PEN15 might be the most brilliantly named comedy of all time. I suspect anyone who has ever been an adolescent will get the joke, but in case you don’t, PEN15 looks like it spells “penis.” It’s the kind of sophomoric humor typically enjoyed only by gawky tweens and Peter Griffin.
Yet the title represents so much of what makes PEN15 special, funny, slightly cringey, and all too relatable. It tells you everything you need to know. This is a show about awkward, oily-faced teenagers, bursting with hormones and feelings and clueless as to what to do with either, who think the word “penis” is funny only because of the discomfort it—and everything it represents, from their budding sexuality to the complexities of (young) adult relationships—engenders.
That discomfort is something revisited on anyone, particularly any older Millennial, who watches PEN15. In all its embarrassing glory and inadvertent hilarity, PEN15 shows us what it is to be a teenager—specifically a teenage girl—and reminds us that those days are not so far behind us. For that reason, I cheered its recent Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series (for co-creator and star Maya Erskine), while lamenting the lack of love it received in other categories. For no other show, past or present, better sums up the life of American teenagers than PEN15.
Following fictional versions of show creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, playing teenage versions of themselves (among a cast of actual teens, which heightens the meta joke), the show is set in the early ‘00s. Part nostalgic reverie–bucket hats! Tamagotchis! AIM!–and part horrifying memories, watching PEN15 is like opening my seventh-grade yearbook and seeing my chubby, pimply face staring self-consciously back at me as I clutch a geography bee trophy. It’s nice, but Christ alive am I glad those days are behind me.
More than any other show, however, PEN15 represents what it is truly like to be a teenager. These are not the articulate teens of Dawson’s Creek nor the precocious cuties of Girl Meets World and other Disney Channel shows of the past decade. These kids aren’t solving murders like in Riverdale; they’re struggling to solve pre-algebra equations.
They’re also struggling to solve even more difficult problems. One of the greatest things about PEN15 is its unflinching honesty about coming of age as a girl in America and all the pressures that places on our daughters. In the season two premier, Maya and Annie find themselves reliving the season one finale, in which Brandt (Jonah Beres) felt them up in a closet after the dance. Discussing whether Maya has changed and which of them is the bigger slut following their “threesome,” the girls emotionally unpack the different expectations facing boys and girls:
“So, we’re desperate sluts? Great. And now everyone knows and Brandt is going to be so mad. He’s going to hate us,” Maya laments.
Anna shrugs. “Brandt’s a slut too.”
“No,” Maya stoically corrects her, “he’s just a player.”
Resigned sadness creeps across Anna’s face. “Oh, yeah.”
The unfairness of this double standard is palpable, written across the faces and in the body language of both Maya and Anna. It is something I, as a man, cannot understand through lived experience yet feel in my bones as Maya and Anna realize, perhaps for the first time, that the Madonna/whore dichotomy is an impossible one for any girl or woman to live up to.
As a man in his thirties, it ripped at my heart. It made me unspeakably sad knowing the moment will come when my own beloved nieces and goddaughter have a similar revelation. As a former gay boy whose friends were mostly girls growing up, it made me think back to every conversation I ever had with a girl just realizing that she would never live up to society’s impossible expectations, and that that paradox is by design.
Other parts of the show hit closer to home. In the second season, Maya begins dating–well, as much as any 13-year-old dates anyone–her classmate Gabe, a chubby and nerdy fellow actor in the school play. Maya falls for Gabe (Dylan Gage), but he is not as interested in her, despite his protestations. “This homo gets to kiss Maya, so who’s the homo now, faggots?” he asks as he is being teased by some of his male friends. He tries to play this off by feigning swagger, but the insecurity and shame are apparent to everyone except his peers, who are too young to know overcompensating when they see it.
The sole exception to this is Ian (Ivan Mallon), a flamboyant fellow thespian who stares knowingly at Gabe as his friends saunter off. Watching these two characters interact is surreal to me as a gay man now in his 30s. Ian reminds me so much of who I was in high school, an out and proud gay boy in the early ‘00s who was unabashedly himself in a world that despised him for it. I saw other boys act just as Gabe acted in that moment, and I gave them the same knowing look that Ian gave him. It was a look that simply said “I see you.”
Of course, I could only recognize that fear and self-loathing because I had overcome it myself. Gabe represents me just a couple years before I became Ian, 13-years-old with the dawning realization that I am different, but in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. Gabe “knows he has a secret, something he’s ashamed of,” David Mack wrote at Buzzfeed, “he just doesn’t know exactly what that is yet.”
The first time I ever remember hearing of gay men was in my fifth-grade sex ed class. Someone asked the school nurse how gay men have sex. I must have heard of gay men before that, because I knew they were men who liked other men, but I was as clueless as the student asking. I leaned forward, curious to learn this bit of information. The nurse, an elderly woman with white hair and big round spectacles, blushed as she demurred. That was a question we should ask our parents, she insisted.
“They do it up the butt!” another student yelled.
The classroom erupted in guffaws. I thought about that for a moment and decided it must be a lie. It was simply impossible.
Yet I also realized then that I was more interested to learn about gay men than most of my peers. I had a crush on a classmate, a towheaded boy who made my heart flutter and feel a queasiness in my tummy. I could not for the life of me figure out why. I was too young and too inexperienced to connect the feelings this boy gave me to anything sexual or romantic, but I knew he was special. Over the next few years – around the age Gabe is in PEN15 – I slowly began to realize those feelings had a name, one that made my fifth-grade class laugh in ridicule.
I was gay.
Watching Gabe go on a similar journey, 13-years-old and trying desperately to rail against what he knows to be the truth, is in turns painful and hilarious. It is the kind of thing that I can only laugh at having come through it, but that I also wish I had seen in 1999 when I was 13 and desperately trying to figure out just why that boy made my tummy do somersaults.
What makes Gabe’s storyline so refreshing is that the struggle isn’t with homophobic parents or classmates, at least not yet. What we are seeing is a classic man-versus-self narrative, as Gabe wrestles with his own demons, silently and alone. With an anxious glance or a trembling voice, Dylan Gage manages to convey the loneliness and desperation so many of us experienced as we slowly began to realize we were something other than straight.
Coming of age is hard, especially if you’re also coming out. And just like coming of age and/or coming out, PEN15 is not always fun nor is it always easy to watch. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t always unflinchingly honest. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle have created, written, and starred in one of the best depictions of adolescence I have ever seen, and certainly the best depiction of what it was to come of age at the dawn of the new millennium. It deserves all the Emmy love it got and so much more.