There was only one TV show this year that made me cry, and it wasn’t This Is Us; it was a TV show about two girls, one with a bowl cut and one with braces, who deeply, desperately believe that seventh grade will be “amazing.” PEN15 takes place in 2000, and the two stars and writers—Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle—are 31-year-old women playing their 13-year-old selves. (The rest of the cast is made up of real middle schoolers). Watching adults smile through their braces and talk on corded phones in their childhood beds feels like both a great joke and a great tragedy, because we know, from our own experience, that seventh grade is probably not going to be amazing.
At first glance, PEN15 seems to be purely a sketch show, thrilling in the deep humiliation and gross-out humor of the two adult women discussing every detail of their awkward middle school years. It is rude and brutal and tender, taking on masturbation and microaggressions and gel pens with equal seriousness. While the premise is a fantastic joke that highlights the discomfort and embarrassment of puberty—Maya and Anna the characters are made even gawkier by the actors’ height and the wigs and fake braces that were added to make them into their teenage selves—it also serves a formal and emotional purpose. It points to the ways in which 30 is not that far from 13: the ways you can slip back into that hunched, emotional, bleeding weirdo you hoped you had left behind years ago. It also points to the ways in which our friendships formed, and continue to form, who we are today.
PEN15’s premise—two adult collaborators playing teenage best friends—allows the viewer to simultaneously perceive two different time frames of a female friendship. And so the show invites the question: If not marriage or long-term romantic partnership, what options exist for female BFFs—who hope to both maintain the friendship and carve out their own worlds for themselves—to be as close as possible and to be individuals?
In the show, what at first seems to be a visual gag turns out to be a powerful argument for the sustainability of female friendships—specifically, friendships grounded in forms of creativity and play that have historically been devalued in middle school and Hollywood alike.
While there is a long tradition of buddy comedies—from the tenderhearted Stand by Me to the equally tenderhearted but far more crude Superbad—most entries have focused on the experience of boys. In each of these buddy movies, the singular experience of one boy is linked to a common experience of boyhood.1 Until recently, few television shows or movies have considered female sexuality in the same collective, comical, and visually explicit way. Not until movies like Booksmart—with its extended conversations about masturbating with an electric toothbrush—and television shows like PEN15—with its comically huge representation of a tampon—has the collective weirdness of being an adolescent girl been shared with such visual comfort and comedy on the screen.
Booksmart and PEN15 are pinnacles of what critic Alyssa Rosenberg described, in 2015, as a “golden age of female friendship.” Female friends—besties, frenemies, rivals, and almost-lovers—have come to dominate the screen. Between the TV series based on Elena Ferrante’s literary tragedy My Brilliant Friend and the rude and playful work of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson in Broad City, between the web series Brown Girls and Greta Gerwig’s recent adaptation of Little Women, it seems, at last, that young women and their friendships are coming into focus.
We might think of recent female-friendship narratives as doubled bildungsromans, or coming-of-age stories in which the protagonist is not one individual but two.
In each case, the hope and the promise of the story, as in most buddy comedies, lies in an experience of the world as a duo, a partnership in (sometimes literal) crime, a way of moving through the world not as one teenage girl, or as one adult woman, but as a team. In Gerwig’s movie, the March sisters seem to move as a literal mass, with their limbs always overlapping even as they shout in anger and joy over and to each other; in My Brilliant Friend, the two girls almost share a name, their success in the world bound in their competition and love; in PEN15, Maya and Anna are often also literally attached to each other, whether they are inside the same shirt or stepping in tandem out of a car.
We might think of these friendship narratives as doubled bildungsromans, or coming-of-age stories in which the protagonist is not one individual but two. Abbi and Ilana are moving from their postcollege messy selves to women on the verge of careers and independent lives; the March sisters are becoming artists and wives; Lila and Lenù go from little girls to parents.
At the center of all these texts is a continual struggle between closeness and almost inevitable dissolution. In this sense, these modern female-friendship narratives also share an essential tension with the Victorian “marriage plot” novel, in that the question “Will they or won’t they?” establishes the stakes and drives the reader or viewer to remain invested in the main characters. In the marriage plot, the reader wonders whether two central figures will end up together; in the 21st-century female-friendship plot, we question whether—or when—the duo will break apart.
