Big Mouth’s Code-Switching Story Was a Fun, Wild Mess

Big Mouth’s Code-Switching Story Was a Fun, Wild Mess
Devon and Lena fighting in a Black Panther-inspired sequence about code-switching. (Gif: Netflix)

After three filthy seasons of poking fun at the gross realities of being a stressed-out, hormonal teenager navigating the treacherous waters of junior high, the creative team behind Netflix’s Big Mouth finally came to their senses last year. They realised that Missy, one of the show’s leading characters of colour, embodied one of its biggest blind spots because of who was giving her a voice.

As Missy, Jenny Slate was an undeniable standout within Big Mouth’s cast as the show both incorporated the character into its larger important arcs while also spending some quality time building out her home life. While the animated series addressed how important her Jewish culture is to who she is and how it factors into the way that people perceive her, the show’s handling of her racial identity and the fact that she was voiced by a white woman always stuck out. It also served as a larger example of how the animation industry, while improving overall in recent years by featuring more characters of colour, has always had a bad habit of that diversity coming hand in hand with white voice actors.

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Rare as it is for voice actors behind an animated series’ core character to departs the show unexpectedly, Netflix’s Big Mouth is going through a bit of a lineup change in its fourth season. Jenny Slate, who previously played Missy, departed earlier this year to make way for staff writer...

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In the midst of last year’s renewed conversations about on-screen representation in Hollywood — sparked in part by nationwide protests against anti-Black police brutality — Slate publicly announced she’d be stepping away from the Missy role specifically because she believed that Black characters should be voiced by Black people. The actor’s statement took the time to explain the reasoning behind her initially taking the role and how, while it’s still very important that shows feature Jewish characters and performers (particularly Jewish characters and performers who are also people of colour), Missy presented an opportunity for the series to do better in its handling of Black stories.

While it wouldn’t have all been surprising or out of the ordinary if Big Mouth had simply recast Missy and not addressed it, or quickly glossed over her suddenly sounding like comedian Ayo Edebiri (who took over the role), instead the show turned her new voice into a season-long arc that’s admirably nuanced, if still lacking in its execution. At the same time that Missy’s peers are wandering deeper into their own respective identity crises, she finds herself confronting the idea that she’s both not as mature as other kids her age and profoundly disconnected from her Blackness. Halfway through the season — when Missy’s class goes on a field trip to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City — a confrontation with a bully leads to her ditching the excursion with her classmate DeVon (Jak Knight) who teaches her all about code-switching in a musical sendup of New Edition’s early catalogue.

Missy and Mirror Missy having a heart to heart. (Screenshot: Netflix) Missy and Mirror Missy having a heart to heart. (Screenshot: Netflix)

As DeVon explains to Missy the many different kinds of Blackness he shifts into in various settings by turning a literal code switch on his body, the writers rather impressively tackled some of the truths about how Black people constantly have to calculate how to navigate through and inhabit white spaces. What the show has to say isn’t anything revolutionary or new — particularly to Black viewers — but it is notable that as Big Mouth lands its jokes, they come at its own expense in part because of how they’re presented.

By the time Missy and DeVon end up at Missy’s cousin Lena’s (guest star Lena Waithe) house and slip into a Black Pantherinspired fantasy battle about whether code-switching makes someone inauthentic, it’s hard not to feel that Big Mouth’s dragging its heels on actually bringing Edebiri’s voice into the mix. Even after Missy explicitly begins to think about what her Blackness means to her, it’s Slate’s voice that’s coming out of her mouth. While she literally addresses the absurdity of it, it highlights that regardless of the show’s intention, the Missy shift feels like a decision that came late into this season’s production.

To Big Mouth’s credit though, when it does finally get around to introducing the new Missy, it does so with a blend of Watchmen, Us, Steven Universe, and Lovecraft Country in a sequence where Missy wanders through a hall of mirrors all reflecting different versions of her personality. Though the Mirror Missy that she eventually pieces together after the mirrors shatter is somewhat distorted, she’s also an essential part of Missy’s self who she embraces and fuses with in a symbolic flash of light that’s almost moving enough to distract you from the fact that it doesn’t happen until the season’s penultimate episode.

With all of this character growth having taken place only for Missy’s in-universe Blackness to be realised by an actual Black person just as the season closes, it’s fair to say that Big Mouth’s effort at being better is far from fantastic. But now that the groundwork’s been laid for this new Missy, should the series be greenlit for a fifth season, the story is poised to do even greater things with her character.

All of Big Mouth’s completed seasons are available to stream on Netflix.