Brow Beat

What the Hormone-Addled Cartoon Big Mouth Has in Common With Medieval Literature

Piers Plowman, meet Andrew Glouberman.

The title page of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Big Mouth.
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Big Mouth, surprisingly similar. Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Wikimedia Commons and Netflix.

I’m slightly embarrassed that it took me well into the second season of Big Mouth, Netflix’s newest animated show for grown-ups, to realize how very medieval it is. It was the addition of the Shame Wizard (or, as his friends call him, Shane Lizard) that tipped me off. For one thing, he’s dressed like a medieval friar, and his big musical number, “The Shame Song,” begins with the question: “Tell me, how do you think humankind would look, unrepentant of your every lurid sin?” In his role as a gatekeeper of human behavior, he is a modern heir to the kinds of characters one might find in a 15th-century morality play, exhorting protagonists like “Everyman” and “Mankind” to change their ways before it is too late.

But while the Shame Wizard is Big Mouth’s most obvious (though likely unintended) nod to the Middle Ages, the show’s real debt to medieval literature is structural. Alongside its laugh-out-loud vulgarity, what makes Big Mouth’s take on the physical and emotional crucible of puberty unique is its clever use of personification. This season, the Shame Wizard and the Depression Kitty join the Hormone Monsters in bringing puberty to life. Externalizing the feelings and urges that accompany the journey from child to adult has the effect of giving the show’s human characters more depth and offering a new perspective on one of the most jarring transformations we go through as human beings.

Of course, Big Mouth didn’t invent thinking about human characteristics as characters. This kind of personification has its origins in the late antique poem the Psychomachia, in which the virtues and the vices battle each other, and it became a popular literary device in medieval and early-modern literature concerned with sin and salvation. From stick-in-the-mud Mercy and trouble-making Mischief in the 15th-century morality play Mankind to the seven deadly sins introducing themselves with the world’s most brutally honest Tinder profiles in the more well-known Doctor Faustus—“I am Envy, begotten of a chimney-sweeper and an oyster-wife. I cannot read, and therefore wish all books were burnt. I am lean with seeing others eat.”—medieval and early-modern dramatists understood the power of this kind of allegory.

But the most direct antecedent of Big Mouth’s world of bawdy personifications might be the alliterative 14th-century dream vision poem Piers Plowman. Piers offers the kind of intermingling of the literal and the allegorical that Big Mouth makes its bread and butter. Personifications like Meed, Envy, Glutton, Wit, and Conscience roam the medieval English countryside alongside everyday people. In one scene, Glutton, on his way to church to confess his sins, is persuaded by Betty the Brewer to come by for some ale. He never makes it to confession, having been treated to drinks by everyone from Cissy the seamstress to Hugh the needle seller. And, like Big Mouth, Piers endows its metaphorical characters with physical characteristics that are meant to be humorous. After all that drinking, Glutton’s guts begin to grumble; he pisses “four pints in a Paternoster’s length” and blows a fanfare “on the bugle of his backside.”

Piers doesn’t hold back in its portrayal of life lived in a human body. In a monologue that could easily be repurposed for Andrew Glouberman’s father, Marty, the narrator describes his encounter with Old Age, who goes over his head and makes him “both bald in front and bare on the crown.” Adding injury to this insult, Old Age proceeds to hit him under the ear such that he can hardly hear, punches him in the mouth so hard his teeth fall out, and leaves him with fits of gout. What’s more, the narrator laments that his wife wishes he were dead, since “the limb that she loved me for and liked to feel … at night when we were naked in bed, I might by no means make it do her will, so had Old Age with her aid beaten it down.” Problematic penises, you see, are no modern invention.

Piers Plowman’s use of personification to portray an older body under siege might also give us another perspective on the pleasure we take in a show like Big Mouth. While there’s plenty for actual adolescents to love, I suspect the show is written for the kind of person who would appreciate Jessi’s dad’s Matchbox 420 weed box and recognize that the tampon singing “Everybody Bleeds” in Season 1 is supposed to be Michael Stipe. So why would a bunch of middle-aged people write a show about puberty for other middle-aged people to enjoy? Part of what we post-pubescent viewers feel when watching Big Mouth is nostalgia: for bus rides spent listening to sad R.E.M. songs, for buying tickets over Moviefone to The Truman Show, and for our own pubescent struggles with metamorphosing bodies and changing relationships. But I suspect that it’s also relief: to be on the other side of those life-altering changes, and maybe also to not have to look our own changes squarely in the face. We are closer in age and mindset to the parents of Big Mouth than to its main characters. What would their monsters and wizards look like? What could they tell us about our own stage of life? Would we enjoy being told?

Underneath the hilarity and the lewd humor, Big Mouth is, like the medieval personifications that came before it, about the challenges of living in the world and the seeming impossibility of reconciling what our bodies want for us with what our minds wish we could be. “So hard it is,” says a character named Hawkin in Piers Plowman, “to live and do sin. Sin pursues us always.” Or, as Andrew Glouberman laments when the Shame Wizard takes him to Shame Court, “I’m a creep, OK? I’m a pervert … and maybe at the end of the day I’m just a bad person!” Living in a human body with a human mind hasn’t ever been easy or straightforward, and the voices that tell us that we’re broken don’t disappear with age. Maybe the pleasure we take from Big Mouth comes not only from laughing at the broken, confused people we were in the past but also from feeling better about the broken, confused people we still are. Maybe it is the solace of realizing that if what we thought was monstrous 20 years ago was actually totally normal, maybe the monsters inside of us now are, too.