This article contains spoilers from the Season Four of the Netflix show “Big Mouth,” which started streaming on Dec. 4, 2020.
Since June, the recasting of Missy Foreman-Greenwald's voice on Netlix’s adult animated show “Big Mouth” has helped put forward the conversation of how television showrunners should handle white voice actors playing characters of color. Though, by the time the decision had been made to give Missy a new voice, the majority of Slate’s lines had already been recorded; they decided to bring in her new voice at the end of the season after Missy spends it starting her racial identity discovery.
A journey I found myself relating to in every episode that touched on it.
A New Fit, A New Fight
Her journey into embracing her Blackness first begins in episode two, “The Hugest Period Ever,” when she visits family in Atlanta. This is where we meet Missy’s father’s side of the family, namely her two cousins Lena and Quinta (voiced by Lena Waithe and Quinta Brunson).
On two notable occasions in season four, Missy ends up breaking the fourth wall in regards to her voice actress being a white woman: the first of these instances is after Quinta says the line “N*ggas ain’t shit,” and Missy immediately becomes uncomfortable and replies “N-word alert.”
The cousins criticize her mother immediately for teaching her that and Missy explains that yes, her mother told her she was never supposed to say that word. Lena tells her she can still say it and Missy replies she definitely cannot.
As if to emphasize this point, Missy looks directly at the viewer and says “I promise you, it is not okay for me to say that word.” This is when you realize Missy herself is not saying it isn’t okay for her to say the word—it is Jenny Slate herself going right to the audience and acknowledging her role as a white actress playing a character that is both Black and white Jewish.
Slate’s whiteness, in this case, prevented Missy’s character from being able to say a word that could have potentially opened a door to a conversation about the reclamation of slurs by minority groups. I think a conversation like this could come on a later season of “Big Mouth,” however.
Missy goes on to tell her cousins that she was raised in a post-racial household (something I was also raised to believe, being Black and white) and the cousins retort by telling her:
“Your parents have never let you be Black.”
This whole episode truly shook me to my core. It was nearly the same exact thing people had told me during my time in college the longer I was enrolled. More so it shook me because I didn’t know I was Black until I was 11 years old and in fifth grade.
The kids at school started asking me “what” I was. I told them I was white even though that was only half of the answer. Even though my father is Black, my mother’s live-in boyfriend was white and I had always called him “Dad.” It wasn’t until I got older and the kids started telling me how much I didn’t look like my “dad” that I began to question the truth.
“Mom, who’s my dad?” I began to ask her. She would reply that her white live-in boyfriend was my dad and that was all I needed to know. After another round of debating with the kids at school, I finally went home and said, “There’s this girl in my class who keeps telling me I’m half-Black.”
“Because you are, Erika,” my mother responded, “I don’t understand why you have to act stupid about it.”
By telling me I was acting stupid about it, I had to immediately internalize this race revelation in silence.
When the hairdresser asks Missy about who does her hair, and Missy answers her mom, it is Lena who offers up the information that her mother is white, receiving disapproving sounds and head shakes from other patrons and dressers in the salon.
The perilous journey of having a white mother who does not understand your hair is traumatizing and ends up leading to bad hair habits that are hard to break. My mother knew how to style my hair nicely for special occasions, but on a daily basis, I was left on my own to brush my hair. Being young though and not knowing why it hurt when I brushed my hair, you can imagine the tangles and knots that grew in it.
This resulted in countless hours in front of my mother while she brushed the knots out and verbally abused me for my hair care incompetence. Sometimes she would hit me in the head with the brush and yank my neck around to get me to listen to her when she brushed.
This new hairstyle gives Missy confidence she did not have before, but it’s almost drowned out by her mother’s immediate worry that her new hairstyle is “elaborate” and won’t be “manageable.”
This frustrates Missy to the point of calling out both of her parents for never talking about race to her and not allowing her to explore her Blackness, something I’ve done with my own mother far too often.
To be denied your Blackness is to be denied a part of yourself that you know is there, but you feel like you cannot access it because you have been made to feel your whole life that it is not for you. To be denied it by your parents feels as if they never wanted you to have it and to seek it out on your own would be betraying them.
Navigating Two Spaces
In episode four, “A Very Special 9/11 Episode,” fellow Black student DeVon compliments Missy on her new look (while his white girlfriend remarks on never considering her a “Black” Black girl).
He later apologizes on her behalf and this opens up the second fourth wall break about Missy’s voice actress.
