When I watch Missy Foreman-Greenwald of the animated coming-of-age series "Big Mouth," I see my 13-year-old self. I see her in Missy's overalls and curls — unruly in comparison to the popular girls' flat-ironed hair — and braces. I see her in Missy's unabashed nerdiness. At an age where girls can be tempted to make themselves, and their interests, invisible, Missy has vocal obsessions: Greek mythology, public radio ("Meghna Chakrabarti said..."), jazz. She fantasizes about Nathan Fillion of "Firefly" dancing the merengue; at 13, I wanted "Science Guy"-era Billy Nye to use his lab equipment to make me dinner.
I'd like to think that if Missy (voiced by Jenny Slate) had been my classmate, we would have become best friends, but who knows. Young teenagers can be the absolute worst to the people with whom they share the most similarities. They're sometimes a visual reminder of the things you wish — during a time where everyone is going through changes — that you could change about yourself. Watching Missy now, though, I'm oddly, yet fiercely, protective of her character in a way that I wasn't of myself at that age.
Of the characters on “Big Mouth,” which just announced a multi-year contract with Netflix, Jessi is "arguably the main female character” — as the show's Wiki page states. The page also says of Jessi, “She is a sarcastic, popular and intelligent girl who has somewhat physical and emotional development in early terms.” I think that jumble of a final phrase is to say that Jessi is mature for her age. I also think that Jessi is the kind of girl I would have liked to be at 13.
Jessi (Jessi Klein) is pretty self-assured. In the eyes of a teenager, she and her choices exude a certain confidence: convincing her mom to let her buy a “sexy red bra,” running off to a motel with her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Jay, stealing a few of her dad’s pot gummies.
As an adult, it’s hard not to cringe a little watching her make these choices, especially knowing that she’s dealing with ongoing problems at home. Jessi’s mom (Jessica Chaffin) is having an affair with their synagogue’s cantor, while her dad (Seth Morris) self-medicates with marijuana, “Rusted Roots” and memories of his competitive hackysack days. But Jessy is well-liked and is approximately one step away from being welcomed into the popular girls’ clique, whereas Missy isn’t even in the same galaxy.
When Jessi holds a sleepover in an effort to become closer to those popular girls, Devin (June Diane Raphael) and Lola (Nick Kroll, recycling his voice from the PubLIZity sketches on the “Kroll Show”), mocking Missy and her off-center interests becomes the evening’s entertainment.
Missy finally declares at the pinnacle of the evening, sick from too much sugar and humiliated, “This will be my harrowing ‘Moth' story.” (I think about that line a lot; I’ve written about how often). In that moment, the girls couldn’t seem more different.
One of the strengths of “Big Mouth,” though, is its illustration that most people are just trying to figure out who they are and what they’re about, from Nick’s 16-year-old sister, Leah, to poor Coach Steve. In many ways, Jessi and Missy’s challenges mirror each other’s — body image issues, budding sexuality.
But stories about girls like Jessi have dominated pop culture’s narratives of teenagers. Girls who show creators write as “Oh my god, they are so awkward,” but who are, in fact, conventionally stylish and just a little quirky — I think of the movie “To All The Boys I Loved Before,”or the show “Lizzie McGuire,” both of which I still really loved. In Missy, I see a girl whose adolescence mirrors my own in a way that I guarantee is relatable to many women.
For example, Missy’s sexual awakening is sparked by the fictional book, “The Rock of Gibraltar,” a historical romance novel that follows the love life of Gustavo and Fatima.
“Gustavo is Catholic, and she’s Islamic, so their love is forbidden,” Missy explains to Jessi. “But then Gustavo needs to see her because he loves her so much, so he contacts a gypsy sorcerer, who gives Gustavo the ability to turn into a horse.”
The transformation is apparently painful and permanent, but they can continue to see each other without suspicion. There is no sex in the book, which Leah (Kat Dennings) explains is what makes it sexy. It’s about everything surrounding sex; feelings of freedom, intrigue, lust.
L.M. Montgomery’s “The Blue Castle” was my “Rock of Gibraltar.” On the surface, it’s a completely innocent book by the woman who wrote “Anne of Green Gables,” about a 29-year-old spinster named Valancy. Valancy’s family is bitter, controlling and degrading and she has two forms of escape: the work of an author named John Foster, who writes gorgeous prose about the Canadian wilderness, and Blue Castle, an imaginary land where she spends most of her daydreams.
Finally, after a potentially terminal diagnosis, Valancy breaks free from her family and eventually marries the town troublemaker (who, spoiler-alert, turns out to be John Foster). Even at 13, I could sense that Valancy was longing for something more concrete than the wonders of the Muskoka landscape, but the ambiguity of the text thrilled me.
For me, it was “The Blue Castle.” For others it was “The Secret Life of Bees,” or “The Frog Princess” or “Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.” It’s weird, confusing and kind of dorky phenomenon, one that is unexpectedly captured by “Big Mouth” in all its raunchiness.
But with thoughts of sex, thoughts of our bodies — and our perception of their problems — can come soon after, which we see through Missy’s eyes, too.
In the second season, Missy’s self-hatred manifests as “Mirror Missy,” a reflection that constantly body-shames her: “News flash: nobody wants to see that bummer of a body!” She spends much of that episode draped in an oversized hoodie, but she gets through it. After hearing them badmouth their bodies, Missy’s mom takes Missy and Jessi to a Korean spa.
She points to all the naked women in the steamy room and says, “Your body is gorgeous, just like all the women in here.”
That’s not to say Missy’s days of suffering body-image issues are over (and for many women, myself included, it feels like they’ll never be truly over). In an interview with Bustle, Jenny Slate says that her self-esteem issues will likely return in upcoming seasons, because anything else would be unrealistic.
"The fact is that it won't be over," Slate says. "Because whether or not her experience is perfect or pain-free is not the goal. The goal is . . . to watch her as she navigates it. And not to watch her as she wins, but to watch her while she's in flux."
And while I look forward to watching Missy — and my younger self, by proxy — navigate growing up in the upcoming seasons, viewers have already gotten a peek into the character’s future.
We find out at the end of season one, that the Hormone Monsters, the creatures that fuel puberty, have files on each of the children they supervise. It includes tidbits about their romantic prospects and their probable careers. Andrew, Missy’s main love-interest voiced by John Mulaney, will likely become a bowling alley manager; Missy will be an ambassador to the moon. It’s a job as out-of-this-world as Missy’s personality, and it’s a detail I’d like to think that the show creators included as a nod to the women who were once girls who didn’t quite fit in.