By Jenny Nixon,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Teen girls cope with puberty in bawdy but poignant comedy.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this TV show.
PEN15 can get raunchy at times, but is also full of heartfelt and thought-provoking moments. There's an episode called Tolerance that touches on the insidious ways kids can pass on racist behavior without even seeming to realize they're doing it -- as well as how those being bullied internalize that pain and try to laugh it off as no big deal. Maya and Anna are awkward teens who value their friendship and try to pump each other up in a world that's all too eager to tear them down.
Positive Role Models
Maya and Anna are imperfect but likable characters whose friendship feels very genuine. Maya is half-Japanese, half-white and struggles with popular classmates "othering" her in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, such as making fun of her for having "weird" foods like fish heads in the fridge. When Anna discovers she too has made Maya feel bad (albeit inadvertently), she does everything in her power to make up for it and to educate herself about racism. Anna tries to maintain a positive attitude while her parents' marriage is falling apart, and seeks meaning and closeness from other sources -- some not entirely appropriate.
Violence & Scariness
Some verbal bullying, Maya is dubbed the "UGiS" (Ugliest Girl in School). Some shoving and name-calling.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Some boys try to see some nude scenes on a scrambled and static-filled cable station, a very brief shot of bare breasts flickers by. Maya tries on a thong and checks out her rear end in the mirror while dancing. An awkward kissing scene with close-ups of tongues and lips (it is made very clear that an adult male stand-in has been used for this scene, as he has visible stubble around his mouth). A boy places his hands on a girl's chest. Giggly middle-school style references to sex acts like "BJs" and "handies" and "fingering". An episode centers on Maya's newfound discovery -- masturbation -- which becomes a huge distraction for her. There's a close-up shot of her underwear-clad crotch. Body fluids are seen a few times and treated as a curiosity, such as vaginal lubrication on a girl's fingers and menstrual blood on someone's underwear.
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"Damn," "hell," "bitch," "s--t," "f--k," "c--t." Characters are told to "eat a d--k!"; references to "BJs" and "fingering".
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Products & Purchases
Brands are referenced here and there, but many are year 2000-specific.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Maya and Anna are desperate to feel "cool" and smoke a contraband cigarette (there's a lot of coughing, and it is not made to look appealing). A can of beer is consumed at a party, someone inhales computer cleaning fluid.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that PEN15 is about two teen girls growing up in the year 2000. It's the raunchy but relatable brainchild of its stars, Maya Erskine (Casual) and Anna Konkle (Rosewood). Both 31 in real life, Erskine and Konkle play fictionalized versions of themselves at 13, alongside a cast of actual middle-school-aged kids. The series offers a hilarious, often poignant look at female adolescence in a very real, warts-and-all way. Teen characters experiment with alcohol and cigarettes, and one girl inhales computer-cleaning fluid and appears to faint. A character has her first kiss (it's definitely worth noting that the show swaps out kid actors for adults during these scenes, which is made very obvious) and there's lots of talk about bodies and sex, with giggling references to masturbation and various sex acts. One episode centers on a character's fervent, curious exploration of her own body, weird smells and fluids and all. Classmates catch a very brief glimpse of a woman's bare breasts on a scrambled cable TV station, and another episode shows kids getting together to watch the trashy erotic thriller Wild Things. While physical violence isn't really an issue, there is bullying, sometimes of a racial nature.
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Raunchy, but real.
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What's the Story?
PEN15 transports us back to the year 2000, where BFFs Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) are determined to experience all their 7th Grade firsts together: from their first sips of beer to their first kisses. Though the duo isn't part of the cool crowd -- one is, in fact, voted the "Ugliest Girl in School" -- this doesn't keep them crushing on dudes in AIM chat rooms, experimenting with cigarettes on the sly, and strutting down the halls in a stolen thong in an attempt to feel grown-up and sexy. Their home lives are no picnic, either. Maya deals with feelings of inadequacy around her jazz drummer dad, and shame about masturbating when her traditionalist Japanese mom mentions that their ancestors are "always watching". Anna is a romantic at heart who struggles to maintain her positive attitude when she's around her continually bickering parents, who are clearly on the brink of divorce but putting up a facade that's fooling no one. The pair leans on one another throughout these trials and tribulations, but their own friendship is tested as well.
Is It Any Good?
The pop culture landscape has been rife with representations of burgeoning male sexuality for ages, but until very recently, unflinching portrayals of female adolescence have been harder to come by. PEN15 is a long-overdue exploration of the struggles faced by middle school girls and does so in a way that feels relatable and real while also being side-splittingly funny. It doesn't take long to forget that the main stars are, in fact, 31-year-old women, so committed are they to the bit. Both are naturally gifted comedians, who are laugh-out-loud funny when embodying the idea that middle school is hell, every crush or conflict catastrophically important.
Yet they also ably sell the more nuanced and sincere aspects of the show, most notably during the episodes exploring Anna's parents and their marital issues, and the storyline where Maya's brother Shuji helps her address the casual cruelty of her racist classmates, who mock her for being half-Japanese. Some viewers may write the series off due to the raunchy humor, and that would be their loss. PEN15 perfectly illustrates all the goofiness and pain inherent in being a young girl fumbling toward adulthood, in that ambiguous and awkward stage between Calico Critters and Kotex maxi pads.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about why we haven't seen many shows like PEN15 before; shows that explore teen girlhood in a frank, funny, and sometimes downright gross way. While media depictions of teenage boys exploring and adjusting to their weirdly-changing bodies have been around for ages (American Pie, anyone?), it's been far less common to see teen girls figuring things out in the same way. Why might this be?
Did you find the friendship between Maya and Anna believable? In what ways do they support and encourage each other? How about the family dynamics on the show? Could you relate to the way the girls felt about their parents? How about the sibling relationship between Maya and Shuji, which often seems antagonistic? How do you know they really love one another?
What do you think about the fact that the series stars and is written by adult women pretending to be children? How might the show have been different if they hired real 13-year-olds to play Maya and Anna? Does their true age affect how you view the characters in any way?
- Premiere date: February 8, 2019
- Cast: Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, Dylan Gage, Anna Pniowsky, Melora Walters
- Network: Hulu
- Genre: Comedy
- TV rating: NR
- Last updated: October 13, 2022
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.
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