“I’m really struggling with my racial identity right now,” she confides in him. “My mom’s white, my dad’s Black. I’m voiced by a white actress who’s 37 years old... It’s all very overwhelming.”
This admission two episodes after the first acknowledgment shows the audience this conversation about Missy’s identity isn’t going anywhere, nor will it stop being a topic of conversation after her voice actress is changed. I think we'll hear and see a lot more discussions about race in the upcoming “Big Mouth” seasons, and this episode is a taste of what we can expect.
DeVon and Missy decide to sneak away from their teachers (and Devin) to attend a Jay-Z party hosted by cousin Lena from episode two, celebrating the release of “The Blueprint.” On their way to the party, he tells Missy about code-switching, a communication device used by people of color to navigate certain spaces and the people in them by changing their speech, vernacular, and sometimes accent.
When they arrive, Missy exposes DeVon’s codeswitching secret to their new peers, which leads to a Wakanda-style duel over whether or not it's necessary, inspired by the duel between Killmonger and T’Challa, where newer ideas combat traditional ones.
At the end of the episode, Missy tells off Devin, telling her she doesn’t get to talk about the way she looks and she doesn’t get to tell her how Black she was.
I never had an issue with navigating both Black and white spaces until I got to college, but I’ve had my fair share of people telling me how Black I am (or am not) or should/shouldn’t be throughout my lifetime. In public education, I didn't need codeswitching because “I am who I am,” was sufficient for my way of talking, but in college, I felt like codeswitching was a game I didn't know the rules to and had a hard time playing.
A Complete Puzzle
The last episode of season four that touches on Missy’s identity is the penultimate episode, “Horrority House.” At this point in the season, I think I’m never going to hear Missy’s new voice this season, or that I had actually missed the switch.
After drinking a mysterious pink juice with her friends, each one of them is sucked into their own nightmare within the house. Our girl Missy ends up trapped in a hall of mirrors, each panel a different version of herself.
“You can’t be all of us, silly,” a version of herself wearing overalls tells her after killing her verbally abusive reflection who wears a hoodie. As she tries to escape the hall, each Missy in the mirror panels begins a Hunger Games-like battle royale where each of them vies to be the only Missy alive. “There can only be one,” they all chant until all the mirrors break into pieces on the floor.
Missy's overalls claim they’re now nothing, but Missy disagrees as she realizes that each of the mirror shards all fit together. When completed, she realizes that all of the Missy’s in the mirrors make up who she is, calling her “Mosaic Missy.”
Mosaic Missy is voiced by Ayo Edebiri. They embrace and Missy’s nightmare is over.
Once the kids all conquer their nightmares and return to the living room of the haunted house, Jenny Slate’s voice is left in the hall of the mirrors and Edebiri finally enters the small screen as Missy, rushing her classmates out the door.
The journey for Missy in season four was crafted with care, and it shows in the flow of the season. Her journey does not feel forced or rushed. She has a support system in DeVon to help her navigate Black spaces and I hope we see more of them together in later seasons with a continued platonic relationship. They add the new voice and incorporate it in a way that makes sense for her story arc of the season and also doesn't make a big deal of the switch happening.
I sometimes wonder, as a mixed woman on the verge of turning 27, what would happen if I had my self-discovery of identity sooner than college, like at Missy’s age? Would I have had a harder time in my public education days where I was perceived as “too white” for some students of color and “too Black” for the white boys to like? If I did, would I have been more exposed to the idea of codeswitching, maybe even perfecting it?
Would my mom have let me go to Black hair salons or would she tell me they’re too expensive (as she’s said before)?
While I cannot afford to exert my energy on the “what ifs” of what would happen if my mom finally decided that raising me to be “colorblind” wasn’t going to work, I can afford to exert my energy on the excitement of seeing my journey play out on one of my favorite television shows.
Even though my journey into my discovering my identity started when I got to college and not in the eighth grade, I do still feel seen by Missy’s arc. Everything she is combating at her young age I have had to experience as an adult. It took a lot longer and was harder for me because I had spent my teenage years subscribing to the idea that I would never fit in, I would just always be in between and I took that idea with me to college, where I thought things would be the same.
I discovered very quickly though the demographics of college and the demographics of public school were incredibly different and this helped on my journey because I no longer felt the pressure of having to be a certain way—I could be myself and myself was made of both parts, the same way Missy realizes she is all of her Missys at once.
I hope “Big Mouth” continues Missy’s identity arc into the next season, as this is something that will not go away with her character after the season finale. She deserves a well fleshed out self-discovery of her identity and I hope the writers keep that in mind going into season five.