Critic’s Notebook: The Lustful Middle School Girl Rises

Critic’s Notebook

The Lustful Middle School Girl Rises

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CreditCreditCari Vander Yacht

By Amanda Hess

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).

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.

Related Coverage

Review: ‘PEN15′ Goes Crudely, Sweetly Back to SchoolFeb. 7, 2019ImageReview: All the Feels, Hurts and Laughs of ‘Eighth Grade’July 11, 2018ImageWhat’s on TV Friday: ‘Big Mouth’ and ‘The Future Perfect’Sept. 29, 2017ImageNick Kroll Still Isn’t Over Puberty. Just Ask His Therapist.Nov. 10, 2017Image

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