‘PEN15’s’ stars know slut-shaming is ‘diabolical.’ This season, they face it head-on
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the co-creators and stars of Hulu’s “PEN15,” may have met junior year at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts, but reliving the middle-school era of their lives in the adult comedy has deepened the creases of their friendship like a carefully folded up — and doodled on — letter passed between BFFs during social studies class.
“I feel like we still have a conversation, at least once a month, where I am like: ‘Tell me again what you were doing when this happened’ or ‘What did you think of this band?’” Erskine says.
“Yes,” says Konkle, “I love hearing stories any time we get on Facebook together and she shows me of photos of like, ‘Well, this is the guy who ...’ or I’ll be like, ‘Wait, I thought that was the guy you kissed in ninth grade’ and she’s like ‘No, no, no, this is fifth grade.’”
“We lived such different lives but we also have so many similarities,” Erskine adds, addressing Konkle through a video conference screen. “It’s so weird. But there’s no way to describe how doing something like this changes a friendship, because to relive moments — some that are really fun, some that are not, some that are so innocent and so fun to be naive and laugh while next to you — I don’t even know how to really wrap my head around the fact that I get to relive these moments together. Having you experience a taste of what it was like with me then and vice versa. Having a friend who wasn’t there at the time to acknowledge what you’re going through and to give you that rewrite that you didn’t ever have or always wanted, of course it brings you so much closer and is such a gift.”
The first season of “PEN15” introduced viewers to delightfully socially awkward seventh grade besties Anna Kone and Maya Ishii-Peters — played by the two creators and real-life BFFs, performing alongside actual teens — as they navigate the cringeworthy and angsty battlefield of adolescence in the year 2000. It was stuffed with nostalgic hearts, millennial-specific callbacks — NSYNC’s “Thinking of You (Drive Myself Crazy),” AOL instant messaging, butterfly hair clips and Tamagotchis — while tackling the delicate life events of 13-year-old girls (e.g. masturbation and menstruation). The season ended with the sexually curious friends both getting fondled by their brooding classmate Brandt (Jonah Beres) in a janitor’s closet during a middle-school dance.
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Though at its core the series is a comedy, it’s been praised for the way it uniquely captures the social and emotional tragedy of the middle-school years with heartrending and hormone-fueled honesty. And the new season puts a hot pink highlighter all over that approach.
Premiering Friday, the first half of the second season picks up not long after the school dance, with Maya and Anna talking by phone and delighting in the aftermath of their shared moment of intimacy while playing a game of M.A.S.H. — the fortune-telling game popular among kids of a certain age. Over the seven episodes, Maya attempts to get closer to Brandt by taking an interest in wrestling, while Anna struggles with the tension caused by the separation of her parents (Melora Walters and Taylor Nichols), who still live together. There’s also a new friend, Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), who tries to wedge herself between the pair. At the same time, the series tells stories of slut-shaming, trauma at home, sexual confusion and the complexities of female relationships — whether between friends or mothers and daughters.
“We weren’t like, ‘OK, this is going to be a darker season,’ but we knew that the characters had to grow, even though they stay constantly in seventh grade,” Erskine says. “Part of that is there are deep falls. We took falls Season 1, but it was more naively or innocently, and we had each other — and the greatest fall is not having each other ... I remember certain things being talked about that were either sexual or violent or fights, and I think neurologically there’s something that changes at this age where you start digesting things differently, and that’s really cool and that’s also really painful because most people are experiencing some trauma in some way. We knew that we didn’t want to shy away from that.”
The friends are talking over Zoom on a particularly sweltering weekday — and it’s not lost on anyone that there’d be fewer tech issues had the conversation happened over AIM. Erskine, nearly swallowed up by a towering house plant behind her, is beaming in from the Los Angeles home she shares with her fiancé; Konkle, also in Los Angeles, is at her manager’s office taking refuge in an air-conditioned space since electricity has been out at her own home.
There are no bowl cuts or braces in sight, but it almost feels like the year 2000 because Erskine quickly points out that her computer is on the fritz: It fell off her couch while she was distracted by a game of M.A.S.H., which she was playing during an interview earlier in the week. It gets the pair talking about the wonder of that silly game, and the significance of its reference early on in the season.
“You want to infuse meaning into whatever is outside your control,” Erskine says. “Like, I saw a ‘B”— I think Brandt loves me! I used to have a friend who would put songs on shuffle and she would ask a question, like a Magic 8-Ball, and then whatever the song was, the lyrics would be her answer. I think it’s very human to search for meaning in these—”
“Those answers,” Konkle continues. “It’s the age that you start fantasizing. You manufacture the ideal life.”
