You probably have heard about the curated collection of VHS tapes that Urban Outfitters, the rustic-chic clothing store, are peddling for forty bucks a pop. Choose from your favorite genres like ‘The 80s’ or ‘The 90s’ which, if the picture is to be believed, just contains more ‘80s films!
And guess what: these will sell. They will sell to those who don’t realize that paying $8 for Children of the Corn 666 on VHS is $7.50 more than you should be paying for it. They will sell to younger generations who may marvel at its antiquity. Hell, they’ll also sell to the bros buying gimme caps who’ll think “Fuck yeah I want The Waterboy!” But one way or another they’ll all sell for the same reason: nostalgia.
With nostalgia being a bustling industry over the last decade, honestly, this was just inevitable, especially with the small rise of boutique video stores like Video Vortex. Nostalgia makes us feel good, to yearn for a time when things were just a little bit easier. And in a constantly anxious society, nostalgia acts as a ThunderShirt for life.
But just because nostalgia makes us feel a modicum of security doesn’t mean the time period that we are romanticizing is purely innocent. And with Hulu’s oft-times painful, but hilariously revelatory new comedy PEN15, the creatives take the tropes that endear us to this type of entertainment and turn it inward to remind us just how awful being young actually was.
PEN15 — who’s name is derived from the simple, if not completely soul-crushing for a tween prank — follows best friends Maya and Anna, played by co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who are starting their first day of 7th grade in the year 2000. They talk on the phone, gossip about who gave who a handjob, what boys they’ll be crushing on in that upcoming year and generally feeding off of each other’s nervous awkwardness. If you, like me, came of age in the era of Mandy Moore’s song ‘Candy,’ then all of this is utterly relatable in some way or another.
Which is exactly what nostalgia porn intends to do. It elicits a memory in the viewer, taking you back to the time that you too had a see-through phone in your room. And while PEN15 does indulge in the music and the fashion of the Y2K generation, it’s less interested in making you pine for your youth, and more focused on dialing into the cruelty of adolescence and the emotional discomfort of growing up. Something our nostalgia porn wants us to forget. But PEN15’s brand of Anti-Nostalgia forces our eyes wide open.
For those of us who maybe weren’t kings and queens of our middle- and high-school worlds, the callousness of our peers during this time isn’t something that you quickly forget. Which is why it’s unique that as PEN15 serenades us with the bops that made our 8th-grade prom so kickin’, it also doesn’t sacrifice the realities of our younger selves.
It shows how boys of that age, through a cocktail of youthful arrogance and a lack of realistic repercussions, can be heartless and cruel like how they mark Maya as UGIS — Ugliest Girl In School. And while characters receive their comeuppance, we’re reminded that scholastic trauma lasts far after the rueful laughter stops. Rather than letting us look back on the past through rose-tinted glasses, PEN15 graphically reminds us that while it’s fun to remember when life was easier, we shouldn’t be ignorant to all of the ways it was much more difficult.
The major gimmick of the show is that Maya and Anna are both played by 31-year-olds, while every character around them is playing their real age. So that means for our leads crushes and boyfriends, it’s a grown-up fawning for a pre-teen, which allows for an additional level of cringe-worthy humor. The device though wouldn’t work as well if it weren’t for the pure commitment of the two creators, as well as the exceptional Makeup, Hair, and Costume Design of the show.
But more so, because Erskine and Konkle are both adults, they can explore the bodily grotesqueries of puberty without it feeling creepy or exploitative. PEN15 engages in an almost John Hughes style of body horror, embracing physical, metaphorical gross-out humor — rarely reserved for female characters — to remind us how uncomfortable it was to simply be in our bodies as we entered our teens.
From the goopy saliva of a terrible first kiss to the physical lengths we go to masturbate once we realize that’s what that does, to something even as simple as a close-up of acne-ridden skin the show’s eye is laser-focused on accentuating every porous pimple and stray hair that sprouts from a chin riddled with hormones. PEN15 isn’t interested in glamorizing our youth, but nonjudgmentally showing us how adorably disgusting we once were. Honestly, it makes me surprised that we’ve never seen a riff on David Cronenberg’s The Fly set in a high school science class.
The purposeless cruelty of our youth is a far more engaging subject to tackle than merely remembering how dope the film Spice World was. And as we tire of endless nostalgia generators like Ready Player One or TV show’s like The Goldbergs, is this the direction our nostalgia porn could be heading? An unblinking look at how our memories have warped our far gone realities? Perhaps. As a society, I find that we are becoming more reflective of our past selves. We’re re-evaluating our school-age life, trying to understand who we were so that we can have a better moral compass for who we’ve become.
So perhaps if we embrace Anti-Nostalgia, much like history, we can learn how to not repeat our insensitive inclinations.