In that sense, these new narratives contain an air of tragedy, because we know that there is no possibility of marriage at the end to hold Anna and Maya (two ostensibly straight young women) together; there seems to be no formal social structure that could tie Abby and Ilana to the same course. Half of the question in Booksmart is how these two friends will separate, how they will turn into individuals when they disperse to their separate colleges. Many of these narratives tease the possibility of queer desire between the female friends,2 yet the likelihood of actual queer partnership is almost always negligible. While these narratives celebrate the friends’ relationships, they are mainly about breaking up.
In the first episode of the first season of PEN15, Maya and Anna make a pact that brings the possibility of breaking up explicitly to the forefront of the show. They agree: “Let’s, like, do everything together. … All our firsts.” The firsts include, but are not limited to, first cigarettes, first drinks, and, most importantly, first kisses. Judging by its hyperbolic rigidity—can you really have a first kiss “together” if you aren’t kissing each other?—we get the sense that this initial pact, this initial closeness, will be tested at every turn.
Yet, despite many obstacles, Maya and Anna manage to stay true to their ridiculous, moving pact in a surprising number of ways. They do experience several “firsts” together: sharing a stolen thong, buying lighters, smoking their first cigarette, and even being felt up by the same boy at the same time. In one episode, Maya admits that she masturbates, and Anna admits that she does it as well. Maya, in shock, asks if Anna feels gross about it, and Anna responds, “How gross can I feel if you do it too?”
Part of the magic of this show is that the statement is made not only to Maya but also to all of the viewers. While the boys in their school joke about masturbating all the time, until this point in the show—and in much of the larger culture—there has been little acknowledgement that girls also might masturbate and that it also can be fun and laughable. In the confident, close statement that “I can’t be gross if you do it too,” Anna creates a tiny little space of normalcy for them both to inhabit. No matter how terrible the rest of the world is, and middle school is decidedly terrible, no matter how often the girls are told that they are ugly or weird, there remains this connection between the two of them, this simultaneous experience of the world that seems to protect them from it.
As the show goes on, it takes on larger, thornier issues, including racism and divorce. The show explores these topics in a distinctive way, by marking the limits of simultaneous experience: the moments when even the closest of friends simply cannot relate. While Anna may be able to explain what her first kiss was like to Maya, Maya, in turn, cannot explain what it feels like to be Japanese American in their largely white school. After Maya is told by the popular girls that she should play Scary Spice for a school video, because she is “tan,” Anna determines to “solve” racism, but her efforts only hurt her friend.
The episode mirrors this split. It begins with the two of them together, but the majority of the episode is told from their two distinctly different perspectives.3 The episode ends with the two being egged on to fight each other; instead, they hug and apologize, and Maya, still angry at Anna, says, “You don’t know what it’s like to be me.” Anna, rather than trying to claim some sort of knowledge of her friend’s experience, simply responds, “You’re right.”
There is kindness and closeness in this acknowledgement of different experiences, but there is also pain: the episode ends with a close-up of Maya’s face in the middle of their hug. We can see that she is smiling but still crying. Anna, unlike us, cannot see Maya’s face and beams, happy in their reunion.
The last episode ends with several joint experiences—being felt up by a boy in a closet at a school dance, smoking their first cigarette, leaning into each other in the backyard of Maya’s house—but also with an awareness that the two are not walking exactly in sync: in the prior episode, Maya gets her period and doesn’t tell Anna, and Anna tells another girl about her parents’ divorce before she tells Maya.
The show’s visual symbolism plays on this theme: the girls are sometimes wearing the same shirt or stepping out the door at the same time, but in other scenes they are shot in two different rooms, listening to each other at opposite ends of a corded phone. By the end of the series, we understand that the promise of togetherness may prove to be harder to hold on to than they thought.
Even as the plot and certain visual cues hint at a future break-up, however, the consistent trope of the show—the two women playing their 13-year-old selves—makes an argument for a different kind of ending. The heart of Maya and Anna’s friendship is the elaborate games of pretend they have played, as Maya says, “every Friday night since we were six.” Sometimes these are based around Sylvanian Family dolls; sometimes they are based on dressing up and pretending to be a couple who are cheating on their spouses.
