Junior high is, for me at least, a time worth forgetting. That formative, cringe-inducing time was filled with angst, cliques, and a whole lot of acne. So watching Hulu‘s PEN15, a coming-of-age comedy following two seventh grade girls in the year 2000, was a mixed experience: The rush of seeing the early aughts return, the uncomfortable twinges from remembering the growing pains of those years.
It’s just so scarily accurate. The pivotal slow dance to K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life.” Early AIM experiments with away messages, “hot singles” chatrooms, and desperate pleas to your parents to stay off the phone while you’re on the Internet. Gel pens. B*Witched. Butterfly clips. Middle parts. Regret all around.
There’s a moment in episode three—”Ojichan”—that many woman might find as deeply relatable as I did, regardless of whether a TigerBeat poster of Jonathan Taylor Thomas was on the bedroom wall or not. After spending the majority of the episode masturbating and being consumed by shame over it—to the point that she’s literally haunted by the prospect of her dead grandpa knowing what she’s up to—a distraught Maya (Maya Erskine) confesses to her best friend Anna (Anna Konkle), “I’m like Sam [their male friend who was caught looking at porn earlier in the episode], only I’m grosser because I’m a girl and I’m a pervert. And I really shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
That scene alone is proof why I so desperately needed a show like PEN15 when I was younger. Sam and his buddies crack as many sex jokes as you’d expect from a group of adolescent boys, gathering after school to try and catch a glimpse of boobs on the Spice channel. It’s accepted as normal, something we’ve seen onscreen so many times that it’s become a cliché: Horny Teen Boys.
But I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen a teen series tackle female masturbation, and I was 30 when I saw most of them. Maya feels guilt over something boys are taught to boast about because, like me, she grew up without a show like PEN15 or Netflix’s Sex Education and Big Mouth to reassure her that what she’s doing is normal. To show her that many other girls her age are just as weird and awkward—and, yes, gross—as the boys. That she’s never grosser simply because she is a girl.
“Gross” is definitely something PEN15 leans into—and in doing so, it’s groundbreaking. The fact that Erskine and Konkle are adults playing teen versions of themselves allows them to depict their characters’ burgeoning sexualities with an attention to detail that would be impossible with a younger actor. The first time Maya masturbates, it’s seconds after she’d been playing with two My Little Pony dolls, pressing their nuzzles together to have them make out. It’s deeply realistic—my Barbies were “having sex” with Ken before I even knew what sex really was—because, in the words of Britney Spears, she’s “not a girl, not yet a woman.” Despite knowing I’m not watching an actual teen grind against pillows or wipe her hand on her bedroom carpet when she’s finished, it was hard not to feel challenged by PEN15‘s unflinching portrayal of something I’m accustomed to seeing from only males onscreen. Maya’s shame is my shame, and that’s hard to shake—no matter how many decades I’ve had to unlearn what the patriarchy taught me.
The thing is, puberty is a nightmare. For too long, girls have been relegated to the sidelines in these stories, limited to being some sort of Winnie Cooper type—a chaste, flawless object of affection with perfect manners and not a single zit. But we aren’t immune to the horrors of adolescence; girls can be just as raunchy, just as cruel, just as dorky as the boys who have dominated pop culture’s coming-of-age stories for so long.