Hulu's 'PEN15' And The Very Real Evolution Of The "Female-Centric" Comedy
For some of us, the title of Hulu’s new show PEN15 brings a lot to mind. Like the eggplant emoji whose structure has been culturally adopted to represent something else (I know you know what I’m talking about), PEN15‘s title also evokes long forgotten memories — a time many moons ago (your middle school days, perhaps?) when you and your friends would write down this word on any surface — hands in particular — and invite unsuspecting classmates to join the “Pen15 Club” just so you can laugh in their faces once they understood what “Pen15” referenced.
Yes, Hulu’s PEN15 is here to remind us all of a time when our childhood cleverness and cruelty knew no bounds. But, more importantly, PEN15 shows us that female-centric comedies are here to stay, and that women writers and creators have so much more to explore.
In thinking about PEN15 we have to take a step back and look at the cinematic successes of 2017’s Girls Trip or the ballsy series Broad City, acknowledging the shoulders of the giant they stand on: the 2011 comedy Bridesmaids. Though the current wave of female-centric comedies can be attributed to the massive success and impact Bridesmaids had on the entertainment industry, Hulu’s PEN15 — a show about two 13-year-old girls growing up in the year 2000 — signals a substantial paradigm shift for this comedic sub-genre. Whether it’s been realized or not, PEN15 is groundbreaking in its own right and serves as yet another onscreen example of women reclaiming their narratives.
In 2011, Bridesmaids opened the doors to women participating in a brand of “raunch” comedy typically attributed to men in other Judd Apatow-produced projects, like Superbad or Knocked Up. It was the first time women were able to actively participate in and explore the entire range and scope of comedy, from top to bottom, literally — from intellectual-based humor to explosive diarrhea. The film raked in over 288 million worldwide, and made massive stars out of its ensemble cast (i.e., Melissa McCarthy).
The scale of Bridesmaids‘ success forced the film industry to take notice. And, naturally, they did. Producers actively sought out projects with concepts that were female-lead, female-driven, or female-centric. This saw the release and success of films like Pitch Perfect, Bad Moms, and The To Do List. These films indulged in “raunch” comedy while allowing women to take center stage. The fact that Bridesmaids was written by two women, Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, made the film even more special.
With the success of the film Girls Trip, the effects of Bridesmaids are still being felt. But the “Bridesmaids effect” isn’t limited to the big screen. Bridesmaids‘ mainstream viability trickled down into television, making way for shows like HBO’s Girls and Comedy Central’s Broad City.
Broad City, created by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, follows two 20-something (also named Abbi and Ilana) as they deal with the struggles of adulthood in present- day New York. Though at times strange and severely strayed from reality, Broad City remains rooted in telling honest stories about its female protagonists. The show also finds genius ways to comment on interpersonal relationships, as well as what it means to be a woman pit against the realities of present-day America. Who can forget Abbi’s Shinjo “pegging” disaster or Ilana’s inability to orgasm after Trump’s election?
Jacobson and Glazer use raunchy humor as a way of expressing cultural and feminist ideas. But rather than spew good ol’ scatological jokes, Broad City takes things a step further and uses the sub-genre as a space for women to use intellect and humor to express their opinions and concerns about their experiences. Critics often compare PEN15 to Broad City, but somehow PEN15 manages to push their sub-genre a step forward — and usher female storytellers to a completely new level.
While everyone seems to be focusing on PEN15‘s eccentric casting — and how Maya and Anna are played by the show’s adult co-creators, Maya Erskine and Anna Knonkle — that’s not what’s worth noting here. (Pul-lease, adults have been playing children on film and on stage long before Michael McDonald introduced us to “Stuart” on MADtv). What’s truly groundbreaking about PEN15 is how it honestly depicts what it’s like to be a 13-year-old girl growing up in America.
Society always seems prone to normalizing the experiences of young male adolescents. Everything from drinking their first beer to seeking out their first crushes — hormonal changes, nocturnal emissions, and puberty included — is portrayed onscreen for young men without shame or stigma attached. A young man’s transition into manhood is made to feel like a rite of passage. The same can’t be said for pubescent young women whose experiences are commonly glossed over or sanitized.
But PEN15 uses blunt honesty and humor to tackle the experience of leaving childhood behind from the point of view of young women, from a first period to needing to make a pad out of toilet paper, to exploring self-pleasure.
PEN15‘s incredible humor feels like a conversation between the show’s creators and the countless adult women who’ve shared in this common experience. It allows women to re-examine the narrative of their adolescence and say, “Yeah, it really was kinda like that,” without having to sugarcoat it to make others comfortable. More specifically, it allows an entire generation of women who grew up in the 2000s to feel seen in ways that are specific yet somehow universal.
In addition to its revolutionary narratives, PEN15 offers more. For those of us in a certain demographic, it captures the excitement we felt when first accessing online chatrooms. Through Maya, who’s half-Japanese, we witness the struggle of being seen as different and of being in constant flux in your understanding and appreciation of your heritage. With Anna, who’s parents are on the brink of divorce, we are reminded of what it’s like to feel important and insignificant at the same time.
Maybe you’ve experienced one of these things, or maybe you’ve experienced them all. No matter what your own adolescence was like, PEN15 portrays the difficulty we all feel in trying to make sense of a world we have no bearings on. Though we laugh at how awkward these girls are at times — and yes, I admit the casting definitely
adds value to the show’s sensational humor — we ultimately find ourselves identifying with their pain, marveling at the greatness of their friendship, and recognizing ourselves in them. Much like Bridesmaids and Broad City, Hulu’s PEN15 invites audiences to indulge in a genre of comedy that has evolved to reflect women’s desire to be seen, heard, and understood.
You can catch PEN15 on Hulu now.
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