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‘PEN15’ was a radically honest, thoroughly singular show about Asian American girlhood

Maya, left, and Yuki are played by real-life daughter and mother Maya Erskine and Mutsuko Erskine on “PEN15.” (Hulu)
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This article contains light spoilers for the final seven episodes of “PEN15.”

There’s no shortage of bodily fluids in “PEN15,” the Emmy-nominated coming-of-age cringe comedy that ends Friday with the release of its final seven episodes. Its 13-year-old protagonists, Maya and Anna (played by 30-something actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle), are no strangers to the assorted gunk that makes its way out of their bodies. Sweat. Snot. Saliva. Blood. Mucus. Tears. (So many tears.) Occasionally, all this goop and glop is used to gross out viewers. But much more often, it’s presented as a natural and unavoidable fact of teenage life, as intrinsic to a middle-schooler’s daily existence as lockers or mean girls.

But there’s another image of liquid corporeality I’ll always associate with the Hulu series: Maya and her Japan-born mother, Yuki (played by Mutsuko Erskine, the actor’s real-life mother), in the bath together. The water resembles strawberry milk, creamily opaque and pastel pink, with tangerines bobbing and sliding as the middle-aged woman reaches tenderly across the baby-blue tub toward her daughter. Yuki comforts Maya, who frets that her best friend, Anna, won’t understand why she hadn’t shared that she had begun menstruating.

The tableau is deeply soothing for an unspoken reason, too. Maya has recently discovered masturbation, burdening her relationship to her changing body further with self-consciousness and isolation. But through these intimate soaks, derived from Japanese bathing culture, Yuki has given Maya another way of existing in her body — one that’s social, matter-of-fact about nudity, pleasurable without qualification and uncomplicated about her heritage. The tub scene is the kind that takes you out of a show, in a good way: Watching it, I wondered at what age Maya would realize her mother had given her an invaluable gift.

Like so many of the Asian American details and story lines in “PEN15,” Maya and Yuki’s shared bath was drawn from the Erskines’ lives. That cultural specificity is part of what made the series not just notably honest about puberty, but thoroughly singular in its depiction of Asian American girlhood.

When it debuted in 2019, “PEN15” was routinely lumped with other middle-school-set stories aiming toward greater sexual or emotional frankness, like “Big Mouth” and “Eighth Grade.” But such groupings failed to take into account “PEN15’s” other achievement: illustrating, with unsparing candor, the dual crisis of living in a body transforming from the inside and out. Puberty is bad enough. Learning that you don’t fit in because of your race — especially at an age when not sticking out feels as essential as air or water — is simply brutal.

Season 1 review: In ‘PEN15,’ two women play themselves at 13 and it’s not just another nostalgia trip

The first great episode of the show, which is set at the turn of the millennium, is Season 1’s “Posh,” in which Maya, Anna and three friends decide to make a jokey video about the Spice Girls. Maya wants to be Posh Spice, but she’s told by one of the other girls that she “look[s] the most like Scary” on account of her “tan.” Once the camera starts rolling, Maya, now in Mel B’s trademark cat ears and leopard print, is instead given a new role: a Mexican butler named Guido. “Why do I have to be the servant?” she asks her classmates, who are all White. “Because you’re, like, different from us,” she’s told.

What’s notable about the middle-schoolers’ unconscious racism — and what makes “Posh” feel so bruisingly realistic — is that there’s nothing specifically anti-Asian or anti-Japanese about their taunts. They intuit, without entirely understanding why, that Maya can be Othered, and when they see an opportunity to exert power — by assigning her undesired or subordinate roles — they take it.

Maya’s revelations about her identity expand from there. Maya, who is mixed-race, doesn’t fit in with the Korean American kids, who don’t understand her when she tries to be “more Asian” by speaking Japanese to them. Toward the end of the episode, Maya’s older brother, Shuji (Dallas Liu), helps her realize she’s been at the receiving end of racial microaggressions for much of her life but never pieced them in a pattern before. In classic “PEN15” fashion, Maya responds by trauma-vomiting. It’s a deeply compassionate episode, capturing how, for many, growing up is inseparable from learning to be excluded, the inchoateness of seventh-grade racism hardly mitigating the hurt. Middle school is often when our heightened need for fitting in tends to manifest in ultra-conventional values and tastes, and “PEN15” has consistently and poignantly depicted how that fear of being different can find racially charged expression in an Asian American adolescence.

Among the final batch of “PEN15” chapters is a thematic sequel to “Posh.” In “Shadow,” a prepubescent family friend named Ume (Akari Harada) visits from Japan. The girls were friends when Maya and her family were abroad, but now she bristles when Ume, who doesn’t speak English, becomes an object of fascination at school. “Object” is the right word here — the American middle-schoolers touch Ume’s hair without asking, obsess over the things that make her different (i.e. exotic) and generally treat her like a plaything, rather than a person. “Why is being Japanese special on her and bad on me?” wails Maya, who takes out her frustrations with the attention Ume receives on her friend, who’s alone in a foreign country where hardly anyone can understand her.

