You love to hate to see it!
Growing up, movies and TV shows were the older siblings we never had. When the words and wisdom of parents failed to guide us through the painful awkwardness of middle school, we instead turned to shows like Glee and Gossip Girl for answers. In a way, these shows helped us navigate the troubled waters of puberty, openly portraying everything from sex and drugs to bullying. But such topics were always explored at surface level. One of the failures of bullying as portrayed on Glee, for example, was that conflicts were often resolved through an elaborate dance routine or heartfelt ballad, neither of which felt directly applicable to my life. Moreover, the actors portraying these characters were older than the characters they were playing, with a third of the core cast hitting their 30s before “graduating high school.” And never once did a character have a pimple.
More importantly, the media that middle schoolers are consuming today rarely portrays puberty as something socially awkward introverts experience; stories about people of color and LGBTQ+ kids are even rarer. Essentially, viewers didn’t see themselves in the shows they watched during puberty. Real kids are awkward, riddled with acne, and plastered with braces. Real kids are diverse and different from what is onscreen. Other issues, such as the trauma of sex and love, battling our own mental health, and debunking misconceptions about puberty, aren’t being discussed enough.
But good news! There are a few shows and movies out there that meet the mark when it comes to accurately representing puberty. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is cringy to the extent of being hard to look at, but then again, so are eighth graders. The world of a modern day eighth grader is revealed to audiences through the eyes of Kayla, a shy and awkward fourteen-year-old girl trying desperately to find her voice in a very loud world. The film opens with a Youtube vlog in which Kayla offers “subscribers” (she has none) advice on self confidence, her words mimicking the tone of the same Youtube videos I remember intently watching at her age.
Though Kayla insists she is just as outgoing as her peers outside of school, she is awarded “most quiet” at school superlative day, much to her dismay. She is not so much bullied as ignored by her peers, floating through typical middle school interactions such as a painfully familiar end-of-the-year pool party practically unnoticed. Her social anxieties and desperate attempts to shake them away are both heartbreaking and relatable. We wish we had known there were other shy middle school girls out there during our own times as fourteen-year-olds.
Eighth Grade is an honest portrayal of puberty through and through, bringing us along for difficult conversations with Kayla’s dad, the horrifying realities of being a confused girl taken advantage of by a male peer, and the intertwining realities of social media. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and most certainly, you’ll cringe.
Big Mouth, too, rings true to the middle school experience. It is one of the bravest TV shows Netflix has ever done. Rather than focusing on a beautified and wholesome fictitious middle school reality, Big Mouth is an animated series that focuses very specifically on each and every awkward phase of puberty. The title sequence alone proves more visually gritty and educational than anything we ever learned in Sex Ed. Puberty is exposed as the horrific, confusing, magical, satanic, and disgusting process that it is.
Nothing is too personal, too real, or too graphic. Using the medium of animation enables the show to go places and exaggerate experiences in a way that live action cannot. In one episode, Andrew, the protagonist, gets a boner, bringing with it a literal Armageddon that caves in the gym floor. It is this perfect balance of intense honesty and cartoon exaggeration that makes the show. Big Mouth works for the minds of both a terrified pubescent teen and an adult who has already gone through the horrors. While doing so, it provides unblinkingly funny humor that can only be found from shared trauma. It covers every variation of the puberty experience using a large cast of characters.
If Big Mouth is weird, then Pen15 is in a league of its own. This brilliantly bizarre Hulu show depicts two middle school girls, but here’s the twist: they are portrayed by full grown adults actors while the rest of the cast are actual middle schoolers.
In the same way that Big Mouth uses animation to be as graphic as necessary, Pen15 uses adults. This unique twist reminds viewers of the absurdity that is puberty. To expect an adult to undergo what 12 year olds have to endure seems preposterous. Yet, you will find yourself forgetting the age of the cast because the situations often reduce the full grown women to confused preteens. The show is similar to Eighth Grade in that it perfectly portrays middle school from the perspective of two introverted females. It also features one main character that is a person of color, allowing the show to capture the differences in puberty for a person of color in a predominantly white culture, something that can also be found in Big Mouth.
The show touches on so many intense and taboo topics while being absurd and hilarious beyond belief. Watching it brings on the pit-in-the-stomach cringe that most of us felt all through middle school. Somehow while being such a ridiculous show it feels real enough at times to be a documentary, often hitting a little too close to home.
We feel it’s important to note what is lacking in our picks. Very few of our choices focus on people of color or tell LGBTQ+ stories. There is a noticeable lack of diversity in a lot of what we have chosen. The shows we have found are not necessarily diverse, and we feel fall flat in other areas. This observation is a combination of our need to continue the search for good puberty tales and our need for Hollywood to write them.
Surina Belk-Gupta and Chloe Gibson are first year Film, Photography & Visual Arts and Documentary Studies and Production majors, respectively, who were #NotMyRodrick stans. You can reach Surina and Chloe at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com respectively.