An early contender for one of Vulture’s best shows of the year, PEN15, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s unsparing — and hilarious — portrayal of female adolescence set in the early 2000s is a delight from beginning to end. But one of the most powerful episodes is right in the middle. In episode six, “Posh,” the show’s dorky protagonists — the 31-year-old creators playing their 12-year-old selves — are paired with the popular girls on a school project. This is a dangerous proposition, since as any middle schooler well knows, mixing cool and uncool can be as disastrous as pop rocks and Coke.
Indeed, the group’s plan to film an osteoporosis-prevention video featuring the “Old Spice Girls” begins to go south when the cool kids, all of whom are white, force Maya, who is half-Japanese, to play Scary Spice. “Because you’re different from us, you’re, like, tan,” one says. It’s a slippery slope from there. Soon the accusations of racism, misplaced good intentions, and actual slurs are flying like spitballs, and it’s only a matter of time before someone gets hit in the face.
Below, the show’s creators discuss the making of the episode, which was loosely based on Erskine’s own experiences growing up, and turned out to be equally harrowing to film. “We thought it would be really funny,” she says. “But when we were filming it, it was a huge meltdown.”
Maya Erskine: When I was in middle school, I didn’t have anyone I could identify with, race-wise. It was, like, a lot of white Jewish kids, or there was a small group of Korean kids who came from Korea to be at the school. I didn’t have anywhere to fit in, so I clung to the popular girls. And once we hit middle school, I wasn’t as pretty, I wasn’t as rich, and I sort of got left behind.
The girls weren’t mean, but there were things that would be said like, “Oh you’re dirty; you can’t come on the bed with us, Maya.” Like as a “joke.” Those things hit hard, even though you don’t realize at the time. So what I did to fit in was, I became the jester. I would do Jim Carrey impressions from Ace Ventura. And then I don’t know where it came from, but someone called me Guido the Gardener, and I would talk in a voice like this [high-pitched broken English], and they would, like, die laughing. I was engaging it because it made them laugh and I thought it was my way to be accepted. But looking back I was like, That was …
Anna Konkle: It was a risky episode for us because we didn’t want to vilify the kids.
ME: We wanted to show the reality of kids being naïve and not understanding exactly what they are involving themselves in. That it’s not that they are outright being racist. And that Maya herself was engaging in racist impersonations of Mexican gardeners because she doesn’t understand.
In the episode, Anna, who is white, knows something is awry, but isn’t sure how to react. That night, she goes home and gets a lesson in racism from the period’s preeminent source on the subject: Ask Jeeves.
AK: I grew up in a very liberal community but a very white liberal community. We were Unitarian, we talked about God as a woman, and our minister was gay and that was a big deal at the time. But there wasn’t a lot of diversity. So my whole life I was thinking I was progressive and that I was a part of the solution, which is really naïve. So this episode is that moment like, “Oh you have no idea.”
The next morning, her character decides to stage a Tolerance Rally in the school hallway on behalf of her friend. As it turns out, Maya is horrified to find that Anna has put a sign on her locker that reads, “Maya is Japanese.”
AK: It’s like a white person being like, “I’ll fix it! I know what’s best for you!”
ME: I remember it was really uncomfortable for you to be in that position. You were trying to rewrite it on the day. You kept being like, “Wait, I feel like …”’ and trying to fix the problem, as Anna, you yourself.
Things get worse when the cool kids take notice and streak by Maya’s locker yelling racial slurs.
ME: The kids, the actors, they were all very conscious. They didn’t want to be mean. They were like, “Oh, I feel bad saying this!” and it was like, “Oh no, it’s okay.” Because when we were writing it, I had some remove. But when I was acting it, and I had the actual kids being mean to me, it opened up a well of emotion I was not prepared for. I just started bawling.
The actors were horrified.
ME: They thought they were really hurting me. So Anna went and explained to them.
AK: We explained this was in the year 2000, this was a really long time ago. This is how it made her feel, and sometimes when you write something autobiographical, it can bring it all back. They were doing such a good job, it was causing her to experience these real emotions.
ME: And then Anna started crying.
AK: We just all started crying. Some of the crew cried.
ME: It was traumatic, I think, for everyone. But I’m glad we went there and you went there.