Puberty is, at its most base definition, a living hell. Between the ages of ten and 14, most people enter a stage of extreme growing pains and unexpected sweatiness that haunts our memories for the rest of our lives. Remembering those years is almost like having war flashbacks, with every mundane moment holding the emotional intensity of a life-or-death situation despite their true reality. Embarrassment felt like death, and happiness felt like a million fireworks going off at once.
As I’ve grown into my early ’20s and gotten a taste of adulthood, the contrast between who I was at 13 and who I am now deepens with every day. Even thinking about that period of my life makes me cringe a little, but at the same time, I feel for the girl that I used to be. We’ve all gone through the ups and downs of growing up, the hormones and friendships that turbulently led us into our teenage years and beyond. It’s become a popular subject for comedy series, as shows like “Big Mouth” take on the hurdles of tweendom with wit and a perspective that only time can imbue.
This is a tried and true topic to make fun of, notable in films such “The Sandlot” and “Goonies,” too. It’s everywhere, but traditionally focuses on the cis male perspective. In the last year or so, new Hulu series “PEN15” has taken on the cis female experience with flying (and hilarious) colors, and I would argue that it rings truer than many of the other depictions of puberty that have graced our screens before.
Writers and stars of the series Maya Erskine (‘Plus One’) and Anna Konkle (‘Rosewood’) developed the show based on their own pubertal memories of the early aughts, and as someone who also grew up during that time, though a little later, it reads as incredibly accurate. The thing that makes the two-season series so funny, however, is that Erskine and Konkle play themselves 15 years younger while surrounded by a cast of real 13-year-olds. It may sound creepy at first, but “PEN15” never takes advantage of that age difference. If anything, the contrast of seeing actual teenagers next to actresses in their late ’20s offers both a visual element of comedy and a nod to the reality that we are all watching it as if we are going through puberty again, thrust into our own histories while really living out adulthood.
“PEN15” captures the awkwardness of a pool party while every part of your body seems to be the wrong size and shape, the feeling of a first kiss and a terrible haircut and the taste of cheap cherry lip gloss. Puberty is also the process of becoming a woman for cisgender girls, and the series dives deeper into periods and boobs and pubescent sexuality more than I was expecting at first.
Sure, the initial shock and memory of my own tween years was something to get over while watching, but eventually, I came to appreciate the show’s transparency. We often get a view of what it’s like to be a boy, getting in fights and wondering if you’re ever going to hit six feet tall. But the girls have it rough too, waging emotional war on each other instead of throwing a punch or stealing someone’s lunch money.
As someone who went to an all-girls, Catholic middle school, I feel both lucky and retrospectively appalled by what a gendered puberty experience offered me. It was nice to feel a sense of community and relatable discomfort with the girls I became friends with, as we offered each other tampons in the hallway and debated whose skirt was shorter when we got pink slips for our hems. The rocky road toward womanhood was easier knowing that everyone around me must have been going through the same thing, in between the slams of lockers and whispered gossip. But at the same time, though it may be invisible to most, girls can bully even more invasively than traditionally gendered boys of the same age.
The binary that I was forced into by single-sex education was positive in a lot of ways, but the comradery of middle school with only girls faded fast once someone turned on you. Just as the protagonists of “PEN15” deal with being called “desperate sluts” and finding inflammatory notes slipped into their lockers, I was also bullied by my classmates throughout puberty. It never ended with a throwdown after school, however: Instead, my own friends turned on me about three times, their muttered statements of annoyance and cooler-than-thou superiority sticking in my head for years. At 21, I still think about some of the things that girls told me in middle school, the result of the self-conscious powder keg that putting 150 wealthy princesses in the same hallway creates.
I don’t blame the girls who bullied me for what happened, nor do I really think that any of us know what we’re doing in the long run when we say something catty at 13. The insecurities of that age are deafening, and sometimes it seems like no one will feel the same way unless you make them feel it. But I am glad that as adults, the women whose girlhoods felt the same way are sharing how equally ridiculous and powerful the early teen years are with laughter and grace. It makes remembering middle school a lot less painful, and a lot more entertaining. Thanks to “PEN15,” the taste of cheap chapstick doesn’t throw me into a traumatic memory the way that it used to: On the contrary, I feel for the younger version of myself, because she had no idea what the future would bring.
Daily Arts Columnist Clara Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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