If you’re unfamiliar with Hulu’s critically acclaimed show “PEN15”; then you have some MAJOR catching up to do. Created and written by real life BFFs Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle; PEN15 is a unique coming of age story that depicts a remarkably authentic portrayal of life as a prepubescent girl. It’s a hilarious storyline that’s been overlooked until now. Set in the year 2000, we join our duo as they embark on their newest and scariest endeavor yet; the seventh grade. Not only do they nail the albeit horrendous fashion choices and hairstyles of the time; the show and its characters transcend passed the butterfly clips, bedazzled jeans and frosty lip gloss to a message we’re all too familiar with: teenagers are terrifying and puberty can be brutal. In the series, we watch Maya and Anna (who are actually in their early thirties) play semi-fictional versions of their younger selves among real-life teens. Sounds strange but I promise you they make it work. Probably, because they personify the awkwardness and goofiness of that age, exquisitely. Filled with countless cringeworthy moments, PEN15 is the flashback to middle school you never knew you wanted. Among the vicious rumors, unrequited love and unreliable AOL dial-up, there’s a real sense of heart and hopefulness behind these characters and the rest of the ensemble. Happily, I sat down to re-watch the series, only this time I took notes on what makes it so freaking awesome:
No one will ride for you as hard as your seventh grade bestie will. The loyalty amongst the protagonists is uncanny and quite inspiring. These girls love each other so much at times, it hurts. Although things don’t always work out the way they planned, it’s a delight to watch the compassion and intimacy they share. Honestly, it’s a type of “closeness” that becomes harder to find in adulthood.
This show makes me feel seen. PEN15 has a funny way of reenacting actual moments of agony from my adolescence. Specifically the ones I’ve tried to bury deep within my cerebellum. The truth is middle school can be rough with how painful everything is, how deep the little insults cut and how much gets lost in the awkward silence. I appreciate how they normalized those feelings of loneliness and confusion. I’m sure a lot of us right now can still relate to feeling victimized for being different. Sorta gives you the comfort in knowing that everybody hurts… sometimes.
Puberty is confusing but masturbating is great! The episode in which Maya discovers masturbation dives into the double standards between boys and girls when it comes to sex. The ole “boys will be boys” reigns true with a group of horny teens trying to watch scrambled porn together. While our female characters prefer complete solitude. Mostly it was really cool to see young women discovering self pleasure and not being shamed for it. Well, besides feeling ashamed that your dead grandpa might be watching but who hasn’t been there, am I right? Shrieks* Look away Papa!
The dynamic between female camaraderie and female cattiness is B-A-N-A-N-A-S. No matter how hard Maya and Anna try to fit in with the popular crowd, there’s an obvious caste system in place that won’t allow them to move up the social ladder. This system is mostly determined by who’s boobs have come in over the summer; pretty solid reasoning, right? Not to mention the power and attention we give men at such an early age, too. From who we date to what we do with them, it’s all mostly dictated by the boy in the relationship. Still it’s crazy to think of the time and effort we waste trying to get other people to like us when the greatest gift is finding those who will like you for exactly who you are.
PEN15 generously indulges in the depth of character, vulnerability, sense of values and creativity that kids have but is often overlooked by adults. They go through countless emotions trying to decipher good from bad with very little help from the folks around them. For the most part they’re able to figure it out for themselves and come to their own conclusion without the skewed input of a jaded adult. My overall take away is that the majority of us don’t give kids enough credit and that needs to change.
It gives an honest portrayal of the attachment to roles we develop at an early age. Whether you’re a “jock”, “band geek”, “slut” or “UGIS” (ugliest girl in school); these terms become a sense of identification for people. It’s a role they’re compelled to play (even as adults) because they feel most comfortable with that specific title. This is especially true (and at times catastrophic) for young ladies developing their own self worth. Far too much emphasis is placed on girls physical beauty and not enough on their intelligence and emotional needs, especially during this crucial time. Unfortunately, due to society’s obsession with perfection, this idolization of beauty still runs rampant among young girls and women, alike. Luckily, for our heroines Maya and Anna, they learn beauty comes from within and I don’t mean a pretty pink thong.
Yup, they go there. Coming to terms with the cruel reality of ignorance, bigotry and racism starts at an early age in America. The cast do a great job at demonstrating the different faces and levels of it too. There’s a particularly cringeworthy scene in which Maya (who is of Japanese descent) is forced to play Scary Spice for a school project because she’s “different”. Although she voices her desire to play Posh Spice, Maya ultimately concedes to her peers’ requests. Witnessing her serve her white classmates is both heartbreaking and painful to watch. But it teaches the girls a very valuable lesson. Stand up for yourself and others even if it makes you unpopular.
A bad haircut (or in my case bad highlights) can potentially leave a scar for the rest of your life. Sad but true.
Parents just don’t understand but at least the good ones try. I can’t imagine it being easy trying to parent a hormonal pre-teen or to be a parent in general for that matter. Still the adults on the show do an excellent job of being both supportive and completely clueless at the same time. Another reminder that most people are doing the best they can with the tools they have. Maya and Anna’s emotional outbursts are definitely reminiscent of some of my own. Which leads me to say the following “Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.”
The show flawlessly executes the duality between excitement and utter fear of “first times”. The first time drinking beer, smoking a cigarette, kissing, entering a chat-room, performing in front of an audience, etc. The truth is the excitement and fear of a first never really goes away and I hope it never does.
PEN15 serves as a great reminder of the things I’ve grown out of, as well as the ones I have yet to master. Which are those you ask? I’ll give you an example: I’m as boy-crazy now as I was back then. Only now it’s not just an away message I have to decipher but multiple platforms designed for stalking. PROCLAMATION: Lurking on Instagram stories, overthinking DM’s and checking GEO locations are among the compulsive tendencies I’m giving up this year. Thank you for the reminder that girls rule and boys drool!
Bagel Bites. Enough said.
Wanting to rebel while not getting caught is simultaneously exhilarating and petrifying. The desire to impress and please your parents while still having fun is a tightrope most teens master only after a lot of trial and error. Let’s just say there’s a lot of trial and error for Maya and Anna. “I’m not mad just disappointed” is a term I look forward to saying once it’s my turn to judge my non-existent future kids.
No one teaches girls about menstruation and that’s terrifying. Literally, not a single young lady knows what to do the first time she gets her period. Our schools are failing the young ladies of our country and this needs to change. PERIOD.
The series’ soundtrack is fire and oh so very nostalgic. Taking it way back with all the classics from N*SYNC, Nelly, The Spice Girls, K-Ci & JoJo, 98 Degrees and Mandy Moore; the soundtrack alone is reason enough to start streaming PEN15 immediately.