The Harsh Reality of Slut-Shaming and Sexism Comes For Pen15

Illustration for article titled The Harsh Reality of Slut-Shaming and Sexism Comes For iPen15/i
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Maya and Anna are desperate sluts. Or at least that’s what everyone at school is saying, according to their nosey classmate Jenna, in the first episode of Pen15's second season. “What makes me really sad is that you’ve changed,” Jenna says, feigning concern. “A lot.”

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It turns out that participating in a harmless closet make-out session at a school dance—which then gets spun as a full-blown “threesome” with classmate Brandt through a predictable game of middle-school telephone—transforms the show’s tween heroines Anna (Anna Konkle) and Maya (Maya Erskine) into dirty sluts. And to them it is a transformation, no matter how meaningless the term is. After all, they say, at the dance they were grinding, they were freaking. “I get why people are saying this about us,” Anna says. “Brandt’s a slut too,” she offers. “No, he’s just a player,” Maya says. And just like that, the dark reality of tween slut-shaming and sexist double standards descends on Pen15 like a storm cloud.

Pen15 has always been a show to watch through your fingers, pubescent body horror disguised underneath layers of Claire’s accessories. The show’s first season reveled in awkward early-aughts nostalgia, delivering a horny and hormonal tornado of masturbation discoveries, painful crushes, and the delightful horrors of AIM chatrooms. But the latest installment pushes Anna and Maya into the spotlight nearly every young woman experiences at a formative age, the moment in which a girl realizes that she is not as in control of her body as she thought, and the crude ways in which boys and girls take advantage of that slippage.

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In the episode “Wrestle,” Anna and Maya join the all-boys wrestling team because Maya wants to get closer to her crush Brandt on the team, and Anna finds surprising empowerment in the theater of women’s professional wrestling she watches on TV. But any power they think they’ve gained in the ring, illustrated through hilarious montages of the girls getting insanely buff in the weight room, evaporates once they realize the boys have been talking about their “big ass bushes” and “pussies” that smell like fish. It’s hard to watch the scene and not think about Trump shrugging off his sexist comments as the sort of “locker room talk” man to man conversations are supposedly built on, distilled here in a middle school setting. “Our pussies,” Maya wails between tears in the locker room after alone with Anna, the two embracing alone.

The episode “Three,” in which Anna and Maya befriend an annoying new pal Maura who immediately and forcefully establishes herself as a bestie, is to Pen15 what “Teddy Perkins” was to Atlanta tonally. In the midst of their rocky fake-friendship where Maura is not being totally truthful about her life, Maya is subjected to what’s essentially a hazing-routine at a stressful sleepover party when she’s instructed to pull her pants down and reveal if she has her period or not. Throughout the season the playful foundation of Maya and Anna’s childhood life, their comfortable nuclear family set-ups, harmless crushes on boys at school, start to form the cracks that give way to crushing adulthood.

Much of Pen15's brilliance is Konkle and Erskine’s acting, as they don’t mimic widely what a 13-year-old in 2000 might sound like so much as inhabit what seems to be specific younger versions of themselves. Their intense, bizarre specificity has a way of unearthing memories of that age I feel like I had but can’t quite pinpoint, such as one scene in which Anna, moving from one end of the pool at a pool party to the other, takes the opportunity to show off her intense, completely uncalled for butterfly stroke, splashing all nearby parties with excessive force. In the days after watching the episode I kept thinking of the scene and laughing, remembering kids I knew who had just completed lessons at camp and thus treated every pool they encountered like it was an Olympic arena. But it’s that same talent for unearthing the goofy, silly antics of being 13 years old that makes the show so poignant at capturing the cruelty of being that age, like the shock of thinking you’re getting close to a boy who suddenly talks about your pussy out loud to others.

Maya and Anna also aren’t the only characters this season who have to brush up against the uncomfortable realities of sexual desire and objectification. The quiet Gabe (Dylan Gage), who spent most of the first season drafting a hand-drawn magazine about weasels and hanging out with Maya’s reluctant crush Sam, has a few dedicated scenes contemplating his own burgeoning gayness and experimenting with the idea of what it would be like to date a girl. Gabe’s storyline, subtle and serious, doesn’t carry the same humorous treatment Maya and Anna’s romantic exploits do. And the nerdy Sam (Taj Cross), eager to be accepted by the popular boys, has to wade through the middle school waters of toxic masculinity after succumbing to the peer pressure of the group by nicknaming Anna and Maya “Big Smelly Bushes.”

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“We know that these girls are going to stay in seventh grade forever, but that they have to evolve,” Erskine said recently in an interview with The New York Times on the show’s darker tones. Even though Maya and Anna will be confined to seventh grade for eternity, what’s freeing about Pen15 is how even in that time frame evolution is inevitable and near constant. Each episode is an opportunity for the girls to confront the weirdness of their bodies, beauty, and boys. But that constant evolution also means Anna and Maya have to move further outside the secure and dorky world they’ve created for themselves alone, moving into a dismal future where a girl being called a slut is not so much a transformation grounded in reality than a depressing inevitability.

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel

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DISCUSSION

reader7890
Reader7890

I can’t watch it. 7th grade FOREVER? Like the time when I publically didn’t know what a hickey was and it was the guy who was a good friend but who I secretly liked more than anyone else ever in the world who told me what it was (he had older brothers) and I almost expired of embarrassment right there in math? Or when my bra strap broke and kept falling down and you could tell that it was a bra strap and this was back before people weren’t embarrassed by bra straps and so I had to wear my jacket and it was cold in the morning but really hot in the afternoon and I almost passed out because I skipped lunch and hadn’t had anything to drink since breakfast and didn’t understand dehydration and it was only the German teacher who looked at me as I stumbled into class after gym and told me to go out and drink water at the water fountain and keep drinking until I didn’t want any more even if the bell rang, it was okay, who kept me from keeling over.  I don’t need to see other people’s 7th grade tragedies; I have my own to keep me company.