This article was published online on April 14, 2021.
Embarrassment makes for rich literature, but few fictions I can think of capture humiliation with the brute efficiency of “Traumarama.” The series, which ran for a time in Seventeen magazine, offered true stories written by, and for, teenagers—three or so lines, poetic in their brevity, about unruly bodies and unforgiving worlds. Crushes were a common topic. So were pimples and periods. White pants, in the world of “Traumarama,” were Chekhov’s gun.
The series was silly. As a kid, I loved it anyway. It offered commiseration and catharsis. Its mini-melodramas were tales of embarrassment that, in the end, defied embarrassment: How mortifying should any of this be, if so many others were living through it, too?
Newly in need of balm during topsy-turvy years, I’ve found it in television shows that have been asking the same question—in particular, a crop of current series that bring exuberant candor to their depictions of growing up. PEN15, the critical darling now in its second season on Hulu, chronicles the victories and humiliations of two best friends as they start seventh grade in the year 2000. Stranger Things, the Netflix smash hit set in and celebrating the 1980s, makes use of genres well suited to examining the out-of-body quality of puberty: science fiction, mystery, horror. Big Mouth, also on Netflix, follows the fortunes of a group of present-day middle schoolers. A crucial element of that show’s success—it recently completed Season 4 of a run that will span at least six seasons—is that it focuses, with Traumaramic intensity, on the turmoils of early adolescence.
Exploring a time of life that ends but never leaves, the shows are wonderfully weird, even cartoonish (Big Mouth is an actual cartoon). But they are deeply earnest, too. They understand that this phase, to those who are living through it, can feel like a chronic emergency. And they have arrived, in their considerations of coming of age, at a singular conclusion: The best way to capture puberty’s reality, it turns out, is to embrace its surrealism.
“You guys, stop. This is, like, so mean. Just tell her.” It’s the first day of seventh grade, and Maya Ishii-Peters has spent a few blissful hours thinking that her status in school, and therefore in life, is changing for the better: Brandt, a popular kid, is rumored to like her. So, for that matter, is his friend. All around Trailview Middle School, hand-lettered signs have been popping up: brandt loves maya. dustin loves maya. She and her best friend, Anna Kone, discuss the news, thrilled. Then the guys materialize. “UGIS!” Dustin shouts at Maya. Brandt joins in. “UGIS!” The girls are confused—Yoojiss?—until Becca, a mean girl who thinks herself kind, volunteers an explanation.
“Oh, honey, don’t you know?” she says to Maya. “It means ‘ugliest girl in school.’ ”
PEN15 ’s camera focuses tightly on Maya’s face as she registers this information. Time, in the show’s world, stops. Taunts of “UGIS!” echo, in sneering slo-mo, in the distance. You feel, through the screen, the pain that is lodging itself inside this very young person—pain that will likely remain for a long time to come. She’s trying so hard not to cry.
“It’s cool,” Maya says finally, as the tears well up anyway. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that’s really funny. Thanks for telling me, Becca.”
This is not the kind of moment you might expect from a show that bills itself as a wacky comedy. But it’s precisely the kind that makes PEN15 so compelling. Childhood and adulthood, humor and tragedy, maelstrom and magic—they collide with barely controlled chaos. PEN15 ’s primary gag is that Maya and Anna are played by two of the show’s creators, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who are in their 30s, while most of their classmates are played by age-appropriate actors. It’s a gimmick that comes to read as an insight: Rarely has the feeling of not fitting in, and of being awkward at your core, been so neatly visualized.
PEN15 delights in recalling the specific indignities of the early aughts (the cargo pants, the screech of the dial-up modem, the brief ubiquity of NSYNC). Its focus, though, is puberty’s more generalized insult. Here you’ll be treated to intermittent close-ups of braces and zits and female shins covered in yeti-thick fur, images exaggerated into demented Dadaism. You’ll find bodies made whimsically alien. Maya removes her retainer; you hear the sucking sound of saliva against the plastic. Anna has her first kiss, and the milestone is portrayed through a montage of body parts: the boy’s slurping tongue; Anna’s shock-widened eyes; the back of her hand, when it’s all over, wiping away the wetness.
