How Re-Living The Horrors Of Middle School Changed The Stars Of PEN15 For The Better

Maya Erskine is workshopping some of her signature poses in front of the camera. Her favorite right now: A gem that she calls the "taking a sh*t" pose. It involves pliéing and putting her hands on her hips. Meanwhile, her PEN15 co-star and co-creator Anna Konkle favors “the garden gnome,” which involves crouching and staring vacantly into the distance. It's bizarre — and yes, even Konkle seems to realize it.

“I know you’re like, ‘Don’t do that,’” she announces to no one in particular, after demonstrating the pose, “but I have to.”

It's a sentiment that perfectly describes Hulu's new series PEN15 —named after that infamous schoolyard prank — a delightfully weird comedy that casts Erskine and Konkle as versions of their 13-year-old selves in the year 2000 alongside a bunch of actual pre-teens. Equal parts cringey and heartfelt, the show is more than a surface joke about two grown women wearing a bowl cut and a mouthful of braces, respectively (though that was part of the fun, too). It digs deep into the trauma of being awkward in middle school so convincingly that it becomes easy to forget that these women are adults acting out moments from their past.

Which is why it's almost off-putting to see them in person as their actual 31-year-old selves. On this day, the women are appropriately glammed up: Erskine in a wide-legged, black-and-white polka-dotted and striped jumpsuit; Konkle in a bubblegum-pink pleated dress with a snake appliqué on the front and the AC/DC logo hiding on the back, which is only revealed when she flips back her long blonde hair. Though they actually met while studying abroad in Amsterdam during their junior year at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, they chose to use the bond of their friendship to revisit some of the most formative and embarrassing moments of their youth together, from ill-advised playground crushes, to confusing moments of sexual experimentation, to brushes with bullies.

“It’s really a love story between these two characters,” says Erskine, who's cuddled up with Konkle on a loveseat in the Bustle office. “It’s about these two best friends who are going through this horrible time, but they have each other, so it’s also the best time of their lives.”

Watching the two women re-inhabit their tween bodies over the course of 10 episodes is triggering to just about anyone who ever felt even a little bit awkward in middle school — especially once you hear that for Konkle and Erskine, getting back in that headspace was basically all muscle memory. “The first step was we were given these wraps to essentially push down our flat boobs,” Erskine says of their characters’ wardrobes, which look like they’re straight out of the Limited Too archives. Putting on clothes that reminded her of her tween years was enough to take Erskine right back to a time when she felt uncomfortable in her own skin. “Instantly, you want to hunch over. You’re hyper self-conscious.”

Konkle hates to admit it, but even as an adult, she still sometimes feels like that awkwardly hunched-over teenager who can’t stop touching her hair. “I think as adults we just know how to blend in a little more or cope a little better,” she says — or, at least, we think we do. “It’s embarrassing to say, but [acting like a tween] made me realize how bad at that I still am,” Konkle adds, “and after doing it for two months willingly, by the end, I felt way more free as myself.”

“Not needing to look pretty or try to attain some kind of beauty made me feel more like myself," Erskine adds.

That doesn't mean they don't sometimes sound like the giddy 13-year-olds they play onscreen. When Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” starts playing at Erskine's request, she’s reminded of the time she was staying in a motel near the Houston airport. “The energy of Houston,” the Los Angeles-born Erskine says unironically as she gets her long brown hair fluffed, “I felt like I was meant to be there.” Konkle, who’s getting her pink lipstick touched up, nods in full support of this green room epiphany. “I think you’d do great there,” she says.

I think sharing this, I keep saying, it makes me not feel alone.

This sweetly amusing exchange should feel familiar to those who have seen the series, which has the right amount of heart to balance out the many weird and uncomfortable places the story goes. And yes, PEN15 really goes there, tackling everything from crushingly casual racism with help from the Spice Girls to hormonal thong sniffing. If you think a show that viscerally depicts the cringiest parts of the middle-school experience might hit too close to home for you, it's nothing compared to how Konkle and Erskine felt while filming some of the most emotionally scarring moments of their childhood.