It gets the pair reflecting on this phase of their lives and the way small moments can get blown up, overanalyzed, and more brightly shaded than a Lisa Frank pocket folder — which fuels much of Maya’s story arc in Season 2. Erskine tells a story about a middle-school birthday party she attended at a church recreation room that left a lasting impression on her.
“This guy asked me to dance and I, like, danced standing on his feet,” she says. “He kept twirling me around and for some reason he was like two feet taller already — cause that’s how middle school is, all of a sudden someone has jetted up. In my head, I was like, ‘I am with a man and he’s spinning me around.’ Nothing else happened, but I talked about it for years. Even now when I think about it, I’m like, ‘Whoa!’ It just elicits a feeling — kind of the first feelings of like a real romance. So we wanted to have that obsession happen.”
The show also explores what it’s like coping with the sex-shaming rumor mill — primarily targeting girls — that often comes with adolescence. As a teen, Konkle had her own experience with gossip that still follows her to this day. She was nicknamed “Icebox.”
“I was in seventh grade and an eighth grader came up to me and was like: ‘I heard you masturbated with an ice cube,’” Konkle says. “And then the town, truly the town, came up with a genius diabolical nickname, Icebox, and that followed me. I was not at all sexual, which was kind of the worst part, because I was either slut-shamed by the girls or I was kind of fetishized by the guys. I definitely wanted to be liked by the guys, but to be liked for something that I wasn’t ready for was too much for me. I don’t even think I had my first kiss yet. I was in student government. I played the French horn and the flute. I was really crushed by it. Literally, every day somebody would walk by and say ‘Icebox.’”
“To be shamed for your sexuality when you’re not even experiencing it on your own — like, you don’t even get to have that,” Erskine says sympathetically. “It’s forever clouding your judgement around that.”
“And I don’t know if this was related or not, but I didn’t masturbate ‘til I was like in my 20s,” Konkle says. “Because I was so shamed. I knew where the rumor started from, but I was going to take it to my grave, which was from playing Truth or Dare in, like, fourth grade. I was innocently dared to put an ice cube in my underwear. I probably could have, in retrospect, been like, ‘That was Truth or Dare and that was in the fourth grade and I didn’t masturbate.’ Instead, I cried every time someone called me Icebox. I mean, I’m talking like, after college I’d still get a drunk text from a guy calling me that.”
With the second season, Erskine and Konkle were interested in seeing how their characters would evolve from these seismic life moments.
“When we started, we knew that the girls were staying in seventh grade, always,” Erskine says, “so how do they evolve? What does that mean? How do they grow up? And so the idea of being exposed to more things and interpreting it differently but still not having the coping skills to deal with it, that was interesting to us. And also the idea of these girls, if they are being labeled in the beginning of the season as sluts, or shamed by their classmates, what different identities can they try on? And so it was interesting to watch two friends go through it together when they’re actually seeing dark, mature things in front of their eyes.”
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But viewers won’t see the full scope of how those questions are explored at once. The season had to be split in two because, in a refrain all too familiar in Hollywood this year, production on “PEN15” was suspended in March in the wake of increasing concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus.
They were two weeks from shooting the final episode of the season, which would have been directed by Erskine, and had some scenes from other episodes that still needed finishing. “I was like, ‘We’ve got to get people out of here,’” Konkle recalls. “I was acting like I’m part of the U.S. government.” It was an added stress on production. In the middle of shooting the season, Konkle found herself dealing with the death of her father — an already emotional experience made more so considering the journey her character is on in relation to her own parents.
“It was two months of flying from Florida and really just changing the whole production around,” Konkle says. “I was going through that and then coming back and doing a scene with my TV dad. That was really, really intense. Of course, as a showrunner, I had been months before — not anticipating this — being like, ‘The corduroys must be these corduroys because they were my dad’s. The car must be this one because it was my dad’s.’ Then, all of a sudden, I’m in the real car model [and] make that was my dad’s, and he’s saying I love you.”
It’s unclear when exactly the second half of the season will be ready for launch. But the duo promise the growing pains — in all their excruciating glory — will continue with the last half of the season..
“It’s dealing with even more adult s—, really,” Konkle says. “We are more in the mentality of, like, we’re older now, we’re teenagers now. That comes with a lot of fun and a lot of maturity that we don’t know how to deal with.”
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