'Big Mouth' Season 2 Nails Its Representation of Growing Up With Rheumatoid Arthritis
Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Paige Wyant, The Mighty’s associate chronic illness editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.
When I curled up on my couch this weekend to watch the new season of “Big Mouth,” which premiered Friday on Netflix, I was expecting to be entertained by all the wonderful, cringeworthy awkwardness that is puberty.
While I certainly got my fair share of laughs from the antics of the kids and their “hormone monsters,” the show also included something I was really not expecting: representation of chronic illness and disability.
One of the characters on “Big Mouth,” a boy named DeVon (played by Jak Knight), is revealed in episode four to have rheumatoid arthritis. As someone who grew up with arthritic joints thanks to an autoimmune disease, and who comes from a long line of women with RA, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only does a character on a popular Netflix comedy show have the condition, but the portrayal turned out to be super relatable and painfully, comically true.
Throughout the season, there are multiple moments that primarily focus on how little the people in DeVon’s life understand about rheumatoid arthritis. They constantly joke about him being “geriatric,” but, in line with the show’s outrageous yet clever comedy, the teasing about DeVon being an “old man” isn’t just plain and simple name-calling. The show adds a bizarre twist by suggesting that many of the characters believe DeVon is actually an old man (who just happens to look like a pubescent boy).
In one scene, a pharmacist asks one of the kids what’s up with DeVon after she spots him buying a case of Ensure. “He’s telling me it’s for his grandmother, but I’m looking at him. I’m like, I don’t know,” the pharmacist says. “I think he might secretly be an old man.”
DeVon’s ex-girlfriend, Devin, also hints to one of her friends that there’s something “different” about DeVon. “He’s like an old man,” she says, after revealing she had to help dress DeVon – literally – when they were together. Her friend Nick says, “Like, he’s frail and has to sit down in the shower?” Devin smirks and replies, “You didn’t hear that from me.”
Although rheumatoid arthritis is a very real, documented autoimmune disease, there is an air of mystery and suspicion that follows DeVon – as if no one can possibly wrap their minds around the fact that a kid could have a chronic illness. Certainly, DeVon must be an old man disguised as a child! What other explanation could there possibly be?!
But the thing about arthritis (like many chronic illnesses) is that it doesn’t discriminate by age. Although many people do tend to associate arthritis with the elderly, the reality is that it can affect anyone – including children. Rheumatoid arthritis – one of the more than 100 different types of arthritis –most commonly begins between the ages of 30 and 60, but the disease can present in children as well, often known as either juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) or juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA).
DeVon’s exasperation with the lack of understanding is incredibly familiar, yet still comical, as he throws his arms up in the air and screams, “Oh, my God!” when his classmates ask if his mini golf date is his “caregiver,” or caution each other to avoid getting him worked up because it’s “bad for his blood pressure.”
Although I found the show funny and thought DeVon was a very relatable character, the lack of understanding about people with RA (which fed many of the comedy bits) was also painfully realistic.
Unlike “Big Mouth,” my friends and loved ones know I’m not actually an old woman disguised as a 20-something. Still, living with chronic illness can make your body feel a lot older than it actually is, and casual viewers may not recognize just how much DeVon’s experience rings true.
As a teenager, I certainly didn’t feel my age when I would lie awake all night crying due to severe joint pain, and even now as a young woman in my 20s, I feel much older than I should when I wake up every morning to knees and ankles that are frozen with stiffness. Add that to my chronic fatigue and massive pill organizer, and the “old lady” and “grandma” jokes I’ve gotten from family and friends make perfect sense. I may not be “old,” but I definitely feel like it most days – and sometimes, I just need to laugh about how ridiculous that is.
It was so refreshing to watch a show that not only represented chronic illness, but did so accurately and in a relatable and comedic way.
Representation of characters with illnesses and disabilities is rare in media, and oftentimes, when chronic illness does make its way into the spotlight, the depiction does more harm than good (recent examples include the portrayal of a seizure in “The After Party” or the damaging message of the Netflix series “Afflicted”).
In truth, the cynical part of me kept waiting for DeVon’s illness to be used to further the main plot or be the butt of some elaborate joke revealed in the last episode of the season. But nothing like that came about (though I do look forward to seeing where DeVon’s storyline goes in season 3). I didn’t see a “reason” for the writers to give his character rheumatoid arthritis; it just happened to be part of him.
That, to me, is what fair and equal representation looks like. I hope other shows take note.
Images via Netflix