When I found out PEN15 shared the timeline of my own late-’90s youth, I worried that it would easily fall into smug “remember when?” habits. 2000 was not a good time for a lot of things in America — music, fashion, TV, politics — and its weird placement between the collapse of the go-go Clinton era and the horrors of 9/11 makes it an especially ripe target for mockery. It didn’t really last long enough for anyone to look back on it all that fondly.
But so far, I’ve been impressed with PEN15’s gentle hand in utilizing totems of the era, from Discmans to frosted lip gloss to those godawful floor-length cargo skirts. It never forgets that they’re just period accessories to timeless personal dynamics; there’s never a sense of arrows pointing at them, or mocking people who wore them. So it’s notable to have an entire episode of the show suddenly revolve around a consumer good, even if it’s one that’s particularly representative of the time.
I speak, of course, of the thong, locus of turn-of-the-millennium teen sexuality. In an era when you can casually scroll past Kim Kardashian’s bare ass on your Instagram feed, it might be hard for those who weren’t alive or sentient at the time to understand why the concept of semi-visible underwear was such a big deal. But as your recappin’ grandma over here can tell you, thongs were once the ultimate suburban teen taboo. They symbolized pure sexual availability, hovering just out of reach above your embroidered low-rise cargo pants. And they were huge for the purest of reasons: Adults fucking hated them. For the under-16 crowd, especially, they were a neon sign that said “My parents are permissive and/or neglectful.”
Frustratingly, this episode doesn’t do a great job of conveying all that context to those who weren’t around for the pearl-clutching, or for a time when there was no Amazon as a loophole for buying forbidden loot when your disapproving parents wouldn’t drive you to the mall. (Unless you wanted a book, of course.) The full context of watching Maya and Anna nearly come to blows over a single pair of hot-pink underwear might just have to remain a secret handshake among survivors of the era.
The girls steal the thong from their classmate Heather, Anna’s rival for Alex’s affection. She normally wouldn’t deign to hang out with them, but she’s forced to because they signed up for her mom’s community service project. It’s a hazy effort, with the vague goal of cheering up a nursing home by making the residents runway models for Heather’s mom’s hideous hats. (Laura Kightlinger plays the mom, to self-absorbed suburban perfection.)
This premise yields a lot of great, weird comedy, particularly surrounding Maya’s fashion-show partner, a wheelchair-bound, non-verbal woman named Pu who won’t stop painfully squeezing her arm. But the real focus is the stolen thong, which Maya nicks while Heather is out of the room. Fascinated by jiggling her own butt in the mirror, she refuses to return the undies, despite Anna’s appeals to morality. But it’s not long before Anna is hooked, too, and the pair alternate using the power of the thong to become Fly Girls in their own minds.
Their Sisterhood of the Traveling Panties is deeply gross, especially in a scene where Maya spreads the unwashed thong over her face, then washes it and drinks the water dripping from its surface. But the thong gives the girls real confidence, something that’s always in short supply for 13-year-olds. Even after Heather’s mom convenes a come-to-Jesus meeting to get the thong thief to come forward, Maya refuses to give it back.
The situation comes to a head when one of Heather’s mean-girl friends yanks down Anna’s pants during the fashion show, trying to see if she’s wearing it. She’s not, and she’s able to warn Maya, who gets into a tussle onstage to avoid having her secret (and Victoria’s, I guess) revealed. Chastened by the near-miss, Anna has to literally rip the thong off from under Maya’s pants (“YOU BURNED MY ASSHOLE!”) — and even then, still has to beg Maya to throw the destroyed fabric in the trash.
Maya’s underwear melancholy draws the attention of Anna’s modeling partner, the grandmotherly Rose. In a poignant scene, Rose tells the girls that all her life, she would “grow a year older, look back and think I was prettier the year before. I never got to enjoy my beauty, but I kept obsessing over it all the time… I wish someone had told me when I was younger that I was beautiful because of who I was, not what I had.”
It’s a powerful message, and one that’s almost impossible for women to absorb before it’s way too late. The show knows it, too. “Do I look okay?” Anna asks Maya at the end of the episode. “Yeah,” she responds, “but do I look okay?” “Sure,” Anna says, “but it’s what’s inside that counts, right?” “Oh yeah,” Maya says. “I almost forgot.”