“Shadow” adds qualifiers to Maya’s racialized rejection — nuances that happened to be thrown into relief in the show’s setting of the early 2000s. Maya had anticipated that Ume would be spurned by her schoolmates for her difference, but her Asianness, in contrast to Maya’s mixed-race Asian Americanness, is a novelty to the White kids. It’s a phenomenon that American pop culture reflected some two decades ago when Hollywood became briefly fixated with Asia-set films such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Memoirs of a Geisha” but, with scant exceptions, continued to ignore both Asian American cultures and communities.

Immature as always — she’s 13! — popularity-obsessed Maya is believably monstrous when she tries to gain some social currency by pretending that she, too, speaks Japanese to impress her classmates, going so far as to speak stereotypical gibberish to Ume in a performance of fluency. Still, you can’t help but feel for Maya: She’s so overcome with jealousy and self-pity that she can’t perceive the subtle but unmistakable dehumanization with which her schoolmates treat Ume. “Shadow” encapsulates a cornerstone of the diasporic experience: being treated like a bad copy of the real thing. But it also observes how victimhood doesn’t confer goodness; Maya bullies and belittles Ume herself, until she realizes that she’s just as bad as — if not worse than — her classmates.

“I know that I’m Asian, but I’m more than that,” says Maya in “Posh.” That’s a throughline of “PEN15,” and perhaps why the series has been underdiscussed as a show about the Asian American experience. But even when Maya’s Japanese-ness isn’t directly addressed, racial undertones give certain story lines an added layer of poignancy. In the pilot, for instance, Maya is voted UGIS, or Ugliest Girl in School — a designation that may or may not be influenced by her ethnicity. (It’s worth noting that the episode begins with Maya’s failed attempt at emulating the looks of a White actress, Sarah Michelle Gellar.) Throughout the show, Anna is slightly more accepted by the (mostly) White girls at their school, which might reflect their tribal instincts — or the fact that theater-kid Maya is simply more eccentric, bursting with Ace Ventura impressions only her BFF finds charming, rather than befuddling.

I’ve always loved that uncertainty about Maya’s “ugliness” and her unpopularity even compared with Anna. It feels like life: As a person of color (or any marginalized group), you’re not always able to determine whether you’ve been rejected for who you are or what you are.

Season 2 review: If all this alone time makes you nostalgic, then ‘PEN15’ should be your new best friend

Erskine and her collaborators are far from the only Asian American actors and comedians breaking sexual taboos; they’ve got predecessors in Awkwafina, Ali Wong and Margaret Cho. But it’s still all-too-rare to see that objective within such a youthful context: watching one’s body change and feeling oneself growing more desirous, yet simultaneously being taught that your face — and all those who look like you — aren’t so desirable. True representation has to include the messiness of humanity, and few characters are messier than Maya Ishii-Peters, a menstruating, masturbating, self-hating yet self-involved Portnoyette, disliked by many but loved more than she thinks. We just have to hope that Maya will make peace with her Asian eyes the way she eventually does with her period.

Correspondingly, “PEN15” feels like such a well-rounded portrait of Asian American coming of age, not least for its balanced and often matter-of-fact portrayal of Japanese culture in the Ishii-Peters home. Maya goes through phases of bristling against her heritage, but she’s also often inured to it and occasionally even finds active pleasure in it. She has a Sailor Moon poster in her room, usually doesn’t think twice about the Japanese meals prepared by her mother and, most notably, shares those calming baths with her mother, their bonding ritual in sharp contrast to the mutual inattention between Anna and her mom.

“PEN15” ends with Maya and Anna wondering what kind of friends they’ll be when they grow up — whether they’ll drift apart, or stay besties forever. It’s a beautiful conclusion, hitting the perfect balance between wistful and comforting, especially following the finale’s night of terror and dread. The series doesn’t need a coda, but I couldn’t help but think of “Yuki,” the chapter centered on Maya’s mother, as a kind of second ending.

Following in the footsteps of “Ramy” and “Master of None” — shows about 30-ish men of color with episodes dedicated to the inner lives of their immigrant parents — “Yuki” chronicles a day in the life of Maya’s mother, with cinematic flourishes borrowed from Wong Kar-wai and Japanese soap operas. Written and directed by Maya Erskine, the unhurried, gaze-filled, not-quite-romance finds Yuki running into her first husband, Shuji’s businessman father, and revisiting her past life in Japan as an interpreter for touring American musicians (the latter detail also pilfered from the elder Erskine’s biography). When Yuki returns home, she tells her husband that she was “always stuck in the middle of two cultures.”

The Asian cinematic influences, so visually distinct from the rest of the series, leave open the possibility that the episode’s events are a daydream, Yuki’s riffs on the soap opera she was watching earlier in the tub. But to me, they also suggest the prospect that some version of Maya found a way out of the cage of her internalized racism, and that she finally found more beauty in her heritage than shame. She found enough love to open her heart. Yuki’s closing speech tell us what we already know: Maya was never alone.

The final episodes of PEN15 premiere Friday on Hulu.

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