Spoilers ahead for PEN15 Season 1. Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) is horny and feels bad about it. Hulu's PEN15, produced in part by Lonely Island, follows Maya and her best friend Anna (Anna Konkle) as middle schoolers in the year 2000. The two have the kind of obsessive, do-everything-together friendship distinctive of 13-year-old girls, but when Maya starts masturbating on PEN15, she's too embarrassed to tell Anna.
It's a tale as old as time: while making her My Little Ponies kiss, Maya feels her crotch pulsate and realizes that touching it feels good. Suddenly, everything turns her on — sand dunes, eyebrows, ears, knees, they all remind her of sex. Anna, meanwhile, is having problems at home, and doesn't understand why Maya keeps blowing her off. As viewers know, that's because she quite literally can't stop touching herself. It's a whole new frontier, and the seventh grader spends hours in her bed, in her closet, and even in the bathroom at school stimulating herself.
But Maya is also deeply ashamed about what she's doing. Beyond the fact that when the boys at school talk about masturbating at lunch, Anna calls them "pervs," masturbation has always been more taboo for women than men — particularly at such a young age. And after Maya's mom says that her late grandfather (or Ojichan, as their family calls him), watches over them at all times, she begins to see his ghost as a physical manifestation of her shame. Every time she thinks about touching herself, he appears, looking down at her in disappointment.
When Maya finally comes clean to Anna about what she's been up to, it's through nervous tears. "I'm like Sam, only I'm grosser because I'm a girl," she explains, referring to a male classmate. "And I'm a pervert, and I really shouldn't be doing what I'm doing. I've been putting my hands down my pants — my area — down there to feel good."
She expects her friend to confirm her worst fears, but Anna instead offers, "When I'm in bed, sometimes I put my hands between my legs to feel good." Maya then asks if she feels gross, to which Anna responds, "How gross can I feel if you do it, too?" (A later scene reveals that Anna is actually just placing her folded hands between her legs in a completely non-sexual way, but the little white lie helps to assuage Maya's guilt).
Granted, it's still uncomfortable to watch the extended, zoomed-in scenes of Maya having an orgasm while hunched over in her closet, but that's the point. It forces us to watch an incredibly intimate moment that's often glossed over in pop culture. After all, how many male masturbation scenes have been featured on movies and TV? Certainly, the playing field has been evened in recent years, but there's yet to be a female-focused scene as iconic as Ted's pre-date ritual in There's Something About Mary or Sydney's masturbation station in I Love You, Man.
As Broadly pointed out, Charlotte's addiction to Vibratex's "rabbit" vibrator in Sex and the City — which aired over 20 years ago — was a revolutionary storyline. The episode helped to destigmatize sex toys, and likely female masturbation along with it. "To see this character, who's a little more prim and proper, discover her sexuality likely resonated with a lot of women [who might have thought]: 'Wow, if Charlotte is willing to spend an evening with her vibrator, what's it doing for her?'" Shay Martin, Vibratex's vice president, told Forbes last August. "I think it allowed shy women to say, 'Hey, this is okay. I can experience this and not be judged.'"
Since Charlotte's masturbation marathons, there have been other frank depictions on-screen: Cosmo UK cites important female masturbation scenes from shows like Broad City, Fleabag, UnREAL, and Girls, among others, while Refinery29 mentions Insecure.
That said, these are all examples involving adult women, and it can be tricky to depict middle schoolers discovering their bodies in a respectful yet honest way. Netflix's animated series Big Mouth achieved this in Season 2, when Missy (Jenny Slate) realizes it feels good when she rubs her stuffed animal in a certain way over her crotch. She has no idea what she's doing is masturbation (which Maya seems to understand in PEN15) — only that it feels great. That is, until the Shame Wizard (David Thewlis) comes along and tells her that what she's doing is disgusting.
Missy eventually rejects any stigma associated with horniness, as does Maya with Ojichan — her own personal Shame Wizard. That Maya's self-gratification is portrayed by a real person, not a cartoon, makes it that much more realistic and impactful, while the fact that actor Maya Erskine is actually 31 keeps the scenes from feeling invasive or exploitative. It's a no-nonsense look at female self-pleasure that ultimately reveals how normal and common it really is, and while it may be happening on a show called PEN15, that means everything for women.