In Honor of ‘PEN15’: Team MR’s Most Awkward Middle School Photos


If you’ve ever found yourself casually listening to an old Nelly song, just enjoying life, laughing about how you used to have to buy CDs and then all of the sudden find that you’re covered in a cold sweat at the mere thought of life between the ages of 11-14, PEN15 might be the show for you.

Hulu’s new-ish series perfectly encapsulates the humiliating yet somehow exhilarating middle-school experience of say, one’s first thong, or shared secret beer, amongst other things. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, both 31, play 12-year-old versions of themselves (an absurd casting choice that somehow works), navigating the belockered halls of a generic middle school with a cast of actual 12-year-old actors. The show is so intensely awkward I had to pace through the first episode, but I came out a stronger woman at the end of season one.

PEN15 celebrates a true-to-life adolescent awkwardness I didn’t realize I’d never seen mastered on screen, homing in with hyper-specificity about what was so hard and fun and weird about coming of age in the time of dial-up AOL. It celebrates close female friendship but also doesn’t shy away from highlighting the competition and frustration and fear that comes with growing and developing at different speeds alongside someone that you can’t live without and occasionally can’t stand.

Yes, there are episodes about chat rooms and choreographed dances and boyfriends you barely talk to, but there’s also a subtle through-line about the moments when you suddenly feel too grown up for imaginative play, something I’ve tried to pinpoint in my own memory. The way the girls are always so physically close turned up memories of how my friends and I used to just drape ourselves across each other, a habit that would all but disappear a few years later. There’s an episode about racism that uses the Spice Girls to tackle othering that felt familiar to my minority experience and honed in on anti-Asian racism in specific ways.

PEN15 reminded me of the smaller truths of adolescence, the little things that got tossed from my brain as I try to remember that restaurant I liked in that one neighborhood or if I added my meal choice to that wedding invite already. It is so refreshing to see a show attempt to paint late girlhood in an unflinching way, honoring how hard it can be. PEN15 never laughs at its characters but doesn’t shy away from their flaws. It’s also comedically genius.

With this in mind, I need to talk about khakis. While the resurgence of khakis as a fashion staple has been electrifying to watch, it has also been somewhat traumatic. The last time I wore khakis with any regularity was circa 2001 when I was in 7th grade, newly matriculated into a middle school program inside of a high school (whyyyyyyyyyy), an ungraceful five-foot-ten and freshly a woman. I had a pair of snowboard-inspired khakis (to this day I have never seen a snowboard IRL) and boot-cut low rise khakis (shout out to Alloy) for when I was feeling flirty. What I remember most about both of these pairs of pants are the two very distinct times I was both surprised by my period and wholly unprepared for it. I can’t look at a pair of khakis without getting the faintest shiver of terror remembering how I had to tie a Limited Too windbreaker around my front like an apron because I had somehow managed to stain the front of my very stainable pants.

I recently brought this khaki-period phenomenon up in a pitch meeting expecting it to be a universal experience over which we would all bond and was met with silence and horror. As an act of retaliation, I have forced as many PEN15-obsessed coworkers as possible to share their most middle school (adj.) of middle school (noun) outfits. Enjoy! TTYL!

Feature image via PEN15/Hulu.

Nora Taylor

Nora Taylor

Nora Taylor is the Editor of Clever. She can frequently be found knocking things over in the greater New York City area.

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