Towards the end of the first season of the wonderfully funny and heartfelt Pen15, we see a teen girl get her period for the first time. She cries tears of frustration and disgust when she sees the splash of red on her underwear. She doesn't tell anyone — not her best friend, who she just had a major fight with, or her mom, who earlier in the episode had responded to a temper tantrum by her to grow up.
"When you said that I'm not your little girl anymore, did you mean that?" the girl asks her mom through tears.
"You'll always be my little girl," her mother says truthfully, even as we can see in her eyes that she also knows the girl she sings a lullaby to can't actually be her little girl forever.
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The landscape of young teen life that Pen15 traverses isn't precisely uncharted territory; after all, the world of first periods and early friendships and first sexual experiences has been a mainstay in American pop culture since the time of Judy Blume. And yet, something extraordinary has been happening over the last several years as the teen coming-of-age story has quietly become the most emotionally rich and nuanced subject matter explored onscreen. If 10 years ago, the lone male antihero was considered the pinnacle of man's search for meaning, today, the coming-of-age story is the place where younger and older viewers alike are invited to ask big important questions about friendship, loyalty, love, and what it means to be a person in the world, all while laughing at the awkwardness and embarrassment of a time when out-of-control hormones and peer pressure are the norm.
Acknowledging the quiet power of shows like Pen15, Big Mouth, and Sex Education, as well as films like Eighth Grade, requires reimagining the tropes that have defined prestige TV over the past 20 years. It means acknowledging that a 30-minute episode can pack as much of a punch as a 60 minute one and it means recognizing that close ups of braces and candy colored outfits and desperate Google searches about random weird sexual topics, can be just as riveting and devastating as scenes of death or violence. It's the insistence that worrying about having a changing body, or saying the right thing to a crush, or learning how to navigate weird parents, is just as worthy of investigation as a crime scene.
There have been no other genres that have allowed female characters to flourish like these shows either. In many prestige TV shows, such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and season 1 of True Detective, female characters are often defined by the emotional and physical violence that they have to endure. Likewise, the spectacle of female pain hovers over popular shows like Game of Thrones and The Handmaid's Tale. In comparison, the modern coming-of-age comedy insists that the female experience is not defined primarily by pain. This doesn't mean that shows like Big Mouth, Pen15, and Sex Education don't tackle important issues like the #MeToo movement, it just means that equal space is given to exploring how friendships and first crushes and fashion are just as important in defining girlhood.
In an essay for The New York Times, Amanda Hess points out how these shows reimagine girlhood as a place for lust, and, in doing so, mark teen girlhood as a place that is allowed to be kind of gross. "These girls feel so much," she says in awe of the sheer range of feeling that is allowed in looking at the lives of middle-school age girls in modern coming-of-age stories. I think one of the reasons that the range of emotions we see explored in these shows, especially for female characters, is so thrilling is that for so long we've been fed a narrative of girlhood that became kind of a parody of itself — the girls on Girls were monsters of overgrown adolescence, so effortlessly cruel, petty, and self-involved that it was often hard to see them as actual people. In contrast, the girls in shows like Pen15, Big Mouth, and Sex Education, thrill precisely because they are all so different — they come from various cultural, ethnic, socio-economic, and racial backgrounds; they desire different things from one another; they aren't expected to be one thing.
Like Freaks and Geeks, whose prescient take on the teen years was way ahead of its time, these modern explorations of middle and high school life are moving precisely because they take the world of adolescence so seriously. In many ways, the shift from network TV to streaming sites also gives these shows a chance to thrive in a way that earlier shows weren't allowed to. They can be dirtier, grittier, more true-to-life and honest in a way that is different from the after-school-special quality of The Wonder Years. They embrace awkwardness in a way that fantasy versions of teen life re-enacted with 20-something actors, have never been able to accomplish. They are often gross: the hormone monster and monstress in Big Mouth cajole their young proteges to masturbate in bathroom stalls and at slumber parties; in Pen15, our heroines steal a pink thong that they keep swapping back and forth between each other; in Sex Education, sex acts take place on the lawn right outside school.
And yet, it's not the raunchiness of these shows that distinguishes the new coming-of-age comedy; it's how deeply earnest they are. In the worlds of Pen15, Big Mouth, Sex Education, and Eighth Grade we meet characters who remind us not only of the people we used to be, but the people we still are. "All my life I would grow a year older, look back, and think I was prettier the year before," an older retired woman tells her skeptical teen volunteers, "I never got to enjoy my beauty." As viewers, we're meant to understand not only the wisdom of this comment, but the reason it provokes eye rolls. After all, years after we've already gotten through the turmoil of puberty, there is always a part of us who is going to identify with needing to fit in, as well as the terror and joy of feeling too much.
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