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Are You Even Listening? The Middle School Girls of Pen15 and Eighth Grade Are Speaking

Middle school, for me, was defined by the culture of roughly 2005 to 2008—full of Jason Mraz, iPod nanos, Harry Potter Puppet Pals, and “John Tucker Must Die” repeatedly rented from the video store in my best friend’s neighborhood (I emphasize: repeatedly). My middle school memories happen to fall chronologically between two of the most compelling onscreen depictions of this age group, both released within the last year: on one hand, we have "Eighth Grade" (Bo Burnham, 2018), a cinematic exploration of digital anxiety and girlhood centered around “Most Quiet” superlative winner Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in her last week of middle school, presumably set in or near 2018; on the other, we have "Pen15," a Hulu comedy series from creators and co-stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, which situates thirteen-year-old versions of themselves (same names and all) at the outset of seventh grade in 2000. The series and film center on wildly different yet equally (perpetually, viscerally) awkward heroines, and although the two projects may seem broadly similar in scope and have already been oft-compared since "Pen15" dropped on Hulu in early February, a more worthwhile comparison might be one which instead highlights the enormity of their differences.  

The chronology is crucial. The distance between the beginning of seventh grade and the end of eighth grade feels as essential as the gap between story time and the SATs. Seventh graders in September are still sixth graders at heart. An early episode (“Miranda”) that pinpoints the exact moment when the joy of pretending suddenly becomes more about imitation than imagination. Anna gifts Maya with a new set of her favorite anthropomorphic figurines, which they vow to play with every Friday night until they’re old, but after being called out at lunch for still “playing with dolls,” they dress up (in exaggerated "Daria" style) like the cool girls who dropped a cigarette in the bathroom stall next to them. As funny as the episode is, the shame-inspired shift is more than a little heartbreaking, especially when Anna forces Maya to talk about it with the quiet accusation: “I know you were bored in pretend.” This sets off the first of many realizations and confrontations between the two best friends who begin the first episode on a level playing field, vowing to share every “first” of seventh grade together. By the end of ten episodes, we are made to see not only the ways in which this promise is impossible to keep, but also how its conception is itself an indicator of the innocence which seventh grade will begin to strip away.

By comparison, "Eighth Grade"'s Kayla is long past the cruelty of these transitional childhood moments. No longer endowed with the naïveté and imagination that make Maya and Anna’s misadventures charmingly funny to adult viewers, Kayla instead comes face to face with the next stage of juvenile mortification, which Anna and Maya barely begin to grasp: the plague of self-awareness. Although all three characters are thirteen, Kayla is more clearly grown-up than Anna and Maya in countless ways; this is the biggest. In fact, considering the technological gap in their timelines and how greatly digital tools both enhance and distort one’s sense of self, the experiences of these fictitious middle schoolers may not even be comparable. 

Kayla’s hobby of making self-help videos is potent evidence of the mixed effect the web has on her process of self-realization: after a dread-inducing game of truth or dare, she feels like a fraud when she can’t follow her own advice. The inability to reconcile our idealized online personas with our “IRL” selves, embodied in Kayla’s disquiet, is a huge leap from the fun, curious time Anna and Maya have when they first set up their AOL Instant Messenger screen names and briefly indulge a fantasy version of their combined selves in a chat room. 

In an interview with Vox, director Burnham described the unprecedented role of the internet for people his age and younger: “The internet is something like God, or some void that you’re calling out to, and it might be there and it might not. It might answer you. It might see you. And it might not.” It doesn’t get Kayla—but it’s okay. Her dialogue is mainly with herself—a blessing and a curse that elevates her brand of weird kid (the kind who really tries) to heroic levels of bravery in the suffocating and strange space of middle school.

Of course, the internet has altered not just how we relate to ourselves, but how we learn to relate to one another. After Kayla’s crush asks if she gives blowjobs, all she has to do is punch in a quick “how to give a good blowjob” on YouTube to suddenly learn more than enough. But when Anna and Maya grapple with their own sexual curiosity nearly two decades earlier, they have hardly anywhere to turn but to each other. One hilarious instance of this shared sex education happens in the third episode (“Ojichan") after Maya discovers masturbation and subconsciously makes the Ouija board spell out C-L-I-T. At first both girls act like they have no idea what this word is, only to then “realize” it at the same time a moment later, thus actually confirming for the other what they each had previously suspected. 

The value of having a real best friend at this uncomfortable age—one who will make you a Chinese staircase friendship necklace and wear the one you made in return, who will teach and learn from you both accidentally and very much on purpose—cannot be overstated. Anna and Maya each have a sounding board to explore any whim they might want to follow; even if they are invisible to everyone else, they know they can be heard by each other. Kayla’s voice feels more or less erased by her public label as “quiet,” and her YouTube channel is essentially her only way of validating her tentative conviction that she is someone worth listening to. 

While it might be tempting to focus on the all-too-rare, honest depictions of budding sexuality from these young girl protagonists in light of sudden cultural shifts (as was done beautifully last week by Amanda Hess for the New York Times), I find the most illuminating revelation in this comparison to be in how Kayla, Anna, and Maya find ways to stretch every part of themselves, exploring the nooks and crannies in all their different variations for better or worse. It’s the ongoing game of dress-up and make-believe, persevering through oscillations between projections of confidence—whether naïvely unearned or deliberately chosen—and sincere, wide-eyed, stomach-dropping uncertainty which makes middle school girls such an extraordinary heroes. They aren’t remarkably beautiful, or talented, or unusual in really any way—but aren’t they worth our attention? In a time where it seems we’re all trying to remember what normal feels like, how to be a human, and whether it will all get better when we’re older, we can look to these weirdos and listen to what they have to say. 

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