“PEN15” is a coming of age comedy set in the early 2000’s and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle playing their 13 year old selves as they navigate through any preteen’s worst nightmare: middle school. Throughout the hilarious yet constant dilemmas the duo finds themselves in, each episode always manages to have an underlying theme. From public embarrassment to boy troubles, nothing could ever separate these two. Despite the premise of the show focusing solely on both Maya and Anna, another storyline remains prevalent to a certain demographic. As I sat on my couch watching Maya become excluded from a group roleplay because she looks “different” from the other girls, I couldn’t help but reminisce of my own middle school years. And then it hit me: Maya’s character was meant to serve as the epitome of growing up in a country that simultaneously manages to fetishize and marginalize Asian women altogether.
The exploration of this topic in the media has bloomed in recent years, with the influence of artists such as Mitski and her song “Your Best American Girl”. In this song, Mitski details a relationship that just couldn’t work out because of cultural differences, presumably between an Asian woman and a Caucasian man. But, interpretation is always left up to the listener. With striking lyrics such as “You’re an all American boy, I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl”, Mitski’s attempt to change herself in order to accommodate to someone else’s lifestyle is a universal experience for women of color, especially when their love interest comes from a more relaxed cultural background.
In a sense, I see a bit of this in Maya’s crush on Brandt, a popular, Caucasian boy at school that has done nothing but make fun of Maya for being Japanese, and calls her UGIS (Ugliest Girl In School). The teasing causes Maya to become insecure of things that are simply out of her control. In retrospect, this might have just been the classic case of Brandt being embarrassed about potentially liking Maya, but the commonality of the scenario in itself speaks volumes on how easy it is to fetishize something that you hate. In history, the generalized perception that Western men have in regards to Asian women has always touched upon the lines of exoticness and innocence. This is further pushed by the lolicon genre of anime, with characters that have childlike attributes and at the same time, overly emphasized bodies of full grown women. Since 97% percent of anime is produced in Japan, the release of content created by Japanese men that caters to perversion normalizes and even justifies the infantilization of Asian women. But in recent years, this has seemed to change with the resurgence of the “ABG” aesthetic.
Stemming from a subculture of rebellion amongst Asian-American teens in the late 90’s and 2000’s, the typical “ABG” wears lashes, has tattoos and dresses provocatively. What was meant as a form of rebellion against the “lotus flower” agenda has done nothing but pave the path for a new category of misconception. The divide between the “innocent” Asian and the fun loving “ABG” has created more insecurities for many, even for me. The original empowering motive of the “ABG” aesthetic has once again catered to the Western view of Asian women as being exotic. This time, rebellion against the formerly imposed standards of innocence has become the new norm, with Western men simplifying Asian women as a whole to the general term of an “ABG”. In doing so, this continues the cycle of the Western male gaze taking away what is most important: individuality.
The experiences that are portrayed in PEN15 through Maya’s character and her reactions to these microaggressions prove multi-dimensionality and in essence, her own human complexity. Maya’s character is loud, unique, and opinionated. Maya didn’t hesitate to call out Brandt for his treatment of her. By refusing to let his perspective define her, Maya crushes the “lotus flower” and instead replants a foundation for Asian-American women to define themselves through their own singularity.