“I mean, we wrote a divorce in the show, which is literally the scene that happened in my life,” Konkle says. The scene she’s referring to is in PEN15’s penultimate episode, “Anna Ishii-Peters,” which shows Anna’s parents sitting her down in her bedroom to break the news as she chokes back tears. So, why would anyone willingly choose to relive one of their most traumatic tween-age moments? “I used to feel ashamed of it,” Konkle, who grew up in Connecticut, explains. “The people in my town didn’t really [get divorced] and I think sharing this, I keep saying, it makes me not feel alone.”

So much of our preadolescence is spent trying to hide in hopes of fitting in, but PEN15 revels in those moments that we’ve been too ashamed to reveal to anyone else for far too long. Here, they’re on full display and handled with a lot of heart, humor, and deeply buried Y2K references (remember B*Witched?).

“We’re definitely not just making jokes out of [puberty],” Erskine says. “We’re trying to recreate this in a way that’s like a memory. We’re just trying to aim for the truth of the situation and sometimes exaggerating moments that made us laugh.”

Episode 3, “Ojichan,” is dedicated to Maya’s discovery of masturbation, and the women say it was important that these moments felt believable. While Erskine says that she was inspired by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer's fearlessness in depicting female pleasure on Broad City, she notes that there isn't a version of this for young girls discovering masturbation that felt honest to her own experience. Where was the female equivalent to Jason Biggs' infamous American Pie masturbation scene? Erskine hopes PEN15 can show young girls that masturbation shouldn't be shameful.

When people share those things that are so shameful I’m like, "Oh, I’m not weird."

“As a kid to be touching yourself, it felt really wrong because it felt like only adults should be doing this,” Erskine says, “and women definitely shouldn’t be doing it.”

That’s why Erskine made sure Maya’s self-pleasure journey was consumed by shame, but also had a happy ending. “I'm a pervert, and I really shouldn't be doing what I'm doing,” Maya tells Anna at the end of Episode 3. “I've been putting my hands down my pants — my area — down there to feel good." When Anna admits that she also “put[s] my hands between my legs to feel good,” Maya asks if she feels gross. “How gross can I feel if you do it, too?" she replies.

This isn’t too far removed from something that happened in the women’s own lives. While they told New York that it was a bout of anxiety-ridden diarrhea that brought them together back in their college days, it’s bonding over masturbation that made it clear to Konkle that they’d be lifelong friends. “You were one of the first women I knew that was like, ‘Yeah, I f*cking masturbate’ and I was like,” — Konkle gasps — "'I want to be her friend!'" It's that bold honesty that Konkle says can bring people together. "When people share those things that are so shameful, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m not weird.’”

That’s not to say sharing all her thoughts about masturbation on a public platform hasn’t terrified Erskine. “A hundred percent this is very exposing and I do worry at night, ‘Did I say too much?’" she says. Konkle doesn’t think so, though, and thinks other women will agree. “That you’re scared talking about it as a woman and I’m a little scared talking about it as a woman means it’s a reason to do it.”

And it seems as if Konkle might be right. The duo say they've been bombarded by women and men who want to talk to them about their own middle school trauma. "It’s just such a clear part of your brain," Erskine says of those pre-pubescent horror stories. "You can wake up at night thinking, 'Oh my god, I farted back in that class!' It really stays with you."

After months of going through puberty (again) together, though, Erskine and Konkle are trying to make peace with their younger selves. "It’s like that in-between point in your life," Erskine says of those junior high years, "where you’re just starting to change but you haven’t arrived anywhere yet." If only their 13-year-old selves could see them now, they'd finally know they arrived.

Photos by Lauren Perlstein

Hair by Christopher Naselli using Hair Ritual by Sisley at The Wall Group

Makeup by Gita Bass using Kevyn Aucoin at The Wall Group