Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s breakout tv show, Pen15, centers on two teenage girls, as they battle their way through middle school. Erskine and Konkle are the creators of the show, (along with Sam Zvibleman) in addition to writing, directing, and starring in it. After only a season and a half, the show is already gaining critical acclaim. The show was nominated for an Emmy in its first season. Although the topic of middle school has begun to be breached in media like Bigmouth, and Eighth Grade, Pen15 stands out.

Pen15 has a raw and dedicated focus on the teenage girl. In one interview, Konkle describes noticing a “gap in storytelling.” The gap surrounds thirteen-year-old girls and specifically “the R-Ratedness” of the teenage experience. However, Erskine and Konkle stepped in to fill that gap, both conceptually and physically. Erskine and Konkle, both thirty-four years old, play thirteen-year-old versions of themselves, also named Maya and Anna. The catch of the show is that the two creators act alongside a cast of actors who are actually of middle school age, or close to it. 

A twist to the coming of age story

The show takes place in 2000. Despite Erskine and Konkle’s differences in age and height, they perfectly capture being a teenager. Konkle sports a set of braces, and Erskine dons a freshly homemade bowl cut. They portray teenage characters so well you rarely realize, ‘oh my god, these are women in their mid-thirties.’ However, even when you do, it just adds to the hilarity. 

The girls are somewhat outcasts. They struggle their way through the obstacles and awkwardness of middle school, while clinging tightly to their friendship. In the pilot some of the popular boys name Maya the “UGIS” of the year, or ugliest girl in school. As ridiculous as the concept is, the show does not allow its cruelty to get diminished by the comedy. While watching we are able to both laugh and feel the sting of the girls’ struggles. Maya and Anna take on crushes and first kisses, and puberty and all of its lovely gifts. They also tackle serious topics like Anna’s parents divorce and Maya’s experiences with racism. 

A (brutally) honest portrayal

In one episode in the first season, Maya discovers masturbation, experimentation which quickly turns into an addiction. This episode is another example of the thin line that Erskine and Konkle teeter along. The thirty-four-year-old actress portrays the constant and somewhat explicit masturbation of a thirteen-year-old girl. However, despite the discomfort of this episode, it still succeeds in doing what the show does best. It portrays the real honest reality of what it’s like to be a teenage girl. 

Until seeing this episode I hadn’t known how starved the world was of seeing the horniness of teenage girls. Erskine plays Maya with an intensity and a darkness that is both off-putting and powerful. Teenage boys and their horniness often claim center stage in discussions of puberty. Pubescence in teenage boys is the joke and a central character trait in countless coming of age shows and movies. However, the media does not pay the same attention to teenage girls. Although it may seem like undesired attention to receive, the lack of representation centralizes boys’ experiences in puberty and fails to portray girls accurately by curbing their desires.

The validation of the teenage girl experience

The show also succeeds in validating the weight and depth of the emotions of young girls. Specifically, the show achieves this in scenes portraying Anna as she grapples with her parents fighting and their eventual divorce. The show sheds light on the complications of feeling strong emotions at an age where you can’t quite understand them. It also gives value to those emotions, counteracting popular rhetoric that the complications of middle school are small and overly melodramatic.

Amongst all of their problems, one thing about Maya and Anna shines through. The girls, and their friendship with each other, are incredibly resilient. While watching the show, viewers become protective of the girls. Throughout the audience roots for them to achieve what they desire as well as wants to ward them away from the people who are not to be trusted. However, at the end of every conflict, they return to one another. They find a way to get past whatever has been beating them down and find joy again. The girl’s perseverance is another example of the experience of being a teenage girl that is often skipped over. Media in the past dwells on the unnecessary cattiness and fighting and forgets about the girls who come out on the other side, forced to grow thick and resilient skin. 

Amongst the comedy genius and the poignant emotional impact, what Maya and Anna do best is centralizing the teenage girl as she goes through the emotionally intense experience of growing up. Through the diligent attention and careful hand with which they maneuver their characters through heartbreak, friendship, growth, and the difficulties of dealing with mature issues at a young age, they validate the intensity of being a teenage girl.

Pen15 is streaming now on Hulu. Season one and half of season two, (released in parts due to coronavirus) are available. The rest of season two will be coming out on an announced date before the end of the year.

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