'PEN15' Is Back, And Girlhood Is Still Painfully Awkward
On her 2001 album Britney, Britney Spears declared herself "not a girl, not yet a woman." In that sleepy ballad, the then-19-year-old pop star and sex symbol stressed her need for more time to grow up while cautioning you, the listener, against trying to protect her. "I've seen so much more than you know now/ So don't tell me to shut my eyes," she croons in her signature guttural, Britney-like way.
I thought a lot about this song while watching the first half of PEN15 Season 2, Hulu's charmingly perceptive coming-of-age comedy, released on September 18. The protagonists Maya and Anna are not teen idols, and at 13, they are still firmly in girlhood. But as suburban middle-schoolers entering puberty during the peak-Britney era – the show is set in 2000 – they understand profoundly what it means to oscillate between burgeoning maturity and childish innocence.
The first season deftly conveyed the messy, painful, exciting and horrifying nuances of adolescence through period-specific devices like AOL Instant Messenger and an ingenious bit of casting: The millennial co-creators (along with Sam Zvibleman) Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star as versions of their much younger selves alongside actual 13-year-old actors. In Season 2 they've found new ways to burrow the growing pangs and embarrassments even deeper, to cathartic effect.
The show picks up just two days after the events of the Season 1 finale, which included Maya and Anna being felt up by Maya's crush Brandt (Jonah Beres) in the janitor's closet at the fall dance. Brandt admitted he likes Maya, too, but warned her not to tell anyone.
Of course crushes rarely stay secret for long among loose-lipped tweens, and this is doubly true for any experimenting they do with one another. When Brandt rebuffs Maya at a pool party in the first of the new episodes and insists their closet encounter never happened, a despondent Maya and Anna proceed to go around to each of their classmates and divulge the details to prove that it did. The gossip backfires on the girls; at school, they are slut-shamed and given a nickname based on the dismissive (and false) description Brandt tells his guy friends about what he did with them at the dance.
The land of Y.A.-themed pop culture is littered with versions of this plotline, and recent dramas like the cringe-inducing Eighth Grade and the unjustifiably ridiculed Cuties have offered thoughtful and progressive examinations of how young girls are simultaneously encouraged to grow up fast and scolded for doing so. PEN15 does the same, but it aims to find a sweet spot between comedic and dramatic extremes. Maya and Anna's immaturity and (attempts at) maturity are embraced equally: The girls are proud of their PG-rated dalliance, but they deal with the fallout – as well as other issues requiring a level of sophistication they understandably don't possess quite yet – in distinctively childlike ways.
In the third episode "Vendy Wiccany," for instance, they become obsessed with creating their own wiccan practice as a way to channel anxieties about everything going on at school and home – Anna is struggling to come to terms with the dissolution of her parents' marriage and Maya misses her father, who is constantly traveling for work. Both are trying to cope with the Brandt rumors. ("If he was my boyfriend, then no one would be saying the stuff they're saying to us," Maya reasons, when deciding to cast a love spell on Brandt.)
But the game of pretend spirals out of control quickly, to the point where it disturbs their classmates and reveals their underdeveloped emotional EQs. Maya unfurls unsettling stalker-like tendencies toward Brandt. They threaten to cast a hex on students who spy on them in the school greenhouse, and burst into a horrifying (but funny) chant of gibberish while convulsing, which ultimately gets them sent to the principal's office and draws in their bewildered parents.
This realm of make-believe is an extension of a lighter facet of their personalities. Despite being in their early teens, a time when most of us are eager to ditch any childhood affinities that might make our peers think we're stuck in elementary school, the girls still play with dolls unironically. At a sleepover with a new friend, they play a prank on the other girls in attendance involving Maya emerging from a duffle bag as if she were The Thing bursting from Norris' chest; the joke receives only a tepid reception. ("You guys are so weird sometimes," their friend reacts condescendingly.)
Like most kids, Maya and Anna want to fit in and have newly developed sexual urges. But they are also still, undeniably, 13-year-olds – 13-year-olds who seem very cognizant, perhaps for the first time in their short lives, of the passage of time and how it is changing them. At the end of "Vendy Wiccany," the girls break down over the realization that life isn't as simple as it once was. As Maya embraces a crying Anna and tells her that she loves her, the bond between them is visceral; PEN15's unique ability to tap into the many gradients of puberty is palpable.
In 1999, when she was just 17, Britney Spears was featured in an infamous Rolling Stone cover shoot, cradling a stuffed purple Teletubby toy in one arm while posed against a pink satin backdrop in lingerie. It succinctly encapsulated the blurry, polarizing line she often straddled between bubbly, youthful innocence and teen sex symbol at the time. I remember being around the same age as Maya and Anna are when that cover came out, and aware of the handwringing it caused over how it might influence young girls like myself. Much of the public didn't know what to make of this dichotomy (and still doesn't, judging by the faux outrage aimed at Cuties earlier this month). It's not surprising that Britney would go on to record "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," a song utterly transparent in its attempt to acknowledge the mixed reactions to her image as a child star.
PEN15 is the weirder, funnier and completely un-sexy spiritual companion to Britney cradling that Teletubby, and the more soulful counterpart to "Not a Girl." It works because, amidst the delightful crudeness and silliness, its creators show a clear compassion for their younger selves, a compassion that is too often not extended to the Mayas, Annas or Britneys of the world.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.