Most young adults remember the painfully awkward travail that was our middle school years. The braces, the crushes, the first kisses, the hormones, the “your mom” jokes, and all the burning questions about puberty and adolescent life.
Now, we get to relive all of it vicariously through comedians Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle in the Hulu series, PEN15 (in case you never went to middle school, it’s pronounced “penis”).
There are countless shows about those cringey pubescent years. Ned’s Declassified, Degrassi, and Lizzie McGuire gave us comfort in being unpopular, taught us to have empathy for the bully, and showed us how to laugh at ourselves without feeling ashamed.
Recently, we’ve seen new interpretations of these prepubescent years, like Big Mouth, Eighth Grade, and now PEN15. The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon shows were for us, as kids, but these new programs aren’t for kids anymore. They’re still for us––the young adults and twenty-somethings that used to have to wait a whole week for the next episode.
While each has its own purpose and theme, these programs have one quality that’s so special for the adults who watch them: they were our realities.
Though I don’t remember using such vulgarity as a 12-year-old, Big Mouth resonates with me. When I got my first period I was confused, scared, and ashamed like Jessi. I shared the jealousy of the other girls when Devon got boobs, and I’m sure some understood Devon’s embarrassment at the looks she got because of her unexpected new features.
We all went through changes, as the theme song suggests, and many of them were uncomfortable, annoying, and gross. Big Mouth captures the full range of those emotions, even if much of it is embellished with the ostentatious “hormone monsters” and witty musical numbers.
Hulu’s new series PEN15 is a less theatrical display of those prepubescent emotions. It opens on Maya and Anna, two adult comedians playing their 13-year-old selves, preparing for their first day of seventh grade.
We all know seventh grade was weird. It was the limbo between sixth grade––a year of horror, getting lost in a massive new building, not knowing anyone––and eighth grade––when you’re the leaders of the school, the big kids, and so close to the dreaded, yet awe-inspiring high school.
The first episode itself is a roller coaster. Maya and Anna are disturbingly awkward; the comedians have mastered the art of making you cringe. They aren’t the cool kids by any means. Watching their seemingly nuclear mistakes and their naive attempts at fixing them gives the viewers a bittersweet nostalgia to cling onto.
In the same vein as Big Mouth, Maya and Anna experience changes in their bodies, but without encouraging (or disparaging) hormone monsters to tell them what to do. Rather, they have each other. Maya’s discovery of masturbation is comical and juvenile, which is poignantly and painfully juxtaposed by her subsequent feelings of shame. The most beautiful part of the episode is when Maya allows her seemingly-perverted secret to come out, to which Anna replies that she masturbates as well. The girls’ friendship––and the entire show––is made up of these tender moments in which they learn from each other how to embrace themselves.
The show is so powerful to me, but not just because I was once a similarly awkward braceface. Rather, the show feels like closure.
I, like Maya, had temper tantrums as a fully grown preteen. I slammed doors, threw things around my room, cried for hours because I didn’t get my way. I, like Anna, had a million crushes that never liked me back, and it hurt me every time. Watching two grown women play kid versions of themselves invites one to look back on those years and laugh.
In hindsight, our middle school selves were funny, goofy kids. But a lot of those goofy kids were deeply sad for various reasons––like Maya, who secretly needs to impress her often-absent father, and Anna, who constantly hears her parents fighting through her bedroom walls––we all had something behind the scenes. And now, many of us are still recovering from those years and still growing because of them. PEN15 is a wild ride, but for more than just its comic value.
I’m especially grateful for the vulnerability of Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine; they are teaching each of us how to look at our past and accept it, even the most uncomfortable parts.
As Maury the hormone monster once said, “I know this all seems embarrassing right now, but maybe one day you’ll look back on this time fondly and perhaps even make something beautiful out of it.”