I cried so much watching this show not just because it made me laugh (though it frequently did, as when Maya performed an unexpected drum solo in her class concert), or because I could see my middle school self in the anger and pain and confusion of these girls navigating a terrifying world of hormones and AIM, or because I could see in these adult actors’ bodies the way I continue to hold the middle schooler inside of myself. I cried also because the show gave me a vision of joyful, bizarre play that I had forgotten about.
In “PEN15,” the hope for an ending that is not a breakup is found in the characters’ precise ability to make art together.
In each case, the world that Anna and Maya make is elaborate and strange and deeply familiar: watching them, I couldn’t stop thinking of the hours and hours of videos that my best friend, Gracie, and I made in middle school, wherein we played famous actors, old married couples, and incompetent news hosts. The fun lay not in the product (which was never completed and certainly not Hollywood-level), but rather in the world and language we created together, the ongoing, unspooling stories that built each week on the last one.
In PEN15’s vision of play, we witness a model of friendship that continues into the present. While Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine are clearly collaborating on the show together, they have taken different, individuated approaches to building and performing their characters: Anna with her arm across her stomach and two little strings of hair framing her face, and Maya with her bowl cut and voice that can move from a laugh to a whine in a heartbeat.
This formal component—the two characters being written and performed differently in a cocreated show—enhances its portrayal of female creative collaboration that both honors the bond and allows for individuated development. By playing themselves, Konkle and Erskine draw our attention to this double act of making: the girls and women are playing pretend, but in this playing they are creating a televisual world that has space for, and reflects, both of them.
In Elena Ferrante’s novel Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the main character, Elena, believes that most of the female characters in novels are mere caricatures written by men and imagines what would have happened if her friend had stayed in school: “We would have written together, we would have been authors together, we would have drawn power from each other.”
Had Lenù and Lila been able to create together, what, Ferrante asks, would that art have looked like? I think it looks like Gerwig’s Little Women, which dramatizes the March sisters’ collective artmaking, a collaboration that is echoed in the making of the film itself, with Gerwig as the director, Louisa May Alcott as the writer, and the female stars as a central part of the production. It looks like Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson starring in their own show, or the poet Fatimah Asghar and the writer-director Sam Bailey creating Brown Girls, their web series about a WOC friendship in Chicago, together.
In PEN15, the hope for an ending that is not a breakup is found in the characters’ precise ability to make art together. The show suggests that playacting in a bedroom with dolls is not silly and immature, as both the “popular” kids in middle school and patriarchal society at large would maintain. Rather, the show demonstrates, there is a direct causal line connecting that creative freedom, a friendship that might be able to weather the turbulence of middle school, and the existence of a successful television show made by two women.
While PEN15 may appear to be simply a show about middle school, it is actually a show about women writing together. This sacred activity has looked like many things, but it now also looks like this: two women dressed as their middle school selves, locking eyes across a dance floor, and performing their choreographed dance to Des’ree’s 1994 inspirational pop song “You Gotta Be” in a middle school gym, creating a world, and a new text, together.
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.
- Superbad allows the two main characters to have their separate bildungsromans, but it also allows them to talk about and share experiences framed by sexuality and gender. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, “It is autobiographical, I suspect, inspired not just by the lives of co-writers … but possibly by millions of other teenagers.” The “other teenagers” that Ebert is describing here are defined by their gender: Superbad is peppered with dick pics and dick jokes that are made both by and for the central characters and, as Ebert claims, for millions of other distinctly male teenagers. ↩
- It is worth noting that participants in these female friendships often resort to romantic language. Leslie Knope, in Parks and Recreation, calls her beloved friend Ann a “beautiful poetic land-mermaid” and a “beautiful tropical fish.” This isn’t dissimilar in tone from Anne Shirley asking Diana Barry to be her one and only “bosom friend” a century earlier. Neither narrative, however, suggests that lesbian partnership is a real possibility for the central duo. ↩
- At one point, Anna decides to go on a hunger strike to protest racism and imagines Maya walking toward her as a giant ham; at another, Maya’s brother encourages her to think about all of the microaggressions that have been directed at her, and we can hear them echoing in her head. ↩