Puberty, Pantsing and Preteen Angst: Hulu’s Pen15 Goes There

Pen15:  It goes there.

Okay, so maybe the new Hulu series hasn’t reached Degrassi– level realness, but it depicts some pretty hairy situations.  Pen15 is kind of like Big Mouth for girls.

Anna (Anna Konkle) and Maya (Maya Erskine) play middle school versions of themselves alongside a cast of actual middle schoolers.  Here’s a picture of the actresses IRL:

And here they are playing tweens on Pen15:

This show was made for girls in their late 20s.  Pen15 perfectly captures the unflattering clothes, pop culture fads (Thongs! Polly Pocket! Wild Things!) and politics of attending middle school circa 2001. The show tackles typical teen issues like crushes, popularity, and peer pressure.  But Pen15 feels real by including these oft- overlooked aspects of growing up:

1. Lady crotch issues (S1 E9: “Maya Ishii- Peters” and S1 E10: “Dance”) Ladies, please stand up if you’ve ever shoved a wad of toilet paper in your panties during Girl’s Week.  The bimbos over on 7th Heaven made Ruthie a plate of fucking waffles when she “became a woman”; Pen15 shows the shame and horror of finding freaking blood in your underwear for the first time.  It’s like a private horror movie.  You don’t want anyone to find out, ESPECIALLY not your mom.  Thank God for the lady janitor, who spots you a tampon.


2. Female masturbation. S1 E3: “Oji- Chan”: When the mere image of sand dunes in the Sahara make you horny, you know life will never be the same.  Puberty has struck.  Maya deals with the unexpected eroticism of everyday objects and the shame every girl experiences once we figure out we have a fun button.  In this case, shame comes in the form of her deceased grandfather Oji- Chan, and it’s hilarious.

3. Divorcing parents trying to make things work. S1 E9: “Maya Ishii- Peters”  Anna’s parents get divorced.  We see the passive- aggressive breakfast table, hear the muffled fights through Anna’s bedroom walls, and feel confused by her parents’ euphoric love during the upswings.  Anna’s parents flub a “couples retreat” and finally sit down and tell Anna “we don’t love each other any more”.   Divorce often feels confusing and out- of- the- blue, especially for only children.  Poor Anna.  But for those of you watching at home, you’re totally on her dad’s side, right?

4. Growing up Japanese- American.  Maya’s mom is Japanese and her dad is American.  I love this element because it reminds me of the Japanese- American households I grew up around.  Maya takes off her shoes, her mom makes traditional Japanese meals, they speak Japanese around the house and the other white kids don’t “get” Maya’s culture.  Maya struggles with her Asian identity and finds herself the butt of unflinchingly racist jokes.  The public pressures Hollywood to depict more diversity; Pen15 shows the reality of being actually being different.

Pantsing: S1 E6: “Community Service”.  Pantsing:  To yank down someone’s pants when they are not expecting it.  Cargo pants pretty much did the work for you.  Anna and Maya fall victim to a rogue panster on her quest to locate a stolen thong.


5. Gross kissing/ Awkward Preteen Sex  S1 E8:  “Wild Things” and S1 E10: “Dance”

“Was it romantic?”

Slimy smooches feel more awkward than rejection.  I really wondered how the show would tackle this, since the actresses work with minors, but they pulled it off hilariously.  Anna and Maya also get felt up- together- in a closet at a school dance.  Nobody talks about this stuff.  Pen15 shows us with the title alone the innuendo undercuts basically everything about adolescent life, and sex ain’t always like the movies:  it’s gross, awkward and requires practice.  These moments are some of the show’s most uncomfortable, but also the most honest.

What’s your favorite thing about Pen15? What do you hope the girls face in the next season?


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