One of the most progressive shows on Netflix right now may be a cartoon about two pubescent boys. While one might not expect a show featuring traditionally masculine humor to be a champion of female sexuality and women’s reproductive rights, “Big Mouth’s” second season uses its humor to challenge toxic masculinity and to promote pro-choice messages. Released on Netflix on Oct. 5 of last year, season two has several plotlines that are starkly relevant in the era of Me Too, but “The Planned Parenthood Show” stands out as an entire episode dedicated to debunking myths about the organization through a series of vignettes.
This episode however, was not just a product of comedians in the writing room. The show’s co-creator, Nick Kroll, explained in an interview with “The AV Club” that the episode idea was sparked when two of the show’s creators attended a talk by the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. According to Kroll, “She said to a room full of writers and producers, your donations are very helpful, but what would really help is stories that involve Planned Parenthood in your shows and movies.” He noted that he and his fellow writers were galvanized by this message and took a tour of the organization’s L.A. facilities. Out of this interaction came an episode that tackles real issues in a way that is relatable to new audiences.
This provides an interesting case study for how more nonprofits can successfully co-create, or align themselves with, entertainment-education (E-E) programs that address relevant social issues. Research from Emily Moyer Gusé of Ohio State University’s School of Communication shows that E-E programming can overcome typical forms of resistance to persuasion by using relevant storylines and relatable characters to inform and influence viewers.
Comedic programming may be especially well suited for engaging viewers with messages because of its high entertainment value. A report from The Center for Media & Social Impact at American University highlights that comedy can be used as a method to bring people into social issues by attracting attention, making complex issues accessible, and offering new norms in ways that encourage identification.
The second season of “Big Mouth” shows that it is possible to do all this while still catering to its audiences. Season Two has a 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, with an audience score of 81 percent. In an interview on Vanity Fair’s “In the Limelight” Podcast, Kroll emphasizes, “The goal is to never be preachy, and the messages are never at the expense of being funny.”
The Planned Parenthood episode encourages audience identification and accessibility through the plot device of the central characters, who are students, having to educate their deeply inept sex-ed teacher on reproductive issues. Through vignettes presented by each of the students, they show the many different services that the organization provides. A notable example is the story about testing and treating STDs, which features a narrative about “Blue Waffle,” which is a real urban legend amongst teens (don’t google it). Thus, the show is able to dispel multiple myths at once and can connect to audiences on an issue that is central to their own experience.
Looking at this example, we can see that this type of messaging is a win-win for content creators and activists alike. “Big Mouth” has received much media attention and accolades for its innovative second season, and Planned Parenthood’s message has been spread far beyond its traditional reach. Advocates have long argued that reproductive health is more than a woman’s issue and by centering women’s rights in a show with two teenage boys as protagonists, young male audiences who might not otherwise think about these issues are being exposed to topics in a way that is entertaining and meets them where they are.
And this methodology can be used successfully by nonprofits focused on any issue. By thinking strategically about what audiences are not currently being catered to by an organization’s communication efforts, leaders can identify content creators who are writing for those groups. As we saw with the creators of “Big Mouth,” a direct call to action can be effective. By pushing for prosocial messages to be incorporated into comedy programs, nonprofits can take advantage of the benefits of entertainment-education strategies to make issues relevant in new ways.
In an era of increasing partisanship, it is more important than ever for mission-based organizations to think creatively about how to engage with those outside their core audience. By fostering connections with media producers, nonprofits can use nontraditional message channels to reach beyond the choir.
Sarah Huckins is a master’s candidate at American University’s School of Communication and is a former graduate research assistant at AU’s Center for Media & Social Impact. She is also a Program Associate at The US Water Alliance and an avid consumer of pop culture and media.
You can follow her on Twitter @SarahDHuckins or on LinkedIn.