I didn’t think PEN15 could wreck me any more than it did with its masturbation episode, but “Ojichan” has absolutely nothing on “Posh.” This episode offers a painful, nuanced depiction of awakening to prejudice for the first time — both as the person on the receiving end, and the person too privileged to realize it existed in the first place. Both people of color and white people will find aspects of it devastating, especially as they intertwine and intensify.
“Posh” starts as a typical day in the life of Maya and Anna. As usual, they’re desperately trying to appear cool, this time to a trio of popular girls who are visiting Maya’s house to work on a Spice Girls–themed video project about osteoporosis. But while Anna’s mostly worried about having the right clothes, Maya’s frantically trying to cover up all the Japanese aspects of her household: the lack of standard American snacks, the cultural figurines, even Ojichan’s shrine.
The time comes to choose Spice Girl avatars (arguably the tween-girl hobby of the era), and Maya wants to be Posh — she even has the accent ready to go. But one of the cool girls pushes her aside, insisting that she has to be Scary because she’s “tan.” The other two laugh along, and Anna, worried she’ll tank their social standing, doesn’t object.
The bullying worsens as the visiting girls force Maya to pretend to be a Mexican gardener and serve them milk, then make her run the camcorder because she’s their “servant,” leaving her out of a portion of the dance routine. Anna’s visibly uncomfortable, but too scared to say anything. Though she normally relishes doing impressions, Maya’s uncomfortable, too, for reasons she doesn’t entirely understand.
Both girls try to put the incident behind them, until Shuji and his own bestie Evan, who’s black, find out what happened. They berate Maya for her racist gardener impression, then turn on Anna, calling her even more racist for not intervening to help Maya. To top things off, Shuji narcs on the cover-up of Ojichan’s shrine, infuriating Maya’s mom. “Why are you so ashamed of being Japanese?” he asks Maya. “I’m, like, barely Japanese!” she responds.
The episode is impressive at showing the effects of racism at a subconscious level, and how they slowly rise to the level of Maya’s conscious awareness. She plays with her eyes in a mirror, trying to make them rounder, then flips herself off in frustration. She tries to befriend a group of fellow Asian-American kids by greeting them in Japanese, but they have no idea what she’s saying. She thinks of herself as a typical kid, but she’s starting to realize that she lives in a world where “typical” really just means “white.”
While Maya turns her anger and embarrassment inward, Anna turns it on the world. Tremblingly typing “am I racist?” into Ask Jeeves, she gets her first real dose of education on privilege. Shaken and determined, she throws herself into creating a school presentation that will enlighten the rest of the kids so thoroughly, it ends racism forever. “I’ve been noticing some racism in society, and I’d like to report it,” she confidently tells the school principal, who looks at her like she’s grown two heads.
With all the bravado and naïveté of a teen learning about social justice for the first time, Anna decides adult indifference only makes her cause all the more vital. So she rounds up a group of drama kids to do a guerrilla version of her demonstration, which backfires spectacularly.
The drama kids are supposed to mock Maya’s heritage just a little, so Anna can triumphantly burst out and declare that everyone needs to reexamine their prejudices. But the insults are still real and really hurtful, all the more so when two uninvolved kids join in to call Maya “Lucy Liu” and ask if they can get a “five-dollar hand job.” Maya is devastated, and Anna’s left holding the bag for both hurting her best friend and the failed stunt. She’s hammered for her prejudice by a mean teacher and her combative parents, who make things worse by getting into another blistering public fight over it.
Anna’s storyline is utterly remarkable for the way it captures the dynamics of white guilt in miniature. Rather than face her complicity, Anna triples down, going on a half-baked hunger strike “until racism is over.” At one point, she holds a compact mirror up to her classmates, exhorting them to “take a nice long look at themselves.” She can’t process her shame over the damage she’s done to Maya, so she literally tries to reflect it back at everyone else.
Meanwhile, Maya is heartbroken. Shuji tries to help by inviting her into his POC-only secret clubhouse for a schoolyard consciousness-raising session. Maya can recite the definition of racism on command to the other kids, but has no way of connecting it with her own experience. When she finally puts two and two together, she reexperiences a lifetime’s worth of microaggressions in one zap of thought, and promptly vomits. Together, the kids try to process their own miniature version of another big adult question: what should reparations look like?
The answer, in kid logic, is obviously a fight. The boys goad Maya to beat up Anna, even though Anna’s putting up zero fight, willing herself to take it because it’s what she deserves. The attempt at a beatdown quickly devolves into plaintive tears. “I thought I was celebrating your heritage!” Anna tells Maya plaintively. “That’s so easy for you to say!” Maya responds. “You don’t know what it’s like to be me!”
Anna agrees, promising to make sure that Maya can be any Spice Girl she wants in future. They call off the fight, to the booing of the disappointed boys. But even as Maya forgives Anna and the two hug it out, Maya keeps one wary eye open, gazing off into the distance. She won’t be able to close it again for the rest of her life.