Watch to rectify your seventh grade experience

The linear relevance of Hulu’s Pen15

PEN-15 perfectly captures the discomfort of adolescence while remaining funny and engaging.


PEN-15 perfectly captures the discomfort of adolescence while remaining funny and engaging.

Olivia Schaer, Staff Reporter

Do you know how to fluidly depict adolescent female dialogue properly? Few understand the modern nuances of how most uninformed young women converse, especially with their mothers or young boys. “Pen15,” a Hulu original spearheaded by Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, was able to fill in the remaining eighth grade experiences I lost to the Pandemic.

 If the title – being representative of how one would spell penis on a calculator – isn’t enough to grasp your interest, the two season dramedy has many other pulls. Beyond its bareness in regard to the middle school experiences, the short lived series delves into issues of parental separation, the difficulty of being a mixed race child and a first generation immigrant parent, and the uncontrollable elements of femininity that are repetitively mocked by young men and women during this time in our lives.

The premise of this Hulu original is relatively easy to digest. Following the lives of two seventh graders, Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone who have been best friends since preschool, one would presume that this is simply a tale of mean girls and silly crushes. The twist is that Maya and Anna are two 13-year-old girls played by the 30-year-old writers and actors, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. 

This television series depicts their middle school experience that has since been in their rear view mirrors. Because the show opens in a Y2K Los Angeles setting, there was a burden of accurately portraying the passing nineties and budding 2000’s aesthetic that we see saturated today. Between the sets, outfits, props and general synchronized appearance of the cast, the show would be nostalgic for most my age and older.

The sole reason why I have come back to this show for the fourth, and certainly not final time, is its incredible comedic writing and rhythm. The situation of thirteen-year-olds testing their ability to swear and “talk dirty” is one understood by all and it is executed flawlessly.

 The heightened emotions between parents and daughters provides further instances of relatability and hilarity. The dialogue, in general, is incredible.

 In a flash Maya and Anna can shift from frivolous young girls, to seventeen year olds, to their thirty year old selves. In episode six of season two, Maya is cast to play the lead in her school’s play. Anna feels eclipsed until she is given the role of stage manager. 

This contrast of roles does not create too much conflict between the two friends, but rather gages a theatrical segment of the show’s audience with mutual moments of grief in regards to both actors and “techies.” There is a wonderful montage revealing the struggles during day one of tech week or “Hell week.”

 During this we see both Maya and Anna move from goofy, to cursing in anger, to sighing and showcasing mannerisms they probably had seen their mothers or other adults do in tense situations. Moments like these add layers of confusion, grotesque pauses and cringe conversations to cement the idea that Maya and Anna truly are retelling their childhoods with fresh, aware eyes. 

The concept I found most comforting was the willingness to normalize many elements of girlhood that I feel have continued to be misrepresented. In the third episode of season one, Maya starts to understand her sexuality and becomes instantly aware of the implication of exploring her body when her mother reminds her that her “Ojiichan” (Grandfather) is always “watching over her and the family.” 

The episode opens with Maya’s confliction with what is morally “right” and “wrong” for a woman of her age. Luckily, it concludes with her and Anna discussing how both of them have begun to understand their bodies and what they like,  removing the majority of the guilt Maya was told she had to feel. The show reflects the reality that both men and women are guilty in the perpetuation of sexist traditions and annoyance with the female existence. There are several other episodes that persistently destigmatize other aspects of female puberty and most importantly vaginas. 

Maya is a mixed race child. Her mother, Yuki, played by Mutsuko Erskine, is a Japanese immigrant, married to Maya’s father Fred Peters, played by Richard Karn. She is a stay-at-home mom and is seen in many lights outside of the “Asian mother” stereotype.

 She and Maya are repeatedly given the space to reflect on their individual struggles and what divides them as an American daughter and Japanese mother. Maya is often indirectly told by her peers and family members that she would be better if she was either “fully white” or “fully Asian.” She does not speak Japanese, which frequently alienates her in her own home, as her older half brother has a different father and can speak the language fluently. 

This is not ignored and there are multiple episodes blatantly discussing Anna’s inability to understand Maya’s struggles and Maya’s jealousy of her half brother and cousin. Yuki also has an episode of her own in season two, where she reconnects with her first child’s father and feels herself sucked back into the “beautiful” life she used to know. 

Maya Erskine and her mother clearly grew closer when working to understand what one another were experiencing during this time in their lives. 

I wish we could see more of Maya and Anna’s world, however the creators felt as though they told the story they set out to share and didn’t want to push themselves, even for a devoted audience. This has and will remain one of my favorite shows representing adolescence.

 It not only has an accurate representation of manipulative parents, the shame of poverty and the lust for vanity, but how young women are able to collaborate and overcome when they love one another deeply. I hope Hulu keeps this series for streaming until the day I die, as I see myself in both Maya and Anna and could not imagine myself without their influence.