Critic's Notebook: 'PEN15' and the Resurgence of the Horny Teen Nerd Girl

Alex Lombardi/Hulu
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle.

The rise of TV's erotically charged dorky girls is lifting the veil on the inner lives of young women who were never the sexless killjoys pop culture imagined them to be.

A floral-clad hedgehog doll, held up by the fingers of a twelve-year-old girl, confronts her lover, a velvety koala bear in plaid. "I asked you to come meet me because I gotchu a milkshake and now it is WARM," Bethany indicts him in a deep Alabaman drawl. She throws the pink plastic beverage at him. "You suck that down now." They inch closer, coming face-to-face. "I can't do this anymore," Jonathan pleads. "I have a wife and kids at home!" The scene ends in a shooting fight between Jonathan and Frank, Bethany's hedgehog husband.

PEN15 preternaturally understands inelegant female pubescence. One minute you're playing sexually charged Calico Critters with your best friend, and the next, you're huffing computer cleaner and attempting your first hook-up with a boy. Sunrise, sunset.

Hulu's semi-autobiographical female friendship comedy, so far my favorite new show of 2019, hilariously exposes the psychological gore of middle school in all its sticky, liminal horrors. (I find myself alternating between cackling and screaming at the television each episode.) Set in the early 2000s, the series follows medium-level outcasts Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle), a pair of beta seventh graders, as they awkwardly dabble in their intimate (and visceral) firsts: first orgasms, first boyfriends, first thongs. (The gimmick of adult women playing these girls eventually washes away, as each actress embodies her character with flawless petulance and vulnerability.)

Foul-mouthed Maya and Anna are part of a wave of horny dork girls returning to screens twenty years after Alyson Hannigan uttered, "One time! At band camp!" From Bob's Burgers' butts-loving break-out Tina Belcher (Dan Mintz) and Big Mouth's braces-clad baby kinkster Missy Foreman-Greenwald (Jenny Slate) to Sex Education's sci-fi obsessed voracious virgin Lily Iglehart (Tanya Reynolds) and Derry Girl's priest-lusting faux-prude Erin Quinn (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), these characters are lifting the veil on the inner lives of nerdy women: We were never the sexless killjoys pop culture imagined us to be. Even One Day at a Time's, scolding activist-brainiac teen Elena (Isabella Gomez) gets down with her cosplaying S.O. Syd (Sheridan Pierce) in the sitcom's most recent season. And this archetype will take a much darker turn next month when Hulu's The Act premieres, dramatizing the real-life tale of frail Gypsy Blanchard and the sadomasochistic Internet relationship that led to her mother's murder.

While watching the PEN15 girls play soap operatic miniatures, I began to feel slightly warm and itchy — I made my husband pause and rewind a couple times because I couldn't quite process what I was seeing. It truly felt like someone had peered into my past and started telling my secrets: The middle school weekends I spent constructing tangled melodramas for my dollhouse people to the point that I had to teach myself Excel to keep track of their sexual imbroglios. The time I bound my fully articulated Olympic Skater Barbie with hair bands, tied a ribbon over her mouth, and hung her from the rafters of my bunk beds as part of a larger kidnapping plot line. (Blame Lifetime.) I've always contended I played with dolls until I was too old, but my experience, as evidenced by PEN15, was not unique; toys are merely tools for children to explore new ideas — in these cases, a pubescent girl's fascination with sex and violence. (And if you still don't believe horny nerd girls are a thing, then you've never heard of Harry Potter erotica.)   

We never got our Revenge of the Nerds, our Porky's, our Weird Science — cultural juggernauts that revealed and humanized outrageous private proclivities.  (At best, we once got an SNL sketch.) The trope of the horndog nerd girl, of course, has existed for decades: Welcome to the Dollhouse's grasping Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo); Election's jumped-up Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon); American Pie's squeaky Michelle Flaherty (Alyson Hannigan); Freaks and Geeks' experimental Millie Kentner (Sarah Hagan). These stories, while still charming and resonant today, were made by men and represent the male perspective. That's why, in Todd Solondz's film, a 13-year-old girl sees romance in the threat, "You better get ready, 'cause at three o' clock today, I'm gonna RAPE you!" And why a teenage victim like Flick remains a pop culture villain twenty years after the fact. (Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade, 2018's second-greatest horror film, is a compassionate and naturalistic portrait of an awkward and curious 13-year-old girl. But he interprets Kayla's sexuality solely through a utilitarian lens: She briefly considers giving a peer a blowjob as a means of getting attention, only.)

I've always theorized that Bob's Burgers' producers expected brash tomboy Louise Belcher (Kristen Schaal) to be the show's break-out character, and imagine they were probably pleasantly surprised when chubby, bespectacled Tina became the war cry for an entire generation of formerly boy-crazy weirdos. (Tina's "Erotic Friend Fiction" fixation is too, too real.) I had become so primed to Tina Fey-style dweeby prudishness that I expected Big Mouth's overalls-bedecked Missy to be another goodie two-shoes, a foil for Jessi's (Jessi Klein) sardonic rebel. But when the goofball turned out to be a stuffed-toy masturbator, a romance novel connoisseur and a mild power fiend (especially as evidenced in the wonderful Valentine's Day special Netflix released last week), I knew my people — the beautifully titillated misfit girls — were finally getting to share their stories. (After all, is a kinkster not just a nerd for sex?)

TV's newest entries into the pantheon of Horny Teen Girls reflect the recent rise of female auteurism on television, from Sex Education's Laurie Nunn to Derry Girl's Lisa McGee to the female-forward writing staffs on Bob's Burgers and Big Mouth. Even film has caught onto the trend — didn't Greta Gerwig become the Oscars' fifth woman nominated for Best Director by telling the tale of a sexually experimental theater nerd?  Later this year we'll see this type of character again when the Beanie Feldstein-starrer How to Build a Girl premieres. (Trust any story that originated from writer Caitlin Moran, the Queen of the Horny Nerd Girls.) These teen girls are no longer just comedy fodder, but mirrors/windows into real and relatable lived experiences, thanks to the female voices behind them. 

So here's to the teen girls who lustfully bite through their retainers and the 30-year-old women who still drool over Calico Critters at Target. We're finally seen.