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On PEN15, Everyone Is (Refreshingly) a Bully

Maya Erskine (right) in PEN15’s “Posh.” Photo: Alex Lombardi/Hulu

In kindergarten, two kids accused me of lying about how far away India was. (I said something like “halfway around the world.”) Similar exchanges followed. Doubt shifted to mockery by junior high school, when boys discovered National Geographic issues they passed around class to laugh at women in African countries with bare breasts. One realized the paper circles collected in a hole punch could be pressed on foreheads to make fun of bindis — props to go with words. They made fun of my smell, my frame, my skin, the hair on my neck, my dad’s beat-up car, the saris my mom — to my horror — wore to school events. Girls added girl stuff: lack of bra, hair on legs. One afternoon I sat on the school steps in the Texas heat, waiting for my dad to pick me up. A kid flicked a rubber band in my face as he steadily detailed how ugly my skin was. I didn’t move, feared a worse fate if I did, as if a lion in a jungle caressed my cheek with a clawed paw.

Most childhood memories involve at least two surviving parties. The brilliance of the new Hulu show PEN15 lies in how it approaches the perspectives of all parties in a painful experience — from the bully, to the bullied, to the accidentally and purposely complicit. This equality of concern makes one mid-season episode, “Posh,” soar. By the time of this episode’s arrival, past ones lay enough of a case for at least a tentative affection, even perhaps in the stoniest of hearts, for the two gangly mains. Maya (Maya Erskine) claims that affection first. She and her best friend Anna (Anna Konkle) and three far more popular girls are gathered to film a commercial about osteoporosis for a class. The conceit: They are the Spice Girls, only as elderly women in need of calcium. Maya wants to be Posh, but she’s forced to be Scary because of her “tan” skin (she’s half Japanese), as her classmates put it. Eventually, she’s sidelined entirely; to entertain the group, she willingly plays the role of Guido, a “dirty” Mexican gardener only fit to serve the cool girls milk. As the plot progresses, the focus shifts to Anna, whose discomfort with the passive role she plays in her bestie’s subjugation later results in a bungled counterplan that drives the episode’s second half. Even the obvious mean girls of the scene — who, conductor-style, bring out the willing subject in Maya — are shown as naïve rulers of an order in which they perhaps haven’t served time enough in to see the cracks.

Erskine’s and Konkle’s actual lives serve as material for the show. The 31-year-old co-creators play middle schoolers, in a cast of kids. The device turns coming-of-age tropes avant-garde. As writers and performers, they revisit ground they’ve spent enough time away from to understand its subtler contours. “Posh,” in line with the season, carries a dreamlike quality that suggests a fable about the American experiment. “I clung to the popular girls,” Erskine said in an interview with Vulture about the episode, about her own school years in America, stuck in a sea of white Jewish kids. (Like her character, she has one Japanese parent.) She “became the jester,” she recalls. Guido is based on an actual character Erskine developed in her youth, complete with goofy accent, and hunch — as if to make visible his, and her, innate inferiority. Konkle, meanwhile, grew up in an ultraliberal community. God was a woman; her minister was gay. Everyone, including her, was “very white.” In the episode, she taps into the disturbance that can undo a person whose bubble dissolves overnight to reveal a world beyond comprehension. “Am I racist?” Anna types into an Ask Jeeves portal, in a scene that links the episode’s first and second acts. (The show uses period detail to conjure a nameless American any town of the late 1990s.) When she later attempts to stage a tolerance rally for Maya, Anna only isolates her friend further. “You don’t know how it feels to be me,” Maya wails at Anna, in a final scene that embodies the show’s allegorical power: Poised for a physical fight, the girls instead enact a sort of war dance, a bodily metaphor for teen best friendship.

