PEN15 is nothing short of a masterpiece.
I was born in 1990, making me 10-years-old in 2000 (the year the series takes place), but I still vividly remember what it was like to be 13 at the turn of the 21st century. From the outfits, to the gel pens…from the hair clips, to the notes passed…from the screen names to the soundtrack….ahhh yes…it’s all coming back to me.
Here are the moments from PEN15 that impacted me most.
1. Giant Tampon.
The moment Maya cradled the massive tampon I exploded into laughter. Too relatable. The first time you use a tampon is so incredibly strange. At that time in my adolescence, I had practically zero awareness of my vagina. And, when I started my period, it was very light. But, I still wanted to use a tampon. Why? Because my best friend at the time was using tampons (she will be a reoccurring reason and character in these memories). My mom, an immigrant from the Middle East (who will also be a reoccurring character in my list), was shocked at my request. She spoke to my (white) friend’s mom and decided to hand me one of her tampons from a huge Costco box. They were “Super Absorbent” with a cardboard applicator. I didn’t know what I was doing. Let’s just say the tampon dangled uncomfortably out of me the whole day at school while I walked crooked in a pleated skirt. Finally, my friend showed me “Super Slim” tampons with a plastic applicator, and my life changed.
2. The Magical Thong.
That same best friend started wearing thongs when we were about 13. So, we went to the mall in some eyeliner, with our isolated hair pieces as stringy and prominent as possible framing the sides of our faces, and…I bought some thongs. I felt alive, dangerous, scared, and, to be honest, uncomfortable. But, damn. I felt like a woman. Shout out to Shania Twain. My mom eventually found my thongs and punished me thoroughly. But for a brief moment, I wore low-rise jeans, just like my beloved Britney.
3. Fish Heads/I am Japanese.
If you haven’t noticed, my name is Maya, just like the main character from the show. No, I am not Japanese, but being a child of immigrants I often had the most “ethnic” name, lunch, and looks at my school. My general social interactions were pretty diverse, but my small, private, religious school, was mostly white kids. I often wished for Jennifer’s PB&J, or Jared’s carrots and ranch at lunch. Keep in mind, this was long before hummus was sold at Trader Joe’s. Now, of course, I am so glad I grew up the way I did. I was told by a few boys that I had a unibrow, and when 9/11 happened things didn’t get much better for my kind. But, we had the best parties, the best meals, and one of the greatest communities in the area. So, just like PEN15 Maya’s fish heads in the fridge, I was pretty ashamed of my background. But, with time, I became proud of my “ethnic” smelling home and pungent pantry.
4. Gross Kiss.
Okay, so I was much older than 13 the first time a boy stuck his tongue in my mouth. But, the sheer disgust little Anna felt was far too real. Thanks to the brilliant acting and vivid cinematography, I was brought back to my first make out sesh. I was about 15 or 16, and I snuck out of the house to hang out with this scene/emo boy who had, you guessed it, a lip ring. I had no idea what I was doing, and when he stuck his tongue in my mouth, all I felt was disgust. But, I winged it and ended up sucking his lip ring out of its piercing into my mouth. I played it cool, and the next day at school I was told he called me the “worst kisser in the world.” Just like Anna’s parents said, kissing got better for me. But, it was awful, wet and disturbing at first.
My parents also announced their divorce when I was 13. This moment was a refreshing and thoughtful build-up in PEN15. The show begins as just a raw representation of that time, the 2000s, and that age, and how funny our thoughts and values were at 13. But, it develops into something deeper. From the way they address casual racism, with the commentary about Maya being different, to the truly isolated sensation of knowing your parents are splitting and nothing will be the same, PEN15 comments on how we build our sense of trauma, disappointment, strength, and resilience. I cried when Anna cried. Because, even as a young girl, she knew, as I did, that the deep disappointment she felt in her parents’ selfish approach to their own world would continue to unfold. And, sometimes, there’s nothing more for you to do or say. But, you reach inside yourself, and you reach out to your friend, and remember the freedom you have inside. You don’t have to fully grow up then, or maybe even ever. Whether you dance free or sit silent in the night, you do your best and, hopefully, grow up at your own pace, even when there are elements that are out of your control.
I’ve recommended PEN15 to all my friends, particularly all my girlfriends. Not only did it bring me back to my 13-year-old self, but it brought me closer to me, now. It’s a celebration of the you that was so different and the you that is still the same. I look back at that 13-year-old Maya (me) as she sat in front of AIM as a boy in her class called her “flat chested” and I think, yes, go ahead and feel the disappointment and confusion. One day that chest will change, but you will still be that weird kid inside. And that, is a very very good thing.