What Pen15 and the rise of middle school stories in television means today

In Hulu’s Pen15, one of the main characters, Anna, holds a compact mirror up to hallway passersby so that they can observe their bigotry. Then, in the throes of hunger pains (brought on by her hunger strike “to end racism”), she turns the mirror unto herself. A janitor approaches and tells her, “That’s actually not a bad idea to look at yourself, especially when you think something is everyone else’s fault.”

The philosophy espoused by this scene is useful advice for any middle schooler, but it also helps to explain the recent rise in movies and TV shows centered around middle school specifically. From Pen15 to Bo Burnham’s 2018 directorial debut Eighth Grade, to Nick Kroll and John Mulaney’s raunchy comedy Netflix series Big Mouth, it seems we’ve shifted our artistic focus from high school to the less glamorous but nonetheless saturated-with-inspiration middle school.

Perhaps the creative potential of high school-related media has been so exhausted—between John Hughes movies and the Twilight franchise—that culturally, we have to delve into the dark recesses of adolescence to find something new and noteworthy.

But this trend can also be attributed to a larger cultural shift, too. In a tumultuous political climate, perhaps we identify with characters who don’t yet have a firm sense of self, who are as confused as we are. And what time in one’s life is more confusing than middle school?

Pen15 is focused on the friendship between two middle school girls, Anna and Maya. Staple adolescent experiences are included in the show: shaving, first kisses, school dances. But the characters are also awakened to social justice issues. In one episode, Maya is forced to play a servant in a group project because she is Asian, which her older brother explains is degrading and racist. The next day, Anna stages an Every 15 Minutes-esque demonstration that is construed as a hate crime when it results in Maya being further bullied. Maya’s brother and his friends advise her to “kick [Anna’s] white ass,” but the two end up just having a dance battle. This clumsy exploration of race relations is endearing, and one can’t help but feel warmed by the friendship-conquers-all resolution of the episode. 

But viewers might also, in some capacity, relate to Maya and Anna’s struggle to grasp these concepts. It was, after all, a privilege to be uninterested in politics prior to the 2016 election, but it was a privilege enjoyed by many. Even those that were consistently politically involved have found themselves redefining and questioning ideals today. 

So it’s fitting that the media we absorb would return to the middle school era, a time when one is just forming their worldview.

Cheerleaders and jocks—and even their deconstruction—have become tiresome tropes, but the nuanced world of middle school popular girls remains endlessly mysterious. It is unsurprising that Eighth Grade and Pen15 have been received well critically, and have earned a status close to high art that is not enjoyed by many films set in high school.

Eighth Grade, like middle school itself, leaves its audience in an almost perpetual dread (a common theme in this era), constantly expecting a momentous event, good or bad, to occur, but never completely fulfills that promise. The film follows Kayla Day, a teen vlogger, as she ends her middle school years. Exploring the intersection between digital life and real life, Eighth Grade’s protagonist is matter-of-fact. Nothing is overdone or exaggerated. The movie captures the social dynamic of middle school, which is less hierarchical than that of high school. Kayla may have been voted most quiet, but she also is invited to a popular girl’s pool party and hangs out with high school kids. She’s shy, but she sings karaoke and parties, because in eighth grade your identity is still malleable.

No character in Eighth Grade is a stereotype, because they don’t yet know how to adapt themselves to fit into one. Viewers might identify with Kayla much the same way they do with Pen15 girls, because Kayla is also crudely assembling her worldview. But Eighth Grade has a realism to it that adds another dimension. Often cutting to Kayla’s vlogs where she explores topics such as making friends and putting yourself out there, the movie is painful and cutting because of its authenticity in an era of irony.

In an age of hypernormalisation, it does us good to be reminded of a time when we hadn’t quite learned how to conform to social graces, how to “fake” it in order to be accepted.

It is worth noting that both Pen15 and Eighth Grade are female coming-of-age stories that may not have existed in years prior. Kayla, Maya, and Anna are allowed to be angsty and weird, and display traits that aren’t typically feminine. They can care about lipgloss but also important philosophical questions. Their gender often plays a crucial role in plotlines, and highlights the difference between how we treat preteen girls and preteen boys. 

Though it does not convey the strange magic of adolescence, it does convey the utter disparity of it, and it’s intriguing that even an over-the-top, slapstick comedy derives its entertainment from the volatility we all seem to have these days.

In a nation that’s so divided, perhaps we no longer identify with the labels of The Breakfast Club, like “The Brains” or “The Princess.” Like middle schoolers, we are not yet at the point where we can dispel other people’s perceptions of ourselves. We’re just now becoming self aware, we’re looking at our reflection in the mirror. We’re struggling to find our footing, and we’ve realized the flaws in labels.

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