The effect of the scene is, to be clear, horrifying; I have a pretty high tolerance for gross-out humor, and even I found myself covering my eyes. But awkwardness, in PEN15, operates as an ethic. American culture, when it’s not tricking them into growing up too quickly, often treats girls around Anna and Maya’s age as objects of mystery and mockery. (The term tween is its own reason to cringe.) PEN15 ’s audacities are, in that sense, corrective. The show offers its young characters the elemental dignity of seeing them as they are. It understands how possible it is, at their age or any other, for the surreal to be profoundly true.
And so PEN15 feels the girls’ feelings along with them. It swings its moods on their behalf. It lives within their whiplash. Maya throws a tantrum in one moment and gets her period in another. Anna plays with dolls and then gossips, with a practiced indifference, about sex. Both girls want nothing more than to fit in, right until they want nothing more than to stand out. You can’t help but feel tenderness for them. But their show will remind you that tenderness itself has a double valence: love, yes, but also pain. Thanks for telling me, Becca.
If doubleness is a theme of PEN15, it is, in Matt and Ross Duffer’s ode to early adolescence, a geography. Stranger Things gives us Hawkins, Indiana, a fictional town where a group of delightfully nerdy preteens ride their bikes and listen to cassette tapes and play Dungeons & Dragons. But lurking underneath their sleepy suburbia, they soon discover, is an anti-world—a darkly detailed inversion of home. The Upside Down, as the kids come to call it, is an apt metaphor for puberty precisely because it’s such a visceral one. This is a place of muscly monsters, rancid odors, and, it must be noted, quite a lot of ooze. It is a place where children, if the monsters have their way, go to die.
It is a place, consequently, of profound disorientation. Will, a soft-eyed boy who has traveled to the Upside Down, tries to describe to his best friend, Mike, how it feels to be back. “You know how on a View-Master,” Will says, “when it gets, like …”
“Caught between two slides?” Mike asks.
“Yeah,” Will replies. “Yeah, like that.”
Big Mouth has monsters too. But they roam places even more unsettling than viscous anti-worlds: the bodies of the kids at Bridgeton Middle School. The show’s Hormone Monsters are molecules made manifest: Hirsute and humanoid, and also vaguely bovine, they cause puberty and then coach kids through it. One of them, voiced by Maya Rudolph, is named Connie. Another is named Maurice. As Andrew, Jessi, Missy, Nick, and their peers venture further into seventh grade and beyond, the monsters act as both mentors and menaces. And they are joined, as episodes unfold, by other embodiments of adolescent agita: the Depression Kitty, the Anxiety Mosquito, the Shame Wizard (a specter with a British accent and a dour demeanor who appears at inopportune moments to remind the kids of their “fundamental otherness”).
Did I mention that Big Mouth is extremely weird? This is puberty rendered as magical realism. But Big Mouth’s surreality, as in the other shows, is a way of seeing. So is the series’ bawdiness: Animation offers the freedom to go gonzo. Big Mouth is, quite often, filthy. It discusses—and depicts, in graphic if parodic detail—periods and pubic hair and erections and masturbation. It is blunt about bodies in a way that is mostly refreshing and occasionally disgusting.
But there is grace in the grossness. Big Mouth, for all its antics, is abidingly protective of its kids. Warmth is woven into its conception. Nick, always anxious that he’s falling behind in the race to grow up, is a version of Big Mouth’s co-creator Nick Kroll. (Kroll also voices the character.) Andrew is based on another co-creator, Andrew Goldberg. The show features many other such blurrings of fact and fiction, among them an episode in which Maya and Anna leap over from the PEN15 universe to voice Big Mouth versions of themselves. The Duffer brothers do not star in Stranger Things; they have suggested, however, that the show’s fluorescent nostalgia is an outgrowth of what their lives were like when the Hormone Monsters came for them.
The creators of these shows are compassionate toward the kids because, in a direct sense, they are those kids. The magic here is human, and humane; everyone, on some level, is the child they once were. Everyone can be upended in an addled world. Everyone deserves some tenderness. These cathartic comedies came to life in a moment of deep anxiety about empathy itself—a moment of cruelties and rumors, loneliness and fear, Beccas and Brandts. The shows have instructed, and warned. To watch them is to feel once again the great hope of young adolescence: Please let this just be a phase.