‘PEN15’ Season 2 Is All About Reclaiming The Hilarious Shame Of Being A Teenage Girl
We spoke to 'PEN15' creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine about why they're passionate about "telling the truth of this time".
The last time we saw Anna Kone and Maya Ishii-Peters in PEN15, they shared a milestone — a boy putting a hand on each girl’s breast during a passionate moment at the school dance. After all, best friends do everything together, including reaching second base for the first time — a moment worth immortalising in the diary with glitter gel pen. But what happens next?
Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine’s cringe comedy PEN15 has returned for its second season, split into two parts. The show charts the seventh grade year of the creators’ fictionalised 13-year-old selves, who they also play. Now that viewers have settled into the visual gag, the series takes a darker emotional turn as Anna and Maya experience the sting of slut shaming and double standards in the days following their “three-way”.
“It set off all these chain reactions of self-hate — the shaming of being a woman, being a girl, having a vagina, all of these things — and wanting to escape that and wanting to cling on to the boy that treats you like shit,” Erskine says. “There was such hypocrisy — the jokes I remember about guys were like, ‘he has a big dick’, and they gave nicknames of like, ‘that’s Thump over there, thumpity thump’, and he was cool because he let his dick hang in his pants. But if my vagina were to show everyone would be like, ‘that’s the most disgusting girl I’ve ever seen’.”
“When we looked at our own autobiographical stories, this was a darker time of when mental health stuff is introducing itself,” Konkle says. “They had the challenge of losing each other at the end of season one, and now they have each other, but what if they became deeper outcasts? The reality is that even when you have each other, if there comes a point of being ostracised enough, it can get low and dangerous.”
A rumour that follows a secondary character — that she masturbated with an ice cube, earning her the unflattering nickname Ice Box — is lifted straight from Konkle’s childhood. Putting these real personal elements into the show is a way of reclaiming childhood shame, but it’s not always easy for the actors.
“We wanted to show the reality of how confusing sexuality and romance is for everybody at that age.”
“Even seeing it in editing felt really exposing,” Konkle says. “That was something that I just repressed so much. I was so far from sexual, and I was slut shamed by the girls and sexualised by the guys, and I wasn’t ready for either at all.”
It’s an interesting foil to the season one arc in which the perennially horny Maya discovers masturbation. “Maya and I have had this yin and yang life, where I was going through the exact opposite thing — because I was so shamed, I wouldn’t masturbate until I was in my twenties,” Konkle explains. “I was told it was so wrong.”
Season two ups the emotional stakes by giving a greater focus to the inner lives of other characters, who were mostly relegated to the background the first time around. Gabe (Dylan Gage), a chubby, awkward nerd, lands a lead role opposite Maya in the school play. As the two embark on a clumsy puppy-love relationship, the young boy grapples with secrets of his own. This heartbreaking storyline recalls the deft touch of the seminal teen show Freaks and Geeks, and cleverly uses the theatre setting to tease out these nascent emotions.
“That was one of the harder stories to tell, and we wanted to give it more time than it got,” Konkle says. “It felt like the truth was to show him having to struggle and live with a secret that he didn’t completely understand, that was emerging as he was emerging… We wanted to show the reality of how confusing sexuality and romance is for everybody at that age.”
“It was important to us to have the audience feel heartbroken for each party, because they’re each going through the pain of it,” Erskine adds.
There are other serious subjects navigated — Anna’s parents’ divorce, the increasingly complicated relationships the two characters have with their mothers — but in true PEN15 style, it’s explored with a mixture of light and dark, and remains laugh-out-loud funny.
The scenes are relatable, whether the girls are dabbling in witchcraft, trying to welcome a third person into their tight-knit friendship or coveting an oversized Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt on a mother-daughter shopping trip. The 2000s nostalgia is strong, but there’s a timelessness to these things that teenage girls have always gone through.
Alongside shows like Big Mouth and Sex Education, PEN15 is shining a light on the uncomfortable, messy and downright gross realities of adolescence. “When we started exploring this, it felt like no one wanted to talk about this age or go into their own memories,” Erskine says. “It’s so interesting how all of a sudden there are like five shows about it, because the world happens to be ready at that moment. It’s cathartic to relive it and laugh at it with enough distance.”
“There’s always some sort of denial from the people in charge that have children that this is happening,” Konkle says. “We went through that so many times in pitches and people being like, ‘Oh, I have kids this age and I’m uncomfortable right now’. It’s so interesting how many people do not remember that time in their life, probably because they repress it. We’re passionate about telling the truth of this time. ”
“We’re passionate about telling the truth of this time.”
PEN15 is an exercise in expunging the long-held shame of adolescent secrets. Decades after my own teenage years, it’s assured me that I wasn’t the only weirdo doing cringeworthy — and totally normal — things. Maya’s borderline stalking of her crush reminds me of when I was 14 and a guy literally faked his own death so I’d stop talking to him. Seeing a young Asian girl discovering her sexuality in the infamous masturbation episode from the first season felt freeing and validating — I felt entirely alone and ashamed doing the same so many years ago.
— Stefanie Histed (@Stefhisted) September 20, 2020
“We get the most amazing messages from people that are connecting to moments that were secrets for us,” Konkle says. “It’s these emotional big things like divorce and racism, but I also get messages like, ‘I masturbated a lot too’,” Erskine says. “I’m laughing because I still feel like I’m the only one who did it at that age, and did it the amount that I did — I felt like a freak.”’
“These things shouldn’t be secrets, but that was the revelation to me as Maya was pitching that episode and we both kept going back and forth,” Konkle says. “And then it was like, ‘whoa, wait a minute, we’ve watched movies about male masturbation since we were 13. Why are we questioning this?’ I look forward to a time when girls doing the same thing can be talked about in the same way.”
PEN15 seasons 1 and 2 are currently streaming on Stan.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.