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Lithium Middle school ends, but “Pen15” is forever

Mar. 10, 2021
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Middle school sux. We know this in the same way we know that if you have underage sex, you will be the first to die when your campsite is attacked by a knife-wielding maniac: because it’s an entire genre. Like horror, Middle School Sux is tropey and reflexive. It has bittersweet peaks (Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade) and belligerent valleys (whoever is responsible for Big Mouth, I just wanna talk). Like horror, and like the excruciating puberty it depicts, Middle School Sux is obsessed with bodies. But if the former goes for the gut, the latter takes aim at the pimpled face, the too-flat chest. It often hits peak hilarity somewhere below the belt. 

Hulu’s Pen15 is about bodies, too—just not in the way we might expect. The show’s set-up is simple: it follows thirteen-year-old best friends Maya and Anna as they tackle an endless seventh-grade year. From day one, they are haunted by the kind of full-bodied humiliations that only strike when you are thirteen, and not only increasingly aware of your increasingly weird body but increasingly aware that everyone else is aware of it, too. An ill-fated haircut earns Maya the title Ugliest Girl in School, a slimy first kiss with her first crush crushes Anna (“he, like, drilled into my mouth”), and, by the second season, Maya’s attempts to keep the arrival of her period a secret implode into a scene sourced straight from my worst anxiety dreams. There is a slumber party. There is a bloody wad of toilet paper. There is, finally, hellishly, a clogged toilet.

But what sets Pen15 apart from other Middle School Sux media isn’t in the way it writes up or tears down all the discomfiting weirdness of our girls’ physical forms—it’s the fact that those physical forms don’t really belong to our girls. The boys who christen Maya UGIS, the inexpert kisser with a kind of “torpedo cat tongue,” the other attendees of the slumber-party-turned-toilet-paper-massacre—they’re all played by actors roughly between the ages of twelve and sixteen. Maya and Anna, already stand-out weirdos on their best days, are played by the show’s thirty-something-year-old creators, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. 

Aside from Konkle’s impressive height, a combination of fantastic costuming and singularly committed performances makes it easy to forget that Anna and Maya aren’t actually thirteen. This is the kind of suspension of belief all good stories, actors, whatever, should probably aspire to—one so complete it successfully hangs up a new reality. But in the Middle School Sux genre, drawing even extratextual attention to the level of performance that goes into performing thirteen is a complex thing. 

This is because actually being thirteen is always a performance. Pen15 knows this. Kathleen Hanna whines over its opening credits, “I / I am hiding / the you I show to you / is just a lie.” And over the course of two short seasons, Maya and Anna have already tried on a whole host of different personalities, cultivated and coveted distinct selves, shrugged them off; in a detail so true to my own childhood and so underrepresented in coming-of-age media it brings me weirdly close to tears, they still occasionally play pretend. 

Erskine and Konkle are playing pretend, too. But there’s no irony or meta self-awareness to it, none of the embarrassment Anna and Maya feel. Maya and Anna, in case it wasn’t already clear, feel a lot of embarrassment. Pen15 is—as every review and article a Google search away will giddily affirm—a cringe comedy. Counterintuitively, the feeling cringe comedies draw on most substantially is deep empathy. In the Middle School Sux variation, this is especially true. Genre tropes are almost never canonical truths. Not many of us, virginal or no, will ever face down a knife-wielding maniac. If we did, our sexual history probably wouldn’t make a lick of difference. But we have all been to middle school. And when we cringe for Maya and Anna, we cringe for whatever see-through shade of our former selves we see in them, too. 

But even though its leads embody this kind of acid-flashback engagement with a younger you, Pen15 isn’t interested in self-awareness. In the season one finale, brave-faced Anna admits that her parents’ looming divorce is the saddest thing that has ever happened to  her. And it is. The incisive pathos of the moment, of the whole show, is summed up in its refusal to undercut the singular hugeness of Anna and Maya’s thirteen-year-old tragedies. Maybe when Anna is thirty, someone will die, or fall terribly ill, and then that will be the saddest thing. Or maybe not. But the point is that it gets harder to assign such superlatives as you get older. The competition is stiff, or your experiences converge. Life over and underwhelms. But when you are thirteen, and everything feels like an experiment in which you are somehow the first unlucky lab rat, you are not thirty. You have no perspective; you have lots of hormones. When you are thirteen, everything is the saddest thing ever.  

Pen15 holds that “ever” between cupped palms. It holds it clammy and it holds it cringey, but it always holds it. It’s strange for the adult creators-slash-performers of Middle School Sux media to refuse to view their work through a backward glance, to turn and face it down the way Anna and Maya face down the long lockered hallway on their hellish first day of school. If there are glimmers of smirking nostalgia in Pen15, they are only in the careful details of its set design, the hilarity it wrings out of passive-aggressive AIM away messages. Remember how that used to happen? 

Maybe you wish you could forget. Pen15 understands that impulse, even as it pesters us with this same question over and over. It allows for a sympathetic twist. It asks, remember how that used to happen? And happen, and happen, and it seemed like it would never ever stop happening? The result is a seventh-grade experience that feels total and unlike anything else, which is exactly how seventh grade feels. The result is: I remember, yes. 

Illustration by Enne Goldstein