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.
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.
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).