phenomenon among adult viewers reliving the sordid days of early puberty. Its first season ended with a wry, meta punch line about that very premise. In this scene, the Hormone Monster—Maury, voiced by Nick Kroll—tries to soothe middle schooler Andrew (John Mulaney) by suggesting that despite the shame and anxiety of puberty, ‘maybe one day you’ll look back on this time fondly, and perhaps even make something beautiful out of it.’ Andrew replies, ‘What, like a show about a bunch of kids masturbating?’ His best friend—also voiced by Kroll—asks, ‘Isn’t that basically just like child pornography?’ Maury expresses some worry: ‘Holy s—, I hope not. I mean, maybe if it’s animated, we can get away with it.’ His cartoon eyes turn to the camera. ‘Right?’
“I thought about that scene a lot while watching another Netflix series about teen sexuality, Sex Education. Unlike Big Mouth, Sex Education is live-action—starring Asa Butterfield as a nervous, shy 16-year-old, navigating both school and his ongoing relationship with his mother (Gillian Anderson), a renowned sex therapist. The show is very careful; Sex Education reiterates that its characters are all in a sixth-form college, which technically makes them all just over 16, the age of consent in the United Kingdom. But here in the U.S.—and during a moment when the conversation about sexual consent, and who can give it, is at its most painful and fraught—the legal age of consent varies by state, ranging from 16 to 18. The more you dig into the statutes around consensual teenage sex, the more complex it becomes: the rules are frilled with caveats and gray areas all around the world.”
The Cut: “Welcome to Puberty TV” — “When I was in ninth grade, I sat with my peers in a dingy basement classroom in some forgotten corner of the school, trying to hold back giggles as we watched our gym teacher roll a condom onto a banana. It’s pretty much the only thing I remember from my high school sex-ed class, which glossed over topics such as masturbation, female pleasure, and queer sexuality in favor of teaching us how to protect fruit from STDs. Mostly, I learned about sex from the teenagers on TV and in movies — a more explicit, if still incomplete, course of study. From Degrassi, I learned you can get gonorrhea from giving a blow job. From The O.C., I learned that even ‘straight’ girls are susceptible to the charms of Olivia Wilde with a purple streak in her hair. And when I started having sex, I learned that most of the stuff I had been taught was best forgotten in favor of the messiness of experiencing it all for myself.
“Even though the statistics say that they’re having less sex than previous generations, today’s teens seem far better equipped to understand their nascent sexualities, at least when it comes to pop-culture. In schools across the country, the state of sex education is dire; only 24 states mandate sex-ed, and only half of high schools teach all the topics recommended by the CDC. But on TV, we’re living through a golden era of sex-positive representations of puberty and adolescence, and these shows stand to reshape a generation of young peoples’ understandings of their sexual selves. The most recent offering in this genre is Netflix’s Sex Education, which premiered last weekend and shows the range of teenage sexual experiences without ever casting judgment upon them or turning them into either a fantasy or cautionary tale. I wish I had seen it when I was a teenager.”
The 74: “Rethinking Sex Ed for the #MeToo Moment: A ‘Hugely Significant’ Study Shows That Strengthening Education on Relationships & Consent Can Change the Culture” — “Since 2016, the #MeToo movement has exploded, toppling dozens of powerful people for allegations of sexual harassment and assault. That movement is affecting classrooms too, as lawmakers and educators look to teach students about consent and how to refuse unwanted sexual advances. However, what students learn varies widely across the country, and adults disagree about what sex education should include.
“Experts say that more comprehensive sex education could change the culture in the United States by preparing students for healthy relationships and preventing sexual violence. A new study shows that learning refusal skills can protect students from later sexual assaults, which researchers say indicates that improving sex ed should be the next step for the #MeToo movement — a way to both protect students from being victimized and prevent them from perpetrating assaults.
“‘If administered properly, sex education that’s comprehensive has a unique power to really create a culture shift in this country,’ said Jennifer Driver, state policy director at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a nonprofit that advocates for comprehensive sex education.”
Allison Pohle produced this show for broadcast.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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