Puberty is never an easy time of life: Your body is changing and your emotions are going haywire. Many choose to bury their emotions or shove them into a closet, while others choose to turn those memories into TV shows for millions to watch. For those trying to tell stories of such a tumultuous personal time respectfully and relatably, educating the audience can be just as important as entertaining them.
“Our experience with sex education was it presented what’s physically happening to you, but never really addressed what’s emotionally happening to kids, and so we were aware of wanting to speak to the more emotional nature of these experiences,” says Nick Kroll, who co-created and also voices characters on Netflix’s animated comedy “Big Mouth.”
“Big Mouth” centers on two adolescent boys in the seventh grade navigating hormonal changes, depicted by physical characters called Hormone Monsters, as well as dating and sex. The Hormone Monsters, Kroll says, serve to illustrate “the spectrum of experiences that kids go through.” For the adults watching, it can be a trip down memory lane to long-removed feelings, while for the younger audience, it teaches them that they are not alone.
Kroll admits that because his show is an animated one, its characters can “say things that real kids could not,” which heightens the “horrific period” through which everyone goes. But it is not just animation that allows creators to explore the intensity of emotions in this story area.
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, for example, revisit their own embarrassing seventh-grade moments through their Hulu live-action comedy “Pen15” in their own heightened way: by playing versions of themselves at age 13, but surrounded by actual teenage co-stars. The duo says the goal was to explore the insecurities and secrets they had held onto since they were younger. What they didn’t expect was that they still had lessons to learn about those times in their lives, too.
“When you go on set and film it in front of a crew and other actors, with the knowledge that it’s going to be on TV with strangers watching your secrets portrayed, that’s a whole new level of exposure,” Erskine says. “Reliving a lot of those moments, I had feelings that I wasn’t prepared for — some of those experiences were still raw in my heart and mind — I didn’t realize that I didn’t have closure.”
Among the themes the pair deal with in “Pen15” is female masturbation, which has rarely been seen on the small screen. It was a challenge for the women to capture because it is “hard to physically show,” admits Konkle, but it was also imperative, in order to be inclusive.
“Growing up I never saw it reflected on film or TV. I only saw ‘Mulholland Drive,’ which had one bad, furious masturbating scene,” Konkle says. “It was either extremely sexualized or sad when a woman did it. For us, it was really scary to put it out there, but also exciting to show the physical humor of it and the truth of it.”
For characters who are on the tail end of puberty, there are still lessons to be imparted. HBO’s upcoming adaptation of Israel’s “Euphoria” features characters who are navigating the complicated social waters of high school sexual relationships. Kat (Barbie Ferreira) starts the series desperate to lose her virginity and experimenting with the boundaries of her sexuality; Maddy (Alexa Demie) wields sex as a weapon after a breakup with her high school sweetheart; Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) embarks on a new relationship colored by rumors of wild past behavior; and Jules (Hunter Schafer), a transgender teen, struggles to find a real connection as the new girl in the small town.
Meanwhile, Laurie Nunn, who created Netflix’s “Sex Education,” says she came up with the concept for the series — in which socially awkward teen Otis (Asa Butterfield) becomes his high school’s de facto sex therapist — while watching a documentary called “The Joy of Teenage Sex.” In that documentary, young adults go into a clinic to speak with sex educators, asking questions they still had about sex, sexuality and relationships.
“What was cool about it was you would have thought these teenagers would go in and it would be shocking — they would all be addicted to porn and be sexting each other all the time — but actually the questions they had were always relatable and human and vulnerable: ‘I want to connect more with my partner,’ or ‘I don’t know how to have sex with my partner without the lights off because I have body issues,’” Nunn says. “It was so sweet and human.”
This inspired Nunn to expand her story outward, knowing young adults are not the only ones who experience such thoughts and issues. Otis’ mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), is a sex therapist who pries into her son’s intimate affairs, but also struggles to come to terms with her own feelings for a plumber, whom she regularly invites over to “fix” the sink.
“She’s a reminder that even the adult characters are going through their own problems and haven’t got it completely right yet, and don’t have all the answers,” Nunn says. “You need to try and be more honest and open in your relationships and view them as an ongoing journey. It’s not just over when you’re young.”