In 1998, the doll company American Girl published a cheerful guide to female puberty titled The Care and Keeping of You. The slim volume included sections on body hair, acne, bras, hygiene, peer pressure, and menstruation, as well as a helpful—if controversial—graphic explaining how to insert a tampon. “The more you know about your body, the less confusing and embarrassing growing up will seem—and the easier it will be to talk about,” read an introductory letter to readers.
But even the most well-intentioned, body-positive training manual cannot fully prepare anyone for the horrors of middle school. It’s a time depicted with unflinching cringe in the Hulu series PEN15. Set in the year 2000, the show follows best friends Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) and Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) as they begin seventh grade. Throughout the first season, the pair experience many firsts, together and apart: kisses, periods, cigarettes, masturbation, thongs, and AIM accounts. Everything they experience is shared, to the extent that it can be. “You are my actual rainbow gel pen in a sea of blue and black writing utensils,” Anna tells Maya after the latter is cruelly dubbed the “UGIS” (Ugliest Girl in School). They promise to struggle through middle school together. After all, as Anna points out, “It’s not like it’s gonna last forever.”
But what immediately sets PEN15 apart from other coming-of-age media is that Maya and Anna are not actually middle schoolers. The two thirtysomething actors play versions of their younger selves, while the rest of the cast are actual tweens; it’s 13 going on 30 taken to the extreme. There’s an inherent absurdity in watching two adult women clad in prominent orthodontia swoon over Justin Bieber clones half their height. While the show’s child actors are remarkable, in their reenactment of early 2000s middle school drama, Erskine and Konkle engage in something like high-budget therapeutic roleplay. In the process of writing the show, they reflected on their juvenile traumas, but when performing them, the pair discovered unresolved pain. “When I was acting it, and I had the actual kids being mean to me, it opened up a well of emotion I was not prepared for,” Erskine told Vulture about an episode that finds Maya confronted with microaggressions and outright racism. “I just started bawling.” The catharsis bursts through the screen.
The first half of PEN15’s second season picks up two days after the events of the first season’s finale, which includes an unexpected confession and the friends getting felt up side-by-side in a closet by popular boy Brandt at a school dance. (The second season has been broken into two parts after production was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.) After Maya and Anna essentially leak their own secret at a pool party, their peers begin to shame them about the “threesome.” “Just thought you should know that everyone is saying that you’re desperate sluts,” one classmate explains to them during P.E. “And what makes me really sad is that you’ve changed, like, a lot.” Maya and Anna have changed since their first day of seventh grade, as is only natural. But while the girls still play with dolls and predict their future lives through games of MASH, PEN15’s second season moves further away from the innocence of adolescence toward the trauma and heartbreak of teenagedom. The show’s transition into darker territory reflects the cruel reality that growing up is not a smooth transition; it’s something we collide with, a fight to find our footing throughout.
In one early episode of the second season, the pair join the school’s (all male) wrestling team with mixed intentions: Maya wants to follow (and fight) Brandt, and though Anna initially joins to keep her friend company, she discovers an outlet for the anger and helplessness she feels about her parents’ divorce. But they both end up crushed when the boys, including Maya and Anna’s friend Sam, make fun of them for having “BSBs”: a “big smell bush that smells like fish.” Cut to a scene of the friends on the phone, gazing at their respective vaginas. As Anna looks at herself through the reflection of a Caboodle makeup box, Maya spritzes her vulva with perfume, with painful results. “Be careful with it,” Anna tells her. “Maybe it doesn’t like that.” Maya furrows her brow and sprays again, harder.
In PEN15’s first season, Maya becomes obsessed with, and then ashamed of, masturbation. Eventually she divulges her habit to Anna, who reveals that she also enjoys pleasuring herself. “You don’t feel gross?” Maya asks. “How gross can I feel if you do it, too?” Anna responds. But after they are bullied for the closet incident, the pair have no one to reassure them about their burgeoning sexuality. Going through puberty can make you feel like a human pin cushion, overly sensitive to every prick. Maya and Anna are affecting avatars for this experience: They are overwhelmed with anxiety about how the world perceives them, as if all eyes and ears are trained on them. “You are saying his name so loud,” Maya hisses at Anna when she merely whispers Brandt’s name. Everything feels like a personal affront, and the stakes of every social interaction seem like life or death. In Jeffrey Eugenides’s 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides, a doctor chides a teenage character after she unsuccessfully tries to kill herself. She’s just a kid, he tells her. How can she be in so much pain that she wants to end her own life? “Obviously, doctor,” she replies, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old-girl.”
