Pen15 and the Eternal Feeling of Adolescence

This piece may contain spoilers for the second season of Pen15.

It almost doesn’t need to be said that I’ve had a lot of time to catch up on TV shows lately. In the last six months of quarantine, binge-watching has been a pleasant, temporary escape and a way for me to focus on something other than the constant stream of news on my phone. Many of the shows I burned through stopped airing years ago, others were set to begin production in the Spring. By summertime, I started wondering what Fall TV would look like as the global pandemic continued and several shows put production on hold or were even canceled. When the premiere of Pen15 season 2 was announced in July, I was incredibly excited to have something new to look forward to—a lighthearted respite from the dramas I’d been diving into. 

To quickly recap for those who haven’t seen the show: Pen15 centers around Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) and Anna Kone (Anna Knonkle), two outcast 7th-graders in the year 2000. Described as “middle school as it really happened,” the show follows Maya and Anna as they navigate the perils of puberty, boys, AOL Instant Messenger, annoying parents, and the delicate social pyramid of middle school in the year 2000. Erskine and Konkle, both 33-years-old, transform themselves into fictionalized versions of their 13-year-old selves, dawning braces, low-cut bell bottom jeans, and the occasional tasteful butterfly hair clip. All while the rest of their classmates are portrayed by real middle-school age actors. It will dig up memories in your body you thought you’d repressed for good as you ride through intense crushes, rejection, broken homes, and unwavering friendship.

Even if you can’t identify with the specific experiences of Maya and Anna, the show is the most successful at realistically conveying how time feels warped when you’re 13. Adolescence feels like you’re running in a dream: there’s a sense of urgency to grow up and experience all of your firsts, yet everything feels like an eternity all at the same time. You’re finally a teenager and feeling on the brink of adulthood, ready to carve out your independence and personal identity. The sacred bond between best friends is either unbreakable or they can become your biggest enemy. Every decision you make from your outfit on the first day of school to speaking to your crush could have a butterfly effect and impact the rest of your life, or so it seems. 

Watching the show, I am immediately transported back into time to my 13-year-old self nearly 20 years ago (gulp). I moved and transferred schools in the middle of the year. I wore uniforms throughout grade school up until then, and I was starting at a school where we got to wear our own clothes. Suddenly I was met with the daunting task of choosing my outfit every day. It was a chance for me to express to my new peers who I was and what my interests were. My new uniform became a dusty pair of Converse hi-tops, a short-sleeve button-down and tie I found at a thrift store, and bell-bottom jeans so long the hems were torn from dragging underneath my shoes.

As if the pressures of middle school weren’t traumatic enough, our bodies are changing at a faster pace than we can control and there’s little we can do to hide it. Growth spurts, lanky limbs, mustaches and body hair, and for many of us, our first periods. The show deals with puberty head on in a refreshingly honest way, and doesn’t why away from how ugly and grotesque it can be. They are freakishly obsessed with boys in their class and are desperate to get their first kiss soon, no matter what it takes. In one of most memorable episodes, Maya discovers masturbation and becomes increasingly addicted. 

Maya is saddened to find out she’s discovered her period for the first time as it marks the end of her childhood. Ashamed and unsure of what to do, she pulls a long stream of toilet paper, wraps it up into a make-shift pad, and puts it in her underwear. Having to MacGyver a pad out of toilet paper felt like a universal rite of passage but something that was unspoken. Growing up watching TV, periods were about PMSing, craving chocolate, and feeling bloated. For the first time now, I was seeing periods as something messy and embarrassing. There’s a huge sense of shame and embarrassment surrounding periods and something that still carries on into adulthood. 

I see myself a lot in Maya, who grapples with balancing her Asian-American identity at school and at home. I struggled to see myself as “Vietnamese enough” to my Asian peers, and found myself struggling to be “American enough” in a predominantly white school. In the episode “Posh,” the girls and their classmates put together a Spice Girls-themed project for class and Maya is told she can’t be Posh Spice, although she called dibs. Instead, the group convinces her that she should be Scary Spice because she’s “different” from the rest of them (she is AsAm, they are all white). She’s uncomfortable but can’t fully articulate why. Maya makes herself small to fit in with the group: she agrees to be Scary Spice and acts like their server, doubling down with a thick racist accent. The group continues to ostracize Maya, and she is confronted with her shame when her brother, Shuji, asks her why she’s embarrassed to be Japanese.

Pen15 offers a rare glimpse into the lives of middle schoolers during a specific and pivotal moment in culture. Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC were at their peak, the internet was relatively new in households, and the quickest way of talking to your friends was either on a landline or passing notes in class. But even if you aren’t a millennial, the show is universal in holding a mirror up to your 13-year-old self. A reminder of all the awkwardness and how any misstep felt like you could die. Looking back on the time that’s passed since 7th grade, I think maybe things weren’t so bad after all.

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