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Hulu’s PEN15 Captures The Horror of Middle School

One of the funniest series to emerge from the streaming world in recent years is Pen15, created by and starring Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. Season one of the show, which features Erskine and Konkel playing 13-year-old versions of themselves in 2000, debuted on Hulu in February 2019. The co-creators, both 33, channel tweenage awkwardness with an accuracy that makes the show excruciating and hilarious all at once. Dressed in cargo pants and choker necklaces, they fidget nervously, whine, and aggressively avoid eye contact. Maya and Anna’s middle school classmates and friends are played by actual tween actors, upping the discomfort factor even further. 

Season two, which dropped last month, reunites us with the girls and begins to delve deeper into the issues that were just about to affect them in the first season. Anna’s parents are starting a messy divorce process, and Maya, who is half-Japanese (in the show and real-life), is faced with microaggressions and racist comments from peers. 

“In real life at this age, there were so many moments that subconsciously taught me to be ashamed of or to hide the Asian part of myself that it became second nature,” Erskine said in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar. In the show, Maya navigates a complicated but loving relationship with her immigrant mom-played by Erskine’s birth mother, Mutsuko Erskine. Erskine notes that she never saw families like hers on TV when she was growing up and said she’s glad to be exploring these experiences on the series. “The fact that we get the opportunity to put it in our show in a way that normalizes this half-immigrant household is so wonderful,” she says. “All the things that caused embarrassment for me as a kid now bring me immense pride.”

Additionally, the second season sees Anna and Maya dealing with internalized misogyny and shame surrounding their nascent sexualities. Konkle notes that it was okay for boys to have sexual desires when she was growing up, but different rules seemed to apply to girls. “We were shamed as women and given expectations far more restrictive than the boys or men were given,” she says. This created shame and “self-loathing,” which was then directed at other women and girls. This kind of sexism’s circular nature is demonstrated in Pen15. After a rumor circulates at their school, classmates call the girls sluts. Anna and Maya blame their female peers for this gossip and teasing. “I hate girls right now,” Maya says to Anna. They decide to turn away from other girls and join the boys’ wrestling team, only to find that guys can be just as mean. 

This season may include some weightier themes, but it’s still full of goofy humor, which made season one so good. Anna and Maya imagine that they are witches and try to put hexes on their classmates. They whisper to one another not to turn around as a cute boy approaches, then turn around and stare anyway. Everything Anna and Maya do feels painfully familiar. For millennials, that feeling is amplified by how the show is steeped in early-aughts culture: AOL internet messenger, butt-cuts, and school lockers decorated with magazine clippings of *NSYNC and the Spice Girls. 

Y2k-era fashion is also featured prominently. While 20- and 30-somethings who lived through this period might wince a little at the low rise pants, butterfly clips, baby polo shirts, and clunky sneakers, these looks won’t evoke the same response from Zoomers who have recently been embracing early 2000s aesthetics. In an interview with the online fashion magazine Man Repeller, the show’s costume designer, Melissa Walker, notes that as in the year between shooting the two seasons, Y2K-era fashion took off. “It was insane seeing clothes from [that period] becoming trendier and trying to find those vintage pieces,” Walker says. “I was blown away by how expensive those were for season two.” Noticing the positive response to the outfits on Pen15, Walker worked with ethical fashion brand Land That Look to create a collection inspired by the show’s costumes.

Pen15 seasons one and two are streaming now on Hulu. Shop Walker’s collection, “Club Y2K” at LandThatLook.com

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