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Watching a 13-year-old explore her sexuality on-screen can make you feel like an absolute creep, especially if you don’t know the lead actors in “Pen15,” Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, are actually age 31.
By the end of the Hulu series’s third episode, I half-expected the feds to show up at my door. It’s basically a 28-minute montage of Maya, a middle-schooler, discovering masturbation, which she experiences as simultaneously shameful and titillating. She does it in her closet, in bed with the covers tented across her body, bent over a spread of sand dunes in National Geographic.
“Pen15,” which provides a comedic window into the lives of middle school girls in 2000, has received widespread acclaim for showing teen girldom in its full range.
The series’s direct representation of sexual situations is a critical piece of that achievement.
To make sexually charged scenes possible, the show uses its adult writers and creators, Erskine and Konkle — whose 13-year-old characters share their first names — as the main actors among a large cast of actual minors. All actors play seventh- and eighth-graders.
The adult actors benefit from their frames (Erskine is petite, Konkle is lanky) and their styling (taped-down breasts, awkward hairstyles, orthodontia). While the minor actors sometimes serve as objects of Maya and Anna’s desires, Erskine and Konkle, the adults, are the only ones we see making out or wearing a visible thong. They’re where the action is.
If “Pen15” feels new, it’s in part because the sexual and romantic lives of middle-schoolers aren’t often represented at length or with nuance. High-schoolers are easier for us to make sense of. Eighteen-year-olds, the line of thinking goes, have enough agency to be a hero or an anti-hero. Thirteen-year-olds are muddier; they make decisions, sure, but they’re also children.
So on the infrequent occasions they ground a show, middle-schoolers don’t tend to act like middle-schoolers. They’re sanitized. “Pen15” offers a representation of seventh-grade girls we might recognize.
Maya and Anna chat on see-through landline phones, hang Jonathan Taylor Thomas posters on the back of their doors and imagine kissing their crushes. But the show adds to the script; its characters imagine racier things too, even if they don’t know how to name them.
In addition to the ick factor and the nuance factor, there are a host of practical reasons why scenes involving middle-schoolers’ sexuality aren’t often shot.
If many of its scenes feature minors, a production is likely to have far higher expenses than if it films actors age 16 or older, or those who are legal adults at age 18. Under California labor law, child actors who are at least 9 years old but not yet 16 are only allowed to work five or seven hours per day, depending on whether school is in session. (That includes time in hair and makeup.)
Other states and provinces where American films and television shows are frequently produced, such as New York, Georgia and British Columbia, are regulated by other laws. If the U.S. state’s law is more lenient than federal law, then the federal Fair Labor Standards Act must be adhered to. In Canada, child labor is generally regulated by provincial, rather than federal, law.
There are technical challenges, too. For instance, middle-schoolers’ bodies and voices change quickly, which can create significant shooting and editing snags.
There are also psychological considerations; for instance, the heightened impact of engaging with intense subject matter. In the sixth episode of “Pen15,” the storyline revolves around racism and is loosely based on Erskine’s own middle school experiences. Though the directors handled the episode with care, Erskine told Vulture that shooting was “traumatic for everyone.”
Sami Rappoport, the young actor who plays popular girl Becca, tweeted, “we all broke down crying.”
Ethical questions arise when working with young actors. For instance, where’s the line between a fair depiction of budding sexuality and glorified child pornography?
Last August, the Parent’s Television Council (PTC), a conservative advocacy group, publicly urged Netflix to pull “Desire,” an Argentine film in which a 9-year-old girl becomes sexually stimulated. In its opening scene, a minor actor is clothed and riding a pillow like a horse; she does not appear to understand the implications of what she’s doing. In a statement, PTC president Timothy Winter accused the company of “potentially engaging in criminal activity.”
“No adult interacted with the girls, other than the child acting coach. Everything was done under the careful surveillance of the girls’ mothers,” director Diego Kaplan told IndieWire. “Because I knew this scene might cause some controversy at some point, there is ‘Making Of’ footage of the filming of the entire scene.”
Netflix, for its part, has neither commented nor removed the film.
While laws and social attitudes vary from country to country, American filmmakers tend to use body doubles for anything more advanced than youngsters kissing, or else the action is implied to have happened off-screen.
Some animated series, like Netflix’s “Big Mouth,” depict sexual arousal in middle-schoolers, but minor actors appear neither on-screen nor in the recording studio. The youngest actors to voice the main characters — John Mulaney and Jenny Slate, who play Andrew Glouberman and Missy Foreman-Greenwald, respectively — are both 36.
Atop all those considerations, there’s the question of reach, which is also to say revenue. If the content garners a film R rating, as “Eighth Grade” did, or a streaming MA rating, as “Pen15” did, many middle-schoolers will be restricted from seeing work that purports to portray their experience.
“The truth is, ‘Eighth Grade’ is R-rated because eighth grade is R-rated,” Bo Burnham, the film’s writer and director, told Salon. “I can promise to parents that this movie is not exposing anything to kids that kids aren’t very, very aware of.”
The way in which ratings labels are applied is notoriously opaque, including to those in the industry. Many directors, weighing whether to include material that could limit their audience, and, accordingly, their box-office gross or ad streaming income, decide not to risk it. Instead, they stay in “The Sandlot” arena, where a brief post-CPR kiss is as hot as it gets and leads, eventually, to marriage.
The core workaround of “Pen15” is both brilliant and bizarre. If you know the lead actors’ ages while you’re watching, you’ll still get stuck: How is Anna kissing her love interest, played by a 15-year-old boy? (It’s filmed in close-up; his lips belong to her real-life boyfriend.)
“Pen15” masterfully underscores that we all play multiple roles — bullies and prey, desired and rejected, prudes and hedonists — throughout the course of our lives, even moment to moment.
In a show less meaningful and deftly executed than “Pen15,” the sexual content would be more trouble than it’s worth. In this one, it’s worth the trouble.
Illustrations by iStock; Rachel Orr for The Lily