On the rare occasions when female masturbation is presented in the media at all, it’s usually shown the same way every time. You can picture it without me even describing it: a soft-focus shot of an outstretched neck, everything below it covered by a comforter. Above it, a contorted face rolling on a pillow, maybe emitting a theatrical moan or two.
Having been raised on this thin gruel of overwrought Herbal Essences wanking, it’s frankly overwhelming to see PEN15 achieve a first: depicting teen-girl masturbation honestly. Maya gets off in unsexy places, often entirely silently. Her lust is activated by small, weird things: the back of a neck, glistening fruit, undulating mounds of desert sand in a National Geographic. Her comically throbbing vulva, her wiping her secretions on the carpet, her straddling pillows and her bedroom mirror — all of it will likely make some viewers extremely uncomfortable. Hell, I lived it, and it made me a little uncomfortable.
Of course, none of Maya’s sexual awakening falls outside the bounds of what an American Pie–type product would show with teenage boys. Yet the intimacy of seeing it onscreen in all its raw, weird urgency feels unbearable. It’s tied up in a specifically female shame. Sam and his buddies ribbing each other about “staying hard” or trying to catch unscrambled boobs on the Spice Channel might not be encouraged by adults, but it’s at least accepted. Maya has to struggle through her newfound sexuality completely and utterly alone. Having been in her shoes at that age, I wasn’t prepared for how unsettling it was to return to that place.
In a brilliant conceit, Maya’s guilt is externalized in the form of her late grandfather (ojichan in Japanese). After her mother tells her that he’s always watching over the family, even when they’re sleeping, Maya is horrified. Every time she tries to touch herself, all she can see is Ojichan, hovering over her with his dark suit and permanent frown. He’s patriarchy personified. Yet Maya’s sexuality is an equally unstoppable force, an argument the show accentuates by showing her repeatedly getting off to the earthy strains of consciousness-raising women’s group Libana.
While Maya’s new secret is personal, Anna’s is familial. Her parents are fighting frequently and loudly, and their marriage seems like it’s on the rocks. She’s desperate for time with Maya as a means of escape, which is frankly terrible timing, given that Maya’s world has been temporarily reduced to the size of her clit.
This storyline feels a bit thinly drawn compared to the intensity and specificity of Maya’s. Anna’s parents’ personality flaws and the source of their conflict are left vague, which just isn’t accurate for a kid that old—they usually know what the fights are about, and they frequently have a preferred side (and then feel guilty about it). I didn’t quite feel the intensity of Anna’s suffering the way I felt Maya’s; it lacked the same razor-sharp specificity and detail.
That’s entirely a knock on the material, not on Anna Konkle, whose performance is loosening up and improving significantly from episode to episode. She particularly shines in a scene set at Sam’s house, where she’s gone to look for Maya (who’s skipped out to self-pleasure). Sam’s doting parents end up feeding Anna Bagel Bites and listening to her bemoan Maya’s duplicity, as if they were her own parents.
When they gently suggest she goes to join Sam and his friends, Konkle wordlessly conveys that she can barely stand the thought of leaving. “I could talk to you guys for hours, I could even sleep here!” Then she catches herself, embarrassed. “Let me go check on those rascals.” It’s wrenching and perfectly played.
Anna does eventually confront Maya about her lies, and Maya covers up by revealing a half-truth: “I see dead people.” (Yes, The Sixth Sense had already been released by then.) Like all good teenagers confronted with the supernatural, they whip out the Ouija board, which humorously starts spelling out CLIT and MASTURBATION. Mortified, Maya has no choice but to confess to Anna. “I’m like Sam, but I’m grosser because I’m a girl,” she says. “I really shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
Quietly and uncomfortably, Anna reassures Maya — she, too, puts her hands between her legs “to feel good.” (The fact that neither of the girls can call it by its name says a lot.) Reassured, the pair hug and promise not to tell anyone, in what seems like a feel-good ending.
But the show quietly undermines that reassurance, forcing viewers to recognize that it’s not that simple. Maya still sees Ojichan’s disapproval when she touches herself, so she hides herself away under a blanket so he can’t see her anymore. Meanwhile, in the next room, Shuji downloads porn off AOL — as Ojichan watches behind him, cracking a grin for the first time. Shame will haunt Maya’s sexuality in a way that it will never haunt her brother’s. It’s the perfect metaphor for why we haven’t seen a story like Maya’s told before, and it utterly broke my heart.