The jester archetype can be a refuge for a lot of people. I discovered it after junior high, when my parents insisted I switch schools due to all the bullying. (The bullying was notable enough that a white boy I barely knew talked about it to his dad, who told mine; our dads worked together.) I protested the move — it was the enemy I knew, plus a part of me loved my junior high. Injustice affected everyone there. Classes segregated us into honors versus regulars, white versus black and Latinx based on resources. The difficulties of all sorts of people were on display, often starker than mine. My new private high school, for only girls, most of them Catholic, opened a new type of unbelonging, subtler and maybe harder to overcome. Day one, I made a decision, the way some kids decide to become class president: I’d become funny. After many failed attempts, I found myself cast as the understudy for a lead role in a play. Another girl dropped the part, not wanting to spend time or lose ego as a backup. The director suggested I put on an Indian accent. I agreed. The play was by Molière, the famous French writer, set in 17th-century France. The others spoke in faux French accents. I played a maidservant, and spoke like Apu.

Erskine’s face doesn’t register unhappiness, exactly, in the scene that depicts her minstrelsy. She laughs as she hunches over as Guido, and seems confused as she plays along. I played along, too, as I spoke Molière’s words in a silly accent under lights. On the heels of my performance, I got another role, as a genie in a one-act play. A new director suggested I leap on the two main characters in the style of a monkey, and say my lines from a perch on their backs. It is hard to recall how I played both roles. I know I felt shame, and saw myself playing my scenes as if from a distance. Were those notes of unease in the laughs? Was the audience also disoriented? Had I landed parts because they were for a maid, a genie? To what extent did I enable my own humiliation?

In college, a girl from my high school emailed me an apology. It seemed she’d taken a sociology class that made her wonder if I ever felt lesser than my peers. If she’d played any part in that sensation, she was sorry, she wrote me. I read the message and felt, inexplicably, more pain than before I read it. So, too, does Maya’s face crumple as she stands by her locker during the “tolerance rally.” On it is taped a paper scrawled with “I am Japanese!!” The scribe, Maya learns, is none other than her supposed best friend Anna. Lost in her own good intentions, she masterminds a hallway demonstration meant to “end racism.” Maya’s face crumples; Anna has a hopeful smile on hers.

My apologetic friend had nothing to do with the plays, but her vision of a past, inferior me disturbed me. It cast into doubt my sense of self, which still hinged heavily on others’ sense of me. I can’t recall if I wrote her back, but I held that message against her despite my efforts to see good in it. “I know that I’m Asian, but I’m more than that,” Maya sniffles to Anna before their make-up dance cuts the tension, articulating the feeling of being flattened inside a gesture of apology that perhaps prioritizes the feelings of the apologizer more than those of the recipient.

I couldn’t watch “Posh” enough times. Each watch seemed to reveal another facet of a fable once restricted to my memory. On my latest, I fixated on a character unmentioned as yet in the many reviews of the show. Becca, played by Sami Rappoport, is the most strident of the mean girls. In another episode, in which Maya and Anna steal the most popular girl in school’s pink thong, it is Becca who attempts to pull off each girl’s pants to prove them guilty. She doesn’t succeed, but the righteousness of her energy can’t be missed. In “Posh,” she comes up with the idea of Guido and stops Anna when she tries to turn on the music — Maya, as the subordinate, must do it, she states plainly. At first glance, Becca isn’t prime bully material. She looks more like a potential target. She’s soft and round, awkward in a skirt that looks too small for her. The rest of her crew are angular, taut, not so loud about their status — surer of it, perhaps.

Watching her, I thought of my own cruelty, to the only other Indian kid in my middle school, a bespectacled, stuttering boy, who tried to be my friend once. His proximity to abject nerdiness made me feel under even more threat. I kept a distance. Erskine and Konkle don’t name Becca in the interview in which they break down “Posh,” but they do talk about the bullies. “We wanted to show the reality of kids being naïve and not understanding exactly what they are involving themselves in,” Erskine said. She includes in that group her invented and past selves. On my latest rewatch, it was Becca, though, who drew my eye, sparked my recognition, her relief at her status so naked, she seems to show in her body how fine the line is between bully and bullied.

On PEN15, Everyone Is (Refreshingly) a Bully