What we learned at school—and what we didn’t

How Hulu’s ‘PEN15’ let me open up to my own teenage years

4 minute read
An invitation to re-explore the joys and pains of junior high: Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine in ‘PEN15.’ (Image courtesy of Hulu.)
An invitation to re-explore the joys and pains of junior high: Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine in ‘PEN15.’ (Image courtesy of Hulu.)

Every once in a while, a television show comes along that doesn’t follow any of the rules—like Hulu original PEN15, created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman. The twist is the adult Erskine and Konkle play themselves in the early 2000s, 7th-grade best friends at the height of their awkward teendom. If comedy = tragedy + time, PEN15 nails the formula by taking teen moments that seem larger than life, and ingeniously framing them so that adults can revisit tragic memories with humor, knowing they’re safely in the rearview.

The show is ultimately about the sanctity of friendship: one special person in your corner can be all you need to survive anything. My own adolescent bestie was often my saving grace and refuge when I felt trapped and misunderstood during my own teen years. PEN15 bottles that feeling through the touching friendship of protagonists Maya and Anna.

On the outside

Balancing comedy and heart, the show skillfully tackles sensitive topics of racism, identity, and micro-aggressions through the lens of teenagers. Episode 6 confronts how Maya, with a Japanese mom and a white dad, is constantly made to feel like an outsider in school.

Before Maya’s classmates come over to her house for a school project, she preps the living room by hiding anything highlighting her Japanese heritage. While filming a video for the project, the girls need someone to play a servant, and they elect Maya. Anna offers to do it, but the other girls insist it would be funnier if Maya did it, because she’s different, and “tan.” Maya’s brother labels this behavior as racist, and blames Anna for letting it happen. This opens a can of worms neither of the girls is prepared for, testing their friendship. This episode touched a nerve for me, bringing back memories I had buried.

Dark skin on the defensive

Growing up as an Indian kid in Orange County, getting teased daily came with the territory. I assumed kids picked on me due to my eccentric personality, and didn’t fully realize until junior high that I was targeted because I’m Indian. As the teasing got more specific, with kids calling me “Gandhi” for fun, I became confused. In school, we learned about slavery, segregation, and Martin Luther King, Jr., but we skipped over the bigger picture of contemporary racism, xenophobia, and colorism.

One of the longest-running “jokes” about me was that I was so dark-skinned that anytime I wore black clothes, classmates would mockingly shield their eyes as I walked into class and announce there was a nudist in class. And now the teasing came at the hands of other Asians, which was even more confusing. I pretended to have fun being the butt of every joke, because a part of me was truly clueless about what was happening.

What would they have done if I’d stuck up for myself? Christina Anthony with her high-school AP English classmates. (Image courtesy of the writer.)
What would they have done if I’d stuck up for myself? Christina Anthony with her high-school AP English classmates. (Image courtesy of the writer.)

During junior year of high school, my AP English teacher assigned a group project on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. My group decided I should portray the half-human, half-monster Caliban because I had the darkest skin. I slowly became always on the defensive and would try to laugh through the pain. I wonder what the kids in my class would have done if I stuck up for myself, or if anyone else decided to call them out. In the PEN15 episode singling Maya out as a “tan” servant, Anna’s gut was telling her Maya was being treated poorly, but she also didn’t grasp the unconscious racism at hand. When friends or allies are silent it can be as hurtful as the people doing the hurting.

Learning to love my identity

Feeling like I had to hide my Indian culture just to survive, I put it on the back burner and led with my American side. Friends visiting my house always declined eating my mom’s cooking, and I didn’t encounter a single non-Indian person before college who ever seemed interested about my culture.

I began to learn how culture, racism, and identity intersect when I moved to San Francisco for college. I was surprised by how much people loved Indian culture in the Bay Area. I met people who loved Indian food, complimented me on my beautiful skin color, and were actually interested in hearing about my identity as an Indian American woman. My time in San Francisco was transformational and healing, enabling me to openly love and appreciate my individuality and culture.

Moving away from home also gave me an opportunity to miss the easy access I had to my culture. I missed hearing my parents’ native Malayalam spoken every day, home-cooked Indian meals whenever I wanted, and poker parties with Bollywood music playing in the background. Not having to always downplay my Indian-ness helped me become proud of the thing that caused me so much pain as an adolescent.

I imagine PEN15 is therapeutic to audiences for a variety of reasons. Despite the trauma (trivial or substantial) of revisiting our teen years, as portrayed by 30-year-olds looking back on their own lives, the show allows for a sense of closure. What didn’t kill me did indeed make me stronger.

What, When, Where

The first season of PEN15 is available to stream on Hulu.

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