Hulu hit a nerve for me with their new series Pen15, a show where comedians Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play adolescent versions of themselves in the ripe era of the early 2000’s. The show picks up with Maya and Anna on their first day of seventh grade. Make no mistake, this is a grown girls show that pulls the curtain back on all the unbridled horror that comes with middle school. Especially when you linger on the outside of cool as Maya and Anna do.
The show reminded me that a big reason middle school is such a crap shoot is that everything is in transition and not just your body. The show addresses ALL of these transitions which come at breakneck speed. Suddenly playing with dolls or any sort of toys is lame. Getting driven to school by your parents?! Don’t you have a cool older sibling for that?! Wait, you don’t shop at Victoria’s Secret for underwear? EW! You don’t have beer at your parties? LAME! Quick and efficient adaptation to these transitions determined the pecking order of who was cool and who didn’t have a clue.
The show is also a great origin story for where and what us millennials came from. The introduction of AOL Instant Messenger, the first step of many that pulled us off the phone and away from interpersonal human interaction. The internet was a weapon for us, sure it was handy for homework, but it also allowed us to challenge authority. If we wanted to know something, we no longer had to ask parents or teachers, which is great when you’re trying to make a bong. One bummer is the all too real depiction of how much value the currency of attention from boys had. Here they are in the year 2000 and young men still had so much sway in a young girl’s life. I know hormones plays a part in this, but it’s something that I see now is hard to shake as we get older.
I identify with Maya on a lot of levels. For one, Maya is labeled UGIS (Ugliest Girl In School), as someone who was personally branded with this label, I laughed myself right off my couch. Especially the part where poor Maya is perplexed as she points out that there obviously uglier girls than her in school. I recall having that EXACT reaction. Like me, Maya has an older brother who is cool, but offers little to no protection. Every now and then he comes through, but those moments are few and far between.
Maya develops a chip on her shoulder making trust and showing genuine affection tough, this is something that has stuck with me to this day at the age of 33. One thing I couldn’t relate to is being the only Japanese girl in a school where white girls run the show. Maya’s race is addressed several times in real and illuminating ways, but it by no means wholly defines her as a character.
I knew so many girls like Anna during my hard time in middle school and I can relate to her as well. Especially in the crush department. Like me, Anna crushes hard and often meets the cold concrete of rejection face first.
However, despite everything, unlike me, Anna doesn’t lash out. She keeps a smile on her face, and continues to believe the best in people. The strained dynamic her parents have with one another doesn’t make that sunny disposition any easier. I love that girls like this are getting their due in this show because awkward girls who can find a silver lining in seventh grade are amazing.
Bottom line, middle school is trash, Pen15 is awesome, highly recommend it.