I, like many people, use film and TV for escapism. I tend to avoid films and television programs that offer gritty, realistic critiques of the vicious world we live in. I figure so much of life today is inundated with actual accounts of how bloody awful things are — why not take a break from it all, grab a bucket of popcorn and sit down to watch some dragons fall in love.
That said, it would make sense that on the rare occurrence when I do wander into the world of meta media, it’s to relive the most tumultuous and violent years of my own life.
There are few things that better prove how misery loves company than the growing success of Hulu’s “PEN15.” The way the show approaches adolescence is brilliant — so brilliant I wish I’d thought of it. It’s honest, brutally so, and so overwhelmingly relatable that it hurts to watch — a trait that is deeply intrinsic to its success. In its first episode, signs are posted around school that two boys have a crush on Maya, one of the show’s main characters. After the mortifying realization that these signs are a prank, Maya realizes she’s been named “U.G.I.S.” — “ugliest girl in school.”
I had a very similar thing happen to me in my freshman year of high school. A boy shouted at me that his friend liked me, and being very aware of my physical appearance, the implications of this interaction were clear. Two boys I’d never spoken to before sat in front of me with smug and incredulous smiles on their faces. I was so repulsive that the idea of someone romantically desiring me was laughable.
The way “PEN15” handles the mockery that Maya is subjected to is apt and painful, and watching it happen to a mixed-race Japanese girl made it hit close to home.
Then there’s the sixth episode of the series, which deals with racism and the often resulting self-hatred that comes with being different. It isn’t necessarily the kids targeting Maya that is so brutal, it is her reaction — her compulsion to play along with the bit. And after being called out by her brother for her complacency, watching Maya grapple with being targeted like that was too familiar. It reminded me just how easy it can be to rationalize systemic problems. At that age, I would have done almost anything to fit in, like call myself “negress” because somehow my white friends convinced me it was a compliment.
Listen, I know. I’m not proud of it.
And it’s likely that neither are co-creators of “PEN15” Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. Pride in the humiliating antics of their seventh-grade selves is far from necessary for their ability to tell a compelling and achingly realistic story. It’s the talking about it that’s the important part — the gross underbelly of youth that often gets lost in well-intentioned cookie-cutter media.
Films such as “The Edge of Seventeen” and “Eighth Grade” were lauded for their abilities to showcase similar hyperrealism in depicting the awkwardness of adolescence, with both movies privileging their main characters with the ability to be imperfect and unlikeable. But it is so rare that this kind of agency is placed into the hands of a character like the mixed-race Maya Ishii-Peters.
The success and relatability of “PEN15” is something I personally would never have predicted. There’s so much that can go wrong in a show in which two 30-something-year-old women play the 13-year-old versions of themselves — while surrounded by actual 13-year-olds. It’s uncomfortable, at times agonizingly so. And oddly enough, that’s where the gold is.
It all makes me feel like everything I’ve been saying about the importance of representation is worth its salt. This isn’t meant to be a review of the show (though I highly recommend it). My point is that watching Maya sob about being termed “U.G.I.S.” or watching her suffer through the blissful ignorance of self-hatred born from racial identity gave me a kind of catharsis I didn’t know I needed. In an interview with Vulture, the co-creators of the show cited the question, “How am I still dealing with the same insecurities I had when I was 13?” as a point of inspiration. And all I could say was, “Damn, me too.”
It’s harrowing to be confronted with the fact that growing up can be so cataclysmically traumatic. How so much of womxnhood, specifically for womxn of color, is entrenched in violent growing pains. And it doesn’t help when the media depictions around you tell you coming of age is supposed to feel like this — like walking around all day in jeans that are always a bit too small.
And rather than grow with you, they just keep shrinking.
But shows such as “PEN15” ease that pain. Instead of dwelling in the idea that growing up needs to be painful, “PEN15” excels in simply identifying all the ways that it is painful. There’s a feeling of exhalation that comes from acknowledging, “Wow. All of that stuff I went through was supremely messed up.”
And while healing isn’t always pretty and isn’t always quick, it’s very cool to get to watch this show achieve success and know that a lot of us are healing together.
Areyon Jolivette writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on finding and celebrating identity through art. Contact her at [email protected].