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In Defense of "Big Mouth": Pansexuality and Bisexuality Are Confusing

"Big Mouth" fell under fire for getting the definition of bisexuality wrong. But how wrong were they?

Big Mouth, everyone's favorite educationally filthy adult cartoon, just offered fans a third collection of jizz-filled, cringe-worthy, illuminating episodes.

The hit Netflix show is known for its ability to unflinchingly examine the cultural influences that act on young people, ultimately leading to many of the adult problems in the world, and season 3 is no exception. Topics covered this season include: sl*t shaming, sexual harassment, study drugs, gender equality, friendship, toxic masculinity, and the spectrum of sexuality.

The latter was the source of much online controversy. Many felt the show mischaracterized bisexuality and pansexuality, particularly in a scene in episode 8 in which a new student, Ali, comes to the kids' school and announces that she's pansexual.

When asked if pansexuality is the same as bisexuality, Ali, voiced by Ali Wong, says, "No, bisexuality is so binary, being pansexual means my sexual preference isn't limited by gender identity… It's like, some of you borings like tacos, and some of you like burritos. And if you're bisexual, you like tacos and burritos. But I'm saying I like tacos and burritos, and I could be into a taco that was born a burrito, or a burrito that is transitioning into a taco, comprende? And honey, anything else on the f*cking menu."

As a bisexual cisgender woman, I was very interested in the internet's reaction to this scene, as well as the conversation that soon followed. Obviously, the show creates a strict distinction between the two terms. It portrays pansexuality as being sexually attracted to "boys and girls and everyone in between" while bisexuality is presented as exclusively referring to those who are attracted to men and women. Many who identify with these markers took issue with this:

Soon, Big Mouth co-creator Andrew Goldberg took to Twitter to apologize for the show's stumble.

Considering all the cringe-worthy notes app apologies 2019 has brought us (Shane Gillis, we're looking at you), this is actually a pretty good one. Goldberg not only admitted the show messed up, but he also clearly laid out an intention to do better in the future.

While it's important to apologize whenever you've offended someone, intentionally or not, is it really surprising that the show messed up these definitions? As someone who identifies with one of these labels myself, I have to say I'd not given much thought to their distinct differences or similarities. To Big Mouth's credit, linguistically, the definitions of pansexuality and bisexuality are more or less exactly as the show described them. The Greek prefix "pan" means "all," seemingly indicating that pansexual people are attracted to any and all genders. Meanwhile, as you know, the prefix "bi" means "two," which would seemingly mean that bisexual people are attracted to two genders, namely male and female.

But like all language, these terms have evolved to be more inclusive and specific than their dictionary definitions. Many people within the bisexual community, including myself, believe that bisexuality means something much closer to bisexual activist Robyn Och's definition: "I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree."

But if this is the case, how is this any different than pansexuality? Am I actually a pansexual? Is there a place in the LGBTQ+ spectrum for people who feel they are exclusively attracted to cisgender men and cisgender women? Or are these people inherently transphobic in the same way it's inherently racist to specify you are never attracted to a certain race?

In considering these questions, I consulted a close friend who identifies as pansexual. In our discussion, she shared that she settled on the term "pansexual" because when she began dating her longterm partner, a trans man, bisexuality just didn't feel right. After a Google search, she found the term pansexual and felt that it better described her sexual orientation. Perhaps most interestingly, we realized that while I tend to be attracted to women who present as traditionally feminine and men who present as traditionally masculine, she tends to be attracted to people of any gender identity who present as more traditionally masculine, regardless of genitalia or identity. "So," I responded, "maybe that's the difference. It's not about interest in certain gender identities, but in certain gender expressions?"

We then brought up the possibility that maybe pansexuality is a word for people who want to be explicit about the irrelevance of a person's genitalia—or other sex characteristics—to their sexual attraction. Meanwhile, bisexuality, while not inherently exclusive of any genders, is a word for people whose attractions are more dictated by gender identity or physical characteristics, not just a specific gender expression. Soon we backtracked on this idea, finding it to be too encumbering and possibly problematic. In fact, all we decided that we knew for sure is that people should be able to use words like pansexual and bisexual to mean whatever they feel best describes their non-heterosexuality.

This conversation, between two people very well-versed in identity politics compared to much of the world, left me feeling compassion for the creators of Big Mouth. While their definitions of pansexuality and bisexuality were undoubtedly flawed, who among us can say for sure what these terms mean to each individual person who ascribes to them? Perhaps it's these very linguistic puzzles that have caused so many members of the LGBTQ+ community to start to identify with the reclaimed, catch-all word “queer."As queer activist Nico Tortorella told Rolling Stone, "In the [queer] movement right now, we have a tendency of getting hung on specific words rather than the person. And in my fluidity, I'm really attracted to this idea that it doesn't have to be one thing."

Maybe, instead of vilifying well-intentioned creatives for stumbling in their attempts to increase and diversify LGBTQ+ representation on television, we should instead appreciate the opportunity to engage in productive conversations like these. After all, isn't the ultimate goal to be able to identify as merely the person you are, without fear of prejudice, regardless of sexual orientation?

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