I have to admit that the first time I watched the trailer for Hulu’s new original series, PEN15, I was…confused. Is this show about middle school girls? Are the actresses playing these girls actually thirty-something-year-olds? Is this a series showing women being sexual in a way that is neither aspirational nor sexy? The answer to all of these questions is yes. But, the answer that still escapes me is “Why is a show about teenage girls being sexual so surprising in the first place?”
The fact that Hulu greenlit the series is nothing short of historical. If you haven’t watched the new comedy series, it tells the semi-autobiographical story of its creators/stars Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine’s experiences navigating the often challenging terrain that is middle school. What sets Konkle and Erskine’s performances in PEN15 apart from other female comedic roles is the over-the-top physical humor that is explicitly sexual in nature. The show is unapologetically raunchy in a way that is usually reserved for male-led comedies.
If you’re curious, you only have to watch two episodes to get to a storyline that will make even the most sex-positive person cringe. The third episode of the ten-part series—titled “Ojichan”—follows Maya discovering (and frankly falling in love with) masturbation. The episode realistically shows Maya enjoying self-pleasuring while at the same time feeling immense shame over her actions. She even kept this new milestone from her BFF Anna (or Na as she affectionately calls her), which, if you don’t realize, is a huge deal in the world of middle school girls.
The show is unapologetically raunchy in a way that is usually reserved for male-led comedies.
“We’re raised to think of guys jerking off as funny fodder,” Konkle explained to Vulture. “As a young girl, you don’t see that it’s OK,” Erskine added. “I mean, to this day I have to do it [masturbate] under the covers. It’s ingrained in me. When I’m exposed, I feel a sense of shame.”
So, it’s not a stretch to argue that seeing sexuality portrayed onscreen influences a person’s feelings about their own sexuality. A teenage boy could grow up watching Jim (played by Jason Biggs) in American Pie experience the horror of his parents walking in on him masturbating. Jim, like PEN15’s Maya, felt similar feelings of embarrassment when it came to feeling the need to hide masturbating. The difference is that for years, male characters have been allowed to be sexual in TV and movies in a way that female characters haven’t. When people see sexuality portrayed in entertainment in a way that isn’t shameful, it creates a space for viewers to feel less alone. When guys pretend to jerk off on camera, it’s relatable fun. But, when girls finger themselves on camera, it’s newsworthy. Trust me, I wouldn’t be writing this if Anna and Maya were Adam and Mike.
According to Ilana Glazer, the creator and star of Broad City, showing girls being sexual on TV outside of the male gaze is something people just aren’t accustomed to watching. The comedian experienced this first-hand working on Broad City. The show even released an episode depicting her character’s “pre-masturbation ritual,” which included a mirror, candles and a vibrator. (Gotta love Ilana.)
“It’s like these girls are horny but not under the male gaze,” Glazer told Out magazine. “They’re horny, period. Just starting from the vagina, not starting from some man looking at them.” That’s an important distinction. It’s one thing to show a female character masturbating as some sort of male fantasy fulfillment. It’s another thing entirely to show a female character masturbating for the sole purpose of, you know, having an orgasm.
Representation matters in all forms of entertainment whether it’s listening to a pop-star sing about his fluid sexuality or watching a woman of color pleasuring herself on TV. Erskine’s Japanese-American heritage isn’t glossed over on PEN15. It’s clear that her culture plays a part in contributing to the shame she feels about exploring her own sexuality. Maya admits that she “sees dead people” after seeing her deceased grandpa hovering over her bed during a scene. The plot-point unfolds throughout the episode as a running joke, but the point hits home: Sexuality becomes that much more complicated in certain households due to either cultural and/or religious beliefs and customs. Not to mention the preconceived notions (read: fetishes) people hold about people of certain ethnicities.
I think Issa Rae said it best when discussing an Insecure scene where her character ran around looking for batteries for her vibrator. The creator/star of the HBO hit-show was clear that what made the scene work was portrayal of female desire in a relatable way. “In the [writers’] room we were talking about what it feels like to be thirsty and how we don’t really get to see female characters masturbate,” she told Glamour. “Even in a funny way. Especially black women! So we wanted to portray that, while remaining true to our show and showing sexual frustration.”
Funny. Relatable. Sexual. Three words that are not mutually exclusive. Three words that can be used to describe one character. Three words that are too often swapped for blander descriptors like “likeable” or “hot.” But really, what makes a female character’s sexuality sexy? Who makes the boundaries that determine how far is too far when it comes to women telling their truth on TV? The short answer is a network, which is why Hulu taking a chance on a sitcom about middle school girls coming of age in a honest, sometimes gross and all-too-relatable way will make history.
When people see sexuality portrayed in entertainment in a way that isn’t shameful, it creates a space for viewers to feel less alone.
“I don’t want to say we underestimate kids, but there is a feeling of departure from them as we get older,” Konkle admitted to Marie Claire. “But I’m the same person inside.” Growing up is hard. Coming to terms with your sexuality is even harder. But I have to tell you, knowing a show like PEN15 exists makes it a little easier.