Making a show about puberty is hard. Beat around the bush too much and you get a sanitized after school special. Get too graphic and you have something like Big Mouth, a show that’s frank but solidly for adult audiences. It’s this difficult balancing act that makes The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder so extraordinary. Bruce W. Smith and Ralph Farquhar’s revival is one of the few age-appropriate, honest, subversive, and entertaining looks at puberty on television. And Penny Proud is the ideal hero to take us on this journey.
From the first few seconds of Louder and Prouder, it’s clear that this new show isn’t just The Proud Family Season 3. “New Kids on the Black” opens with Penny (Kyla Pratt) waking up only to discover that she’s grown several inches and developed breasts and a butt seemingly overnight. Instantly Louder and Prouder makes it clear that this version of Penny is becoming a woman, which means now is the time to deal with her budding sexuality.
What makes this transformation so remarkable is Penny and her family’s reaction to it. From Episode 1 way back in the 2000s, Penny has always been a teenager who has been desperate to be treated like an adult. She’s always craved adult responsibilities, older boyfriends, and curves like her mom. Now that she is starting to get them, Louder and Prouder doesn’t cheapen Penny’s character by feeding us a story about bodily shame. It does the exact opposite, basking in Penny’s excitement as she celebrates her new body. And why shouldn’t Penny be proud? This is something she’s wanted for ages, and it’s finally happened.
Her family’s reaction to Penny’s developing body is just as true to the source material. Of course, the overprotective and clueless Oscar (Tommy Davidson) has a problem with his daughter’s new crop top. He’s never wanted Penny to grow up, and if dressing her in a suit of medieval armor will halt the process for even a few minutes, then that’s what he’s going to do. Trudy (Paula Jai Parker) and Suga Mama’s (Jo Marie Payton) reactions are equally predictable. Instead of getting mad at her daughter for borrowing her heels, Trudy stands up for Penny, and Suga Mama fights her son for trying to make Penny feel ashamed. The only rebuke Penny gets is a warning to remember how she was raised, then she’s turned loose to see how her friends have changed.
There are other smart insights about these awkward years hidden in Louder and Prouder’s first two episodes. For example, even though her body has grown, Penny hasn’t. She can barely walk in her mom’s heels for more than a couple of blocks before she has to take them off, a moment that will probably be relatable to anyone who played dress up in their mom’s closet. For the stuck up LaCienega (Alisa Reyes), puberty means learning to deal with new facial hair and acne, a hurdle that takes her an entire episode to solve. For Michael (EJ Johnson), it means finally embracing his fabulous self instead of hiding behind coded language about being gay or gender non-conforming. In each of these examples puberty isn’t treated like a horror movie villain. It’s handled as either a source of celebration or a source of adaptation for these characters.
Episode 2, which features Penny becoming an influencer, offers another, more modern angle about what it means to be a teenager. The episode isn’t just a morality play for Penny as she chooses who to cancel. There’s a sense of feeling trapped that defines the whole story. Even if Penny becomes queen bee or disconnects completely, she can never fully escape social media. That omnipresence is a real pressure in nearly every preteen and teen’s life today, and Louder and Prouder portrays it in a way that puts a silly edge on this bleak reality.
Smith has always excelled in using The Proud Family to tell the unexpected. In the show’s original run, what looked to be a wacky cartoon about a lovable family often held powerful lessons about what it means to be Black in America, class divides, and how harmful homophobia is. In these stories, The Proud Family never took the easy after-school-special route. Like Penny herself, it took the more mature one that always respected its characters as people first, even if that led to uncomfortable endings that alluded pithy summaries.
That’s what The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder has done with Penny’s puberty. We’ve seen hundreds of stories about teenage girls hating their bodies. But we rarely see the emotion these changes can also prompt: pure joy. Two episodes in and Louder and Prouder is already ditching these tired narratives about shame and repression. Whatever comes next, it’s bound to be great.