For a brief moment, the friends believe themselves to be witches, using fantasy to create the illusion that they have control over their lives. They use their powers to wish for the things they imagine will improve their conditions: blonde hair and no body hair for Maya, more money and white jeans for Anna. “I wish for a group of friends that love us,” Maya screams into the woods. Popularity, in the realm of middle school, is seen as invincibility, so they are thrilled to soon after make a new friend. Maura is a new girl who talks a big game and has a clearly fake best friend who she claims is a modern-day Doogie Howser.
While PEN15 often alludes to status as it relates to the middle school pecking order, issues of class and privilege were largely unspoken until Maura’s introduction. Maya and Anna are impressed by her confidence and awed by her extensive toy chest, stocked snack pantry, and the home intercom system she uses to boss her mom around. They quickly emulate Maura’s habits of obnoxiously throwing around words like “fool” and “loaded,” being nasty to every adult in sight, and finding value solely in brand names. Without trying too hard, the show illustrates how young people—especially those struggling with alienation, depression, or bullying—can be convinced by cultural pressures that they are somehow lacking.
Their newfound insecurities come to a head when Maya, Anna, and their mothers go on a shopping trip. To Maya and Anna, every word that comes out of their parents’ mouths is overly critical, embarrassing, and out of touch. To their mothers, who are simply trying to help, their daughters seem to have been suddenly possessed by mall demons. To say this episode was triggering would be an understatement: After watching it, I had to take a break from the show for several days. The scab had fallen off a wound I didn’t know still existed, and a series of repressed memories floated to the surface: myself in a dressing room with my own mother, in hysterics because I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror; my mother in tears, heartbroken over her daughter’s self-loathing. I texted a friend about how painful the show felt. “It’s so good but it hurts,” she said in response.
After a traumatic slumber party and a falling out with Anna, Maya realizes how far she has strayed from herself. As she soaks in a yuzu bath with her mother, Yuki (performed with moving compassion by Erskine’s real-life mom, Mutsuko Erskine), she is reminded of her own worth. “Girls or women are like salad bowls, you know?” Yuki tells her daughter. “You put everything in one bowl. You only get to keep what’s most important to you because there’s not much room in the salad bowl.” Maya pantomimes unloading some invisible junk from her “bowl” before placing a single yuzu on her head, which represents Anna, something she wants to keep and cherish. “Ah, that’s good,” Yuki says. “You’re gonna be OK.”
Though PEN15’s sun still revolves around Maya and Anna’s friendship, it also digs into the nuances of its side characters. There’s a subplot about the changing relationship between the girls’ male counterparts, as Sam falls in with the popular crowd, temporarily leaving behind his endearingly dweeby friends, Gabe and Jafeer. Gabe, meanwhile, is starting to come to terms with his own sexuality in an early aughts culture in which “gay” is an insult casually thrown around in hallways. As characters like Gabe and Sam are fleshed out, it feels telling that the show’s “villains” remain rather two-dimensional. There’s no explanation for why Brandt and Maura are so toxic, no visible inciting incident for their behavior. It’s something that makes their behavior all the more horrifying—their cruelty is rootless, making it that much harder for those left in its wake to comprehend.
This empathy also extends to the show’s adult characters, particularly Anna’s youthful, reiki-practicing mother. As her parents’ separation drags on, Anna starts to villainize her mother, who wants to move forward with the divorce, and revere her father, who tells Anna that her mother is to blame for the split. In the final episode, Anna realizes that her mother always shows up for her, even if it’s not always appreciated. Like the scene at the store, it’s a finely wrought portrait of mother-daughter relationships. “I just also, like, want to say that I’m sorry that I’m, like, kind of not nice to you sometimes,” she tearfully tells her mother, before adding that her father owes her an apology as well. Anna and her mother, like Maya and hers, are deeply connected, and while they have the ability to hurt each other like no one else can, they are bound together by the most rich and complex love. At the start of PEN15’s second season, when Maya and Anna are told they have “changed,” the word is associated with something negative and undesirable. By the season’s end, this process has grown a bit less scary thanks, more or less, to trial and error. There’s no real guide for coming of age, and even as adults revisiting this time, the pain can still feel fresh. Which might be another way of saying that we are always learning from our younger selves.