The most recent episode of One Day at a Time opens with Penelope telling a tortuous story to her therapy group: Last Friday, believing herself home alone, she decided to spend the evening with a bottle of red wine, Outlander, and her vibrator. But, the single mom continues, "When you have a teenage boy, you know the day will come, and it's only a matter of time before someone opens a door that they shouldn't and sees someone doing something with themselves." For Penelope — and for her son Alex — that day had arrived.
Parents catching their kids masturbating is a comedic gag usually played for maximum cringe (think Jim Levenstein in American Pie). But by reversing the roles, showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett turns Penny's "menage-a-mois" into something more: a device for exploring women's sexual health and intergenerational openness. "We are so inundated with men being turned on, but if I say, 'Oh, hubba hubba, basement flooded,' everyone's like, 'Ew, gross!'" Calderón Kellett tells Bustle. "We're living in such a patriarchal society that it's only OK if men are turned on, but not if women are."
Calderón Kellett pushes back against this double standard via Penelope, who refuses to be shamed for her self-pleasure. Instead, she's committed to making her son Alex understand how perfectly normal it is for a woman — even your own mother — to masturbate. "I want you to know that what you accidentally witnessed was a completely normal expression of human sexuality," she tells him, despite his groans.
Calderón Kellett says she's been wanting to make this episode for three years. "I had the opening of [Penelope] talking about her son walking in on her, which felt like a fun thing to turn on its head." What the One Day at a Time team didn't have, until this season, was a storyline strong enough to support that opening bit. They found it in an exploration of the Alvarez family's lack of interpersonal boundaries. Penelope is proud to live in a house where bedroom doors don't have locks because it encourages emotional intimacy. The flip side is that no discussion remains private: eventually, every family member must have their say. Abuela Lydia takes the conservative view, condemning Penelope's masturbation as symptomatic of loneliness. Elena, open and progressive, is eager to support her mom by reciting the health benefits: stress relief, alleviation from menstrual pain, better cognition.
"It seemed like masturbation was something worth talking about, and something that all of the characters would have opinions on," Calderón Kellett explains. "It led to Penelope taking a real stance as a single mom. She's still a sexual being, sexual health is important. This is a Catholic family, so obviously there's a lot of shame surrounding masturbation."
That the episode is airing amid the global coronavirus pandemic, while much of the world is isolating at home, feels particularly timely. Says Calderón Kellett: "I think people are probably taking a separate view to their own sexual health now that they're alone."