“I was brought back to my first confrontations with racism, with having someone insist that I was somehow different or inferior.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Maya Erskine 👩🏻🇺🇸, Anna Konkle 👩🏼🇺🇸, and Sam Zvibleman 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Maya Erskine 👩🏻🇺🇸 (10 eps), Anna Konkle 👩🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), Sam Zvibleman 👨🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), and various (3 ♂, 2 ♀, and 2 POC)
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
Hulu’s streaming series PEN15 ratchets up millennial nostalgia to the next level in revisiting the source of where our most embarrassing and sensitive memories lie: middle school. This is achieved through a gimmick that, at first glance, seems too unbelievable to work. Creators and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play adolescent versions of themselves, while casting actual tweens to play their classmates. The difference in appearance between the obviously more mature Maya and Anna and the rest of their peers feels jarring—and that’s the point.
The show’s intention isn’t to fool anyone into believing that two 30-something women could actually be in the seventh grade. In fact, the contrast heightens (quite literally, in some cases) the many absurdities specific to being 13 years old. For example, the lanky and tall Anna looms over her crushes, serving as a visual reminder of how girls hit their growth spurts earlier than boys. And it is the exposed neck of a boy that Anna lustily stares at. Thinking that we knew anything about love or relationships at that age sounds laughable now. At the same time, Anna and Maya’s shared coming-of-age story lends legitimacy to their characters’ respective struggles. Only with adult leads could the various episodes honestly explore topics like drug use, masturbation, and racism that would have otherwise been tricky to depict with underage actors.
The raunchy humor may not suit everyone’s tastes. But the fantastically bad fashion choices (bell bottoms and butterfly clips!) and throwback soundtrack featuring early 2000s hitmakers, from Sum 41 to *NSYNC to Sisqo, make PEN15 an amusing, albeit awkward, journey down memory lane.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
PEN15 details the complicated interpersonal dynamics among teen girls with impressive accuracy. Maya and Anna’s best-friends-forever rapport provides the narrative backbone as they vow to experience all of their “firsts” together, including their first cigarette and their first makeout party. Inevitably, however, moments of divergence test their friendship.
In “Ojichan” (Season 1, Episode 3), Maya embarks on a secretive solo exploration of her sexuality, which makes Anna feel left out. In “Community Service” (Season 1, Episode 5), the pair’s involvement with a fashion show pits them against the school’s more popular clique. Humorous commentary about the ways in which society genders and sexualizes girls from an early age manifests in the form of a hot pink thong. Meanwhile, conflicts exist not simply to create silly, catty drama but to acknowledge the often undervalued perspectives of young women.
Maya’s Japanese-American upbringing is seamlessly integrated into the show, from the miso soup she eats for breakfast to the Sailor Moon poster on her bedroom wall. The bowl-cut hair trim she receives from her mother (played by Erskine’s real-life mother, Mutsuko Erskine) in the first episode will induce a knowing groan from those of us who were given the same hairstyle by our Asian parents. Her mixed-race identity informs who she is but never limits the full expression of her personality. That is, until others begin defining her by race.
By the time the season arrives at its sixth episode, “Posh,” the audience has already come to empathize with Maya as an individual who is characterized by so many other traits, such as her love of performing Jim Carrey impressions. So it feels like a gut punch when, during a group project, three of her white classmates unthinkingly reveal their racist attitudes toward Maya. Even worse, Anna fails to speak up on behalf of her best friend. Although their discomfort is apparent, it’s clear that neither of them have the language to discuss or even identify what has transpired. Maya’s older brother Shuji (Dallas Liu) and his Black friend Evan (Allius Barnes) end up being the ones to raise her racial consciousness, while Anna goes home and types into Ask Jeeves, “am i racist?”
At school the next day, a very real schism in their friendship is exposed. They begin to see their world—the microcosm of their middle school—in a whole new light. They see the divisions of race. Maya sees how she is alienated from both white and Asian students. Anna, who is white, attempts to enlighten others about the ills of racism but ends up hurting her best friend even more—an allegory about well-meaning white liberalism, if there ever was one. Thankfully, the episode concludes with Maya finding support not only from Shuji and his POC brothers-in-arms, but also importantly from Anna, who realizes she must do better as an ally and a friend.
Erskine told Vulture how unprepared she was for her very emotional response to filming a scene in which her character is publicly taunted with racial slurs. As the credits rolled, I found myself crying tears that came from a deep place—an ache that I thought had healed over time. Yet all these years later, it still felt surprisingly raw. I was brought back to my own loss of innocence, my first confrontations with racism, with having someone insist that I was somehow different or inferior. The episode does an incredible job examining and exorcising that phantom pain.
In the late ‘90s, gay icons had finally entered mainstream pop culture—from MTV’s Real World to Will and Grace. But post-HIV/AIDS epidemic, it was also the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and closeted boy band members. It’s hard to imagine that the series won’t tackle LGBTQ issues in their recently announced second season, but representation was absent in Season 1.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
PEN15 allows adult viewers an opportunity to relive the indignities of adolescence with little grace, but lots of laughs. I look forward to seeing what teenage traumas the series will dig up next.