Review: ‘PEN15’ walks tightrope with race

Maya Erskine as Scary Spice in the “Posh” episode of PEN15. Courtesy of Hulu

“PEN15,” a comedy series that was recently nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, debuted in February on Hulu’s streaming service to great reviews. The show’s premise follows creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle as they depict versions of themselves in middle school as 13-year-old social outcasts in the year 2000.

The show normally follows a template of hilarious crude humor, but has real-life themes that draw the viewer into the comedy series, specifically in the episode “Posh.”

In this episode, Maya, who is biracial (white and Japanese, but physically favors her Japanese father), faces an identity crisis.

Maya begins the episode with Anna as they prepare to work on a project with classmates who don’t respect either of the girls, evidenced by the nastiness they are shown throughout the series.

Maya went as far as to cover the shrine of her “Ojichan” (grandfather) and lied about what food was in her refrigerator, all to avoid any questions regarding her ethnicity.

You can see the discomfort in her face as she tries to fit in with her Caucasian classmates. The tension could be felt through the screen from start to finish.

All the girls proceed to plan the project; the students pick to reprise roles from the popular female band the Old Spice Girls. Maya chooses to be Posh Spice at first but is quickly dismissed as Scary Spice before later being relegated to a servant who serves milk because she is “tan and different,” according to one of the students in the group. One even called Maya “Guido the Mexican.”

To make matters worse for herself, Maya proceeded t to do bidding of the girls with a stereotypical Asian accent while Anna stands by and watches.

Anna later in the show tries to throw a demonstration in support of her best friend as she becomes enamored with race and tries to raise awareness on the issue. But she ends up becoming the issue by writing “I am Japanese!!” on Maya’s locker, causing others to ridicule and taunt her.

This scene, according to Erskine, was hard to write and even harder to film as it brought back emotions. “We thought it would be really funny,” Erskine says, “but when we were filming it, it was a huge meltdown.”

Erskine said filming this episode was “traumatic.”

It brought back real emotions she hadn’t experienced since adolescence.

“It was traumatic, I think, for everyone. But I’m glad we went there and you went there.”