It begins innocently enough. In the third episode of the Hulu comedy “PEN15,” the seventh grader Maya is playing with two My Little Pony dolls, mashing their pink plastic faces together in a fantasy make-out session, when her face flushes pink, too. For maybe the first time, she sticks a hand down her underwear, and for the remainder of the 30-minute episode, that hand rarely re-emerges. Suddenly Maya’s suburban middle school existence is pulsing with masturbation triggers: a pencil hole drilled into a purple eraser; a classmate’s ear hair; the curve of a sand dune in a nature documentary. A switch has flipped. Now everything is sex.
In the middle school of the American collective imagination, packs of filthy-minded boys stalk the halls, snapping bras and howling at the cliff’s edge of puberty. The sex-obsessed adolescent girl is a rarer breed. More often girls are positioned as victims of raging male hormones, or else they are styled as preternaturally mature, rising above the boys and their juvenile misadventures. Now — in “PEN15,” the film “Eighth Grade” and the Netflix animated comedy “Big Mouth” — the lustful adolescent girl is having her moment.
It is not, to be clear, an altogether glorious time. At least, it’s not for the girls themselves. Trapped in the years between childhood and adulthood, they are realizing that women are valued for their sex appeal, but do not yet know how to look or feel sexy. They think about boys constantly, but aren’t actually ready to touch them. They pursue sex and romance aggressively, but almost exclusively in their imaginations.
Though polished and popular girls — fitted with thongs, coated in lip gloss and paired with boyfriends — exist in their worlds, they might as well belong to a different species. Our girls are awkward and weird. They are undergoing orthodontic treatments. They have made out with every bedpost and doorframe in their bedrooms.
Through their eyes, it is the boys who become smooth, uncomplicated objects. Kayla, the slump-shouldered loner at the heart of “Eighth Grade,” is stupefied by her crush, and when his puny body emerges glistening from a pool, it is in slow motion and set to thumping stripper music. Meanwhile, the seventh-grade BFFs of “PEN15,” Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone — played, with an absurd and haunting realism, by the 31-year-old writer-actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle — are entranced by the sun-kissed nape of a small boy on the kickball field. These boys don’t have much going for them; their personalities range from vacant to misanthropic. But they are genetically and socially blessed with whatever the middle school idea of “hot” is, and that is a gift that eludes our girls.
In the second episode of “PEN15,” Maya finds herself in a closet make-out scenario with a boy, and when she unclamps her dripping retainer from her mouth, the boy flashes a look of such genuine disgust that you can’t help but feel empathy for both parties. We have seen a version of this dynamic before — it is a staple of the teen movie (à la “She’s All That” and “Never Been Kissed”) for the popular kid to be forced into intimate contact with a loser — but here our alliances have shifted. While it’s clear that Maya has been unfairly ranked in the middle school sexual hierarchy — her “Ace Ventura” impression is criminally underrated — we also recognize that on some level, she is not ready to kiss a boy. And the boy, for his part, seems neither overly judgmental nor indiscriminately sex-obsessed. Through him we see that girls can be revolting, too.
Often tween boys and girls are isolated into separate spheres, portrayed as alien to each other and to adults. But these properties reveal much of adolescent culture that can be shared. When Kayla in “Eighth Grade” finally connects with a boy, it is over their mutual love of the Adult Swim animated comedy “Rick and Morty.” “PEN15” gets its name from the PEN15 Club — a made-up institution that exists to trick other kids to write “penis” on their hands — and the show reveals that such juvenile antics are not exclusive to one gender.
“Big Mouth” is fashioned like a psychedelic coed sex-ed class, which is where the show begins. The first episode is about ejaculation; the second takes on menstruation. Though it is mostly about boys, the show smartly acknowledges that girls are experiencing analogous, if not precisely similar, issues. (The same cannot be said of its predecessors: “Freaks & Geeks,” for instance, never privileged girls as members of its younger geek crowd.) The central conceit of “Big Mouth” — pubescent kids are visited by animated hormone monsters that goad them into furious masturbation, crude flirtation attempts and irrational outbursts — helps to situate its boys and girls as equals. They’re simply operating under separate influences: The boys are mostly visited by Maury the Hormone Monster (voiced by Nick Kroll), while the girls are counseled by Connie the Hormone Monstress (Maya Rudolph).
Though these are all comedies, they take their horny girls quite seriously. In “PEN15,” the adults who play Maya and Anna are supported by a cast of real middle schoolers. This could easily be played as a sight gag, but instead the choice resonates deeply. It works to punctuate the moment when girls’ growth spurts send them towering over boys, and it dramatizes Maya and Anna’s outsider status at an age when kids seem capable of sniffing out difference on a cellular level.
The hyper-realistic style of “Eighth Grade” delivers its own emotional gut punch. The 14-year-old Kayla is played by Elsie Fisher, who was herself 14 when she shot the film. Though Kayla makes YouTube videos for an audience in the single digits, and Fisher is a professional performer, knowing that character and actor are both stuck in the same life stage only magnifies the film’s anxious, claustrophobic feel. Jessi of “Big Mouth” is, of course, a cartoon, which allows the character to careen dramatically between adolescence and maturity. When she gets her period on a field trip to the Statue of Liberty, she is a steel cage of emotional control, but the second she enters her mother’s car after school, she melts into a sub-verbal puddle.
These stories are each inspired by slightly different eras, and watched together, they reveal a complex relationship among girls, sex and technology. Though “Big Mouth” is set in the present, it is heavily influenced by the early 1990s adolescence of its creators, and modern technologies take a back seat in its plots. “PEN15” is set in the year 2000, around the time Erskine and Konkle entered middle school, and its girls access the heady adult world through dial-up AOL and Ask Jeeves. Kayla of “Eighth Grade,” meanwhile, rarely releases her grip on her iPhone, and her puberty is mediated through YouTube, Tumblr and Instagram. In one memorable scene, she types “how to give a blow job” into the YouTube search bar, deletes it, and tries instead: “how to give a good blow job.”
New technologies are typically framed as accelerators for the sexual corruption of girls, but here their risks are linked inextricably to great rewards. For the girls of “PEN15,” who together pretend to be a “hot” 26-year-old woman in a chat room, AOL is a portal to disembodied sexual exploration, a way to digitally map out imaginary adult sex lives without actually exposing them to stranger danger. And though it can be painful to watch Kayla lying in her dark bedroom, mainlining her classmates’ Instagram feeds on her phone, it is merely an embodied version of the fantasies that have always thrilled and haunted middle school girls. The “Big Mouth” indifference to technology is its own form of commentary: Social media, it seems to say, just can’t compete with the wild physical and emotional forces of adolescence.
Even for a woman who was once a girl like them — I, too, practiced kissing the back of my hand when my mouth was jammed with wires and rubber bands — there can be a frisson of anxiety to actually seeing their private moments revealed onscreen. The default pop cultural perspective remains that of the adult man, and from his vantage point, exposing adolescent female sexuality onscreen can feel predatory or perverted. These comedies have little interest in considering how those men will feel when they are transported into a girl’s bedroom. Girls’ feelings matter, too. And these girls feel so much.
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