Over the past several years, television broadcast and streaming networks, as well as films, have begun to explore female sexuality and womanhood in honest, and often, explicit ways. Maya Erskine’s and Anna Konkle’s PEN15, on Hulu, aligns its cringe comedy with a deeply and honestly depicted reality of pre-teens and early teens growing up in a modern public middle school. Other shows, such as Big Mouth, cover similar subjects, but they sacrifice honesty for grossness or stereotypical sexuality which objectifies women. PEN15’s honesty is firmly located in its refusal to sexualize the pre-teens, as the show simply allows pre-teens to act as pre-teens. Out of the gate, PEN15’s Erskine and Konkle played pretty much 7th-grade versions of themselves, while surrounding themselves with actors who were actually 12-13-years old. It created a jarring effect, but let us in as to how different 12-13-year-olds are from adults, and how our adult assumptions, particularly about sex, should not be implanted into the minds of pre-teens. However, it is in the show’s second season when the show became more profound in its exploration of pre-teen female psyches.
Season 2, Episode 3, Vendy Wiccany, where the girls decided they would try and practice witchcraft, floored me with memories of my younger years. I, and probably many pre-teen girls, have fond memories of making dirt, sticks and gooey “potions” with friends. In the episode, the girls do this to see if witchcraft can help them with their own budding desires. Maya was trying to get the attention of a boy and thought she cast a love spell by jamming her hair in his locker, while Anna was desperately trying to fix her parents’ broken marriage. Witchcraft gives those who are powerless the fantasy of control, akin to the way young growing girls use dolls to create cinematic universes. I personally recall my best friend and I playing a game we called “Space Buddies” where we created an entire solar system (which included the “Planet of Death”) in the middle school sports field. We even created a map-which we then laminated- using her laminator. Although Maya’s and Anna’s adventures are more intense and action-filled, the issue of exploring female fantasies of power, including witchcraft, is far more relatable than male broadcast television executives have ever imagined.
The second season also explores how slut-shaming truly begins in middle school. I admit the show triggered me to be reminded as to how early in life we young women were being told how to be prim and proper, and not openly flirt, for example, unless we “wanted” to be branded a “whore”. Meanwhile, we saw how pre-teen boys could say and sometimes do so many sexually charged things, all within winks, nods and accepting sighs of “boys will be boys.” In PEN15’s very first episode of Season 2, Maya and Anna broadcast how they got “felt up” at a middle school dance. They are quickly othered as “easy” and “slutty”. Even Anna finds it easy to slut-shame her own mother, when she calls her mother (who is divorcing her father) “Monica”–as in Monica Lewinsky.
This show has been consistent in portraying the importance of female friends at this transitory age. I very much identify with Maya and Anna’s friendship, as I have a friend from those days with whom I remain close. In middle school, my friend and I practically lived at each other’s homes and almost nothing existed outside of us. When one of us needed to hide from the world, we knew we had each other. We also endured the painful parts of growing up, which also occurs with Maya and Ann in this second season of PEN15. In this season, we saw what happened when a third friend, Maura, is introduced, and Maura wants to squeeze out Maya and have Anna for herself. We went through that, and I am sure there are still some scars at one level or another. Another part of womanhood many pre-teen and teen girls experience is in our relationship with our mothers. There is one episode in season 2 where Maya and Anna shop with their mothers. I saw so many echoes of the fights I had with my own mom at this age. This carries an added punch as Maya Erskine’s real-life mother plays her mother in the show. Some of the most impactful and intimate scenes from this season come from Maya and her mom in a bathtub together talking. It’s subtle, and could be a bit awkward for the outside viewer, but it carries a lot of weight in the relationship between mother and daughter.
Although the show can be harsh at times in its humor, the show is ultimately comforting. So many comedy shows rely on raunchiness to the point where they become mean, and the stereotypes are terribly lazy and reinforcing our worst behaviors. PEN15 is anything but mean and definitely not lazy. The show respects its characters, while illuminating, though not exploiting, their vulnerabilities. Maya’s biracial character is not used for jokes, but it is a vehicle to explore what it is like to live in two very different cultures. Through Maya’s narrative arc, the show is saying, if you think it is hard to be a pre-teen woman, try being a pre-teen woman of color.
In its second season, PEN15 has become a cult classic as it cathartically depicts suburban girls growing into adulthood in this still-new century, with the magic and trauma that comes with that growth. Male pre-teens and teens, especially, may learn a thing or two in the show’s illustration of the messier side of being a woman, and maybe develop more empathy and respect for women as human beings, and not as sexualized objects to be adored or defiled. The episodes that deal with masturbation and menstruation are definitely cringey, but they are cringey because they are real experiences so many women have had, and we didn’t know other women have had. It is the show’s universality on these topics that gives it power. If there is one message from PEN15, it is that women should not hide their lives in situation comedies. It’s important to recognize how coming-of-age stories about young women have definite differences from male coming-of-age stories. We have not reached the peak of this genre, either, for there remains so much left to explore.