Embarrassment makes for rich literature, but few fictions I can think of capture humiliation with the brute efficiency of “Traumarama.” The series, which ran for a time in Seventeen magazine, offered true stories written by, and for, teenagers—three or so lines, poetic in their brevity, about unruly bodies and unforgiving worlds. Crushes were a common topic. So were pimples and periods. White pants, in the world of “Trauma rama,” were Chekhov’s gun.
The series was silly. As a kid, I loved it anyway. It offered commiseration and catharsis. Its mini-melodramas were tales of embarrassment that, in the end, defied embarrassment: How mortifying should any of this be, if so many others were living through it, too?
Newly in need of balm during topsy-turvy years, I’ve found it in television shows that have been asking the same question—in particular, a crop of current series that bring exuberant candor to their depictions of growing up. PEN15, the critical darling now in its second season on Hulu, chronicles the victories and humiliations of two best friends as they start seventh grade in the year 2000. Stranger Things, the Netflix smash hit set in and celebrating the 1980s, makes use of genres well suited to examining the out-of body quality of puberty: science fiction, mystery, horror. Big Mouth, also on Netflix, follows the fortunes of a group of present-day middle schoolers. A crucial element of that show’s success— it recently completed Season 4 of a run that will span at least six seasons—is that it focuses, with Traumaramic intensity, on the turmoils of early adolescence.
Exploring a time of life that ends but never leaves, the shows are wonderfully weird, even cartoonish (Big Mouth is an actual cartoon). But they are deeply earnest, too. They understand that this phase, to those who are living through it, can feel like a chronic emergency. And they have arrived, in their considerations of coming of age, at a singular conclusion: The best way to capture puberty’s reality, it turns out, is to embrace its surrealism.
“YOU GUYS, STOP. This is, like, so mean. Just tell her.” It’s the first day of seventh grade, and Maya Ishii-Peters has spent a few blissful hours thinking that her status in school, and therefore in life, is changing for the better: Brandt, a popular kid, is rumored to like her. So, for that matter, is his friend. All around Trailview Middle School, hand-lettered signs have been popping up: BRANDT LOVES MAYA. DUSTIN LOVES MAYA. She and her best friend, Anna Kone, discuss the news, thrilled. Then the guys materialize. “UGIS!” Dustin shouts at Maya. Brandt joins in. “UGIS!” The girls are confused—Yoojiss?—until Becca, a mean girl who thinks herself kind, volunteers an explanation.
“Oh, honey, don’t you know?” she says to Maya. “It means ‘ugliest girl in school.’ ”
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