Looking back on your painstakingly awkward middle school days—like “dating” without actually speaking to your significant other, shaving your legs for the first time, and practicing to kiss on the back of your hand—you may not want to relive it. But PEN15’s honest and accurate portrayal of middle schoolers provides a sense of nostalgia that will want to make us turn back time and give our 13-year-old selves a much-needed hug.
Streaming on Hulu, PEN15 follows best friends Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone as they navigate through vicious tween girls and immature, yet heartbreaking, insults such as UGIS (aka, Ugliest Girl in School), which Maya gets called in the pilot. But here’s the catch: Maya and Anna are named after and played by their creators, Maya Erskine, and Anna Konkle, who are both actually 31 years old.
I know what you’re all thinking. 31 playing 13? That’s a stretch, even for Hollywood. But trust me, you won’t even be able to differentiate Erskine and Konkle from their actual tween castmates. They transform themselves physically with bushy eyebrows, pimples, and slouched backs to hold the weight of their insecurities. In the first episode, Erskine’s character is given her signature bowl cut despite telling her mother to cut off “just like a little bit.” And Konkle wears a set of prosthetic wire braces, making me reminisce on my questionable braces colors (yes, I had red, white, and blue braces for the month of July, and I know you did too).
Having these 31-year-old women play 13-year-olds was necessary because the show doesn’t back away from the topic of their budding sexualities; instead, they explicitly tackle it head-on. Grounded in humor and vulnerable moments, the show teeters the line between discomfort and authenticity (think Big Mouth meets Eighth Grade). For example, the series’ third episode “Ojichan”—which means grandpa in Japanese—features a minute-long scene of Maya masturbating in her closet, while Libana’s “The Earth, the Air, the Fire, the Water” plays in combinations with her moans. The camera slowly closes in on her face as she reaches her climax, then cuts back to a wide shot as the soundtrack cuts and she calmly pulls her pants back up. It’s not sexy, as most female masturbation is presented in media. Frankly, it’s uncomfortable, but that’s the way it should be, and that’s the way Maya feels as she shamefully hides this from even her best friend.
PEN15 isn’t afraid to address real issues as they actually happened. But the show doesn’t only focus on middle schoolers’ sexuality and love lives, they also address intensely personal issues such as racism, bullying, and divorce. Remember those vicious tween girls I mentioned before? In “Posh,” Maya calls dibs on being Posh Spice in a Spice Girls-themed school project about osteoporosis (a condition where bones become weak and brittle) but is told she must be Scary Spice, the only person of color in the group. She is basically cut out of the video, and made to be their servant, while all the girls, including Maya, laugh it off, capturing the lengths of their naïve, misunderstood, and cruel behaviors just to fit in.
Based off of Erskine’s and Konkle’s own painfully awkward middle school experiences, PEN15 is an ode to all of the 13-year-old outcasts and rejects that never felt beautiful, never felt loved, and never felt accepted. Although the show touches a lot on the romance aspect, such as their first crushes, boyfriends, and kisses, Maya and Anna can handle any number of rejections that come their way because they have, and love, each other. And in the long run, that’s all that truly matters.
We can’t turn back time to tell our 13-year-old selves everything we wished we heard. To tell ourselves that what’s happening is normal, and it’s uncomfortable and awkward right now, but it gets better.
But watching PEN15 is like being thirteen again, and facing all of our demons, whether they come in tween girls, rejection, or changes in the body, in just ten short episodes.