The new season of Big Mouth had been out only a few hours when I first received a clip through the trans IG DM whisper network.
I tensed up, as I usually do when a trans character appears in a show created by cis people. It’s an involuntary response conditioned during a lifetime of Dallas Buyers Clubs and South Parks and Law and Orders. So you can imagine my surprise at finding the clip to be, well, fine.
In it, a new character, Natalie, recounts her backstory to one of the main characters of the show, Jessi. The show neither shies away from the uniquely painful way puberty often affects transgender people nor falls into tropes such as the “wrong body” narrative. The backstory even includes the concomitant struggle with one’s own sexuality that often muddies struggles with gender.
Natalie delivers an especially keen description of this dissociated puberty by saying, “It was like I was vibrating at this weird frequency all the time.” Her backstory concludes with Natalie shunning her harshly masculine hormone monster, Gavin, by taking hormone blockers — the often life-saving medication that temporarily delays puberty for trans kids until they are old enough to personally choose their puberty, which was recently banned in the UK.
The first thing I did after watching the clip (before deciding how I felt) was to see who voices Natalie. Another pleasant surprise is that this actress is also a trans woman, Josie Totah. In a world where Scarlett Johansson insists she can play a trans man just as well as she could a tree — ironic considering she has done nothing in her lengthy career to demonstrate her ability to play anything — this is a representational victory.
Totah’s voice acting shines brightly thanks to the content of her lines. Those lines, it turns out, were at least partially written by a trans woman. Patti Harrison, who shares a “Written By” credit on this first episode of Season 4, is a trans stand-up comic and writer who is perhaps best known for her hilarious, caustic character, Ruthie, in the show Shrill. The irreverent shock comedy Harrison employs in her stand up and acting roles filter through, giving Natalie’s character a certain edge that allows her to blend seamlessly into the crass series.
Josie Totah of “Glee” and “Saved by the Bell” voices Natalie in Netflix’s “Big Mouth”.Michael Buckner for WWD
This bare-minimum feat of representation is a positive step for the creators of Big Mouth, Goldberg and Nick Kroll, who found themselves in hot water last year for a scene in the third season. That scene centers on a new kid at the school, voiced by Ali Wong, who is pansexual.
The character explains pansexuality as an inclusive alternative to bisexuality. She makes use of an extended metaphor in which the binary genders are tacos and burritos. Bisexuals like tacos and burritos, whereas pansexuals are open to tacos, burritos, “a taco that was born a burrito, or a burrito that is transitioning into a taco.”
There is a lot to unpack here, and the last thing I want is to reignite the perpetual bisexual/pansexual Twitter discourse, so I’ll just say that this description of bisexuality as inherently binary is outdated and biphobic, and the implication that trans people collectively are nonbinary erases binary trans people.
There is nothing surprising about two middle-aged cis dudes who write a show about children saying “f**k” and jerking off a lot missing the mark with a sexuality explainer. But what is surprising, especially for the creators of a show in a genre long dominated by the creators of shows like South Park (who tend to respond to criticism with more bigotry), is what came next. Goldberg took to Twitter to apologize and promised to do better. And, considering the lengths they went to in bringing in Totah and Harrison and providing them the space to create Natalie, they have kept their word.
None of this is to say that Natalie’s three-episode arc is perfect. After a second episode in which she largely functions as support for Jessi during the latter’s prolonged struggle to tame an especially massive period with her first tampon, Natalie is brought back up front in the third.
Without Harrison’s involvement in the writing process, Natalie falls into a familiar trans trope — shame and rejection from a sexual partner due to her trans identity. Natalie is given the last word, which she uses to tell the 12-year-old version of Seth Rogen voiced by Seth Rogen to “have fun face-f**king your dad’s meat, you French-Canadian c**t,” but the storyline is not given the time and depth it deserves.
Considering the expanse given to Big Mouth’s gay main character, Matthew, in his confrontation with homophobia later in the season, I’m hopeful that future Natalie appearances in the show will grant her more runway.
Ultimately, Natalie’s arc concludes by emphasizing that her happy ending is her friendship with Jessi. It’s a fine ending that typifies the status quo for trans representation in media at the moment — no longer the villainous trickster but the sassy best friend.
Although Big Mouth stops short of breaking new ground by showing Natalie as deserving of and embraced by romantic love, for a show in which a tween gives birth to twin constipation turds named Zach and Cody, the humanity granted to her feels like a step toward progress.