Words and graphic by Nozomi Shima PZ ’25
I have a list on my Notes app with characters who I strongly identify with, where Winston from “New Girl” sits in tandem with Theodore from “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” However, despite years of media consumption and the careful cultivation of this list, I didn’t find the answer until I watched “PEN15,” which introduced me to the wonderfully imperfect Maya Ishii-Peters.
My best friend Colin recommended the Hulu original series to me in our junior year of high school. At a time when Euphoria and Riverdale summoned the peak images of teenagers in the cultural zeitgeist, I was skeptical of “PEN15”: a cringe comedy about middle schoolers in the early aughts, in which the two main characters are played by 30-somethings who simply could not pass for teenagers. My quickness to judge was revealed when he exasperatedly told me, “That’s the point!”
The creators and writers of “PEN15,” Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, play versions of their 13-year-old selves surrounded by real middle school-age actors, radiating with a hilarious incongruence which brings an uncanny authenticity to their performances as a pair of social outcasts. Konkle dons braces to take on the role of seventh-grader Anna Kone and Erskine sports a bowl cut to transform into her best friend, Maya Ishii-Peters. Their friendship is the undisputed heart of the show, fraught with inevitable bouts of pre-pubescent strife but inextricably intertwined with the transcendent, profound bond unique between childhood friends.
Watching the show with Colin, we would tease each other about which of the two we were each like, both arguing to be the less annoying Anna. It became increasingly clear that I was fooling myself as the show progressed, finding more and more in common with Maya as we learned more about her. The first similarity was the obvious— we are both Japanese-American, a small demographic in the population and even smaller in media representation. Next was Shuji, Maya’s older brother, who evoked memories of my own upbringing alongside an older brother with whom I constantly picked fights but ultimately looked to for guidance. Personality-wise, she is an extreme caricature of the most immature feelings I remember harboring and she never fails to act upon them.
Maya’s impulsive nature frequently prompts shocking encounters that induce a palpable sense of second-hand embarrassment, making the show hard to watch at times. Yet, this feeling of cringe, like the actors’ conspicuous age difference amongst middle schoolers, significantly contributes to the authenticity of the show. There is reasoning behind each of Maya’s bad decisions, and it’s easy to dismiss her as irritating if you look past why she acts this way without putting yourself in her shoes.
In the episode titled “Posh,” Maya and Anna work with the popular girls on a group project, all collecting at Maya’s house. She nervously prepares to host the three girls and Anna, presenting one bag of Cheetos to share and hesitantly making up a lie to prevent judgment when asked if she had any more food. The girls, all white, help themselves into her kitchen anyway, mumbling in disgust about the fish heads in the fridge. Maya sits silently in discomfort while Anna looks on unknowingly. They move on to filming a video where they will be playing the Spice Girls. Maya calls dibs on being Posh Spice, but is overruled; the rest of the girls tell her she has to be Scary Spice, because she “looks the most” like her. The ringleader of the group asks who will play a servant in the video, immediately offering Maya the role because she’s “like, tan,” and excluding her from the video in order to be on camera duty. This vividly illustrates the nuances of adolescent microaggressions that are often ignored in media, where it’s inevitable for the singular person of color to be Othered by the white kids, even if it’s not ethnically specific or outwardly racist. Anna’s complicity becomes a point of contention between the two friends when they realize the implications of the situation. They eventually talk it out and make up, but a palpable shift has occurred in Maya’s mind; her inability to fit in the way her white best friend can is becoming glaringly evident.
Besides the heartbreakingly candid portrayal of the subtle racism that undoubtedly leaves indelible marks on the self-perception of young girls of color, “PEN15” also resonates deeply with the Japanese-American experience of girlhood through Maya’s relationship with her mother, Yuki. She is played by Maya Erskine’s real mother, lending an inimitable natural rapport between the pair that shines brightest in their conversations that meander between Japanese and English and the quiet moments they share in the bath or while clad in pajama sets.
Getting to witness Maya coming of age in a Japanese-American body and home offered me something I didn’t realize I was lacking. Many renderings of people of color in media tend to prioritize generalization over specificity for lukewarm representations to a larger audience, but Maya’s story singularly strikes a chord through its hyper-specificity and extremely personal depiction of her complex experiences that could only be written by the woman who experienced it.
In Maya, I see glimpses of my own childhood: when she cries to her mom about her fear of growing up; when she wakes up to miso soup and rice on the breakfast table; when she begs her parents to get a popular girl a fancy bat mitzvah gift; when she plays with Sylvanian Families with Anna and wonders if they’re too old for it; when she shamefully hides her first period; when she looks on with both excitement and jealousy as her white best friend gets a boyfriend first; when she awkwardly tries to flirt with her uninterested crushes; when she struggles to keep up with her guy friends on the wrestling team; when she calls Shuji in her times of need; when she struggles through language and cultural barriers to communicate with her mom; when she seeks solace in her best friend despite fundamental differences.
“PEN15” is a meticulously crafted series, brilliantly balancing comedy, heart, and a devastatingly honest portrayal of everything that makes being 13 so treacherous.