Television

Pen15 Is a Wake-Up Call for Woke Dads

The Hulu series is unflinchingly honest about what it’s like for girls to live in a body that won’t stop changing.

Two teenage girls, one with braces, smile awkwardly in a middle-school hallway.
Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine in Pen15. Lara Solanki/Hulu

When our daughter was born, my husband went all in on his new role as a #GirlDad. He donned a red bandanna for our family’s Rosie the Riveter costume on her first Halloween, learned the difference between ponytails and pigtails, and talked her through Yankees games, developing elaborate plans to eventually teach her the knuckleball and get her signed to the major leagues. So, I was surprised when, in the middle of the new season of Hulu’s Pen15, my woke-dad husband turned to me and joked that he would be stepping aside and leaving me to handle our daughter’s middle school years.

Woke dads have been multiplying in recent years, both in real life and in popular media. Ludo Gabriele writes a popular blog, Woke Daddy, chronicling his feminist awakenings as he raises a daughter, one among several dads-of-daughters using their platforms to raise awareness of things like the gender divide, toxic masculinity, and unfair household labor distribution. There are even Etsy shops peddling “woke dad” T-shirts and “most woke dad ever” coffee mugs. They’ve been joined by fictional counterparts in movies like Juno, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Eighth Grade, whose emotionally available dads are a sharp and welcome change from the hands-off father figures of yesteryear.

But woke dad-dom has its limits, as does the culture aimed at them. For years, they’ve been fed a steady diet of the vulgar horrors of male puberty for boys, starting with American Pie and continuing through Superbad. But girls experiencing those years have been mostly ignored, with last year’s Booksmart being a rare outlier. Pen15, created by and starring comics Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, is an exception. Set in the year 2000 and featuring the show’s creators playing their teenage selves, the show aims to depict middle school in a true light, with all the surprise periods, horrible first kisses, and confusing sexual desires. It delves into puberty in an unflinching way that is rarely seen—at least for girls.

Woke dads are invariably depicted as emotionally perceptive, but there’s much less emphasis on helping their daughters understand their own bodies. Crying over a boy or angry at a best friend? These dads are here for you. Want to talk about sex? Well, you’re getting the straightforward messaging that for girls, sex equals unwanted pregnancy. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean’s dad tosses her an envelope of condoms and yells, “Pulling out is not protection!” as she flees the car. It’s a sentiment Twitter users noticed echoed another woke dad, who’s also a single gynecologist: Dr. Stratford of 10 Things I Hate About You, strapping a fake pregnancy belly to his daughter, telling her that’s what kissing leads to. It’s abundantly clear that these dads are ready and willing to help their daughters through the emotional minefield of puberty, but even as medical professionals, the physical transformation of their little girls (developing breasts, first periods, oral sex, masturbation) is still too uncomfortable to deal with.

Which isn’t to say this instinct to shy away is solely these woke dads’ fault. For generations, society has told us that girls’ puberty is something to be hidden. (Kotex still promotes their pads by declaring they have “quiet wrappers for discretion,” and I think every person who menstruates has done the ol’ tampon up the sleeve move). New and exciting sexual urges, including the drive to masturbate, are also typically on the list of forbidden subjects. Pop culture has been comfortable with teen boys pleasuring themselves at least as far back as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but it’s only recently allowed the same for girls.

Pen15 was born out of its creators’ desire to discuss exactly those things they were programmed not to talk about: first sexual experiences, masturbating, and periods. In the first season, Maya doesn’t just discover masturbation. She becomes obsessed with it, going so far as to pleasure herself in a bathroom stall at school. Anna doesn’t just have an awkward first kiss; a boy slobbers around her mouth so hard that it leaves a sheen of spit on her chin. The two don’t explore their new bodies, in traditional teen-movie fashion, by shopping for bras. They steal a thong from classmate and swap it back and forth throughout the day.

That’s why the show is perfect, and crucial viewing, for woke dads. Surging and overwhelming emotions are important, but they are only one side of the puberty coin. The other side is the cringy, and sometimes even icky, reality of living with, and in, a body that is constantly, physically, changing.

Season 2—the first half, anyway, since the second has been indefinitely delayed by COVID—continues this trajectory, offering man-behind-the-curtain looks at things many adult women can identify with, but that even woke dads may be only peripherally aware of. Maya’s toilet paper-wad solution to an unexpected period hits particularly close to home, as does the girls’ consideration of whether the shape, size, and smell of their own vaginas is normal, after being insulted by a boy for having “BSBs—Big Smelly Bushes.” The moment is both hilarious (“Be careful with it, maybe it doesn’t like that” Anna warns after Maya sprays hers with body spray) and heartbreaking, showing a girl’s first experience with shame towards her own natural body, the kind of shame that so often can follow her into adulthood.

Beyond this, Season 2 also charts vital new territory that reaches beyond the theme of women connecting with and cathartically surviving the traumas of puberty, and invites men to look into and evaluate the behavior of their pasts. Maya’s obsession over a crush who both does and doesn’t reciprocate her feelings shows us a rarely depicted but instantly familiar youthful toxic masculinity, a boy who is not a victim of the expectations of manhood, but instead deliberately chose to contribute to the dehumanization of a girl. It’s reflection all men in our post-#MeToo world should engage in. Outside of self-reflection, the dads of Pen15 behave ways that today’s woke dads might judge harshly. They’re largely absent from their daughters’ lives, and the effects of the purposeful space these dads leave is obvious on their children. Throughout the two seasons, running subplots include Maya’s desperation for attention and approval from her father, a traveling musician,  Anna’s increasing distress and pain from being put in the middle of her parents’ messy divorce, culminating with her father explaining that since her mother has been awarded the house, he will be moving to an apartment, and Anna will have to choose who she wants to live with, he says. These arcs generate some extremely touching mother-daughter moments, prompting dads of today to think about how the fathers of Pen15 could have, and should have, done better.

My husband sometimes repeats words of wisdom from an old baseball coach: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” As we wrap our binge of Season 2, I remind him of the saying. Pen15 is giving us a rare, truthful glimpse into our daughter’s future, the tumultuous middle school years looming on the horizon, the reality of what she’ll likely experience. It’s some of the most perfect practice an aspiring woke dad can get.