Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls does everything right by teenage girls. More importantly, it fills our screens with the sheer abundance of life itself – unbridled optimism, the courage to regret, all while cognisant of the violence which defined 1990s Ireland. Set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Derry Girls focalises its evocative, and starkly honest portrayal of this era through the lives of five working class Catholic school girls (including James).
Being a teenager is difficult. Your bodies turn against you, school feels like the worst place to be, and life is always happening at a pace way faster than your developing brain can process. It is easy for television to downplay the struggles teenagers face, in favour of saying just wait till you reach adulthood, as if adulthood magically becomes better once we have sucked all the joy out of teenagers. Cynicism characterises adulthood, but underneath this cynicism is a deep nostalgia for a kind of naivety that being a teenager gives you. Above all, it is a specific nostalgia for the naivety which pushes us to do take huge risks, be wholly passionate for the present, and make ridiculous mistakes. More often than not, teenage girls receive the brunt of adult cynicism. In a patriarchal world founded on misogyny and sexism, it is unsuprising that television too absolutely despises teenage girls who are unabashedly confident. However, this confidence is celebrated and fleshed out for all its brilliance in McGee’s series.
Derry Girls shows us that sometimes, being a Catholic school girl is more than enough to deal with. While this is set against the violent backdrop of the Troubles, McGee treats the girls’ struggles with respect, never for once suggesting that they should care more about the bomb scare down the street, over whining about their failed crushes. If anything, the narrative focalisation of the Troubles through the perspective of teenagers who cannot yet understand the severity of the situation makes for a more honest depiction of life in Northern Ireland back then. Yes, there could be a bomb scare down the street, and you still have to go to school anyway. You still have to haggle with your family over how many bags of chips you should get, fight over buying the correct prom dress, or whether you are popular enough in school. The world is unkind, but as cliche as it sounds, life still has to be lived. We move on regardless, and this harsh indifference is mirrored by the girls’ penchant for drastic risks. They set fire to a shop by mistake, accidentally distribute weed-laced scones at a funeral, and dangerously elope to watch a Take That concert. It is not pure ignorance, but an acute recognition that the everyday lives of people are wholly significant on all fronts – even the silly, absurd, and ridiculous aspects of it. Our lives do not simply disappear in the wake of political events. Instead, they carry on, and are just worthy of celebration.
This is not to say that Derry Girls negates the violence, and deaths which occurred during the Troubles. In the series, the violence of this era is juxtaposed against the innocence of teenage life. During the finale of Series One, we see the devastation caused by the explosion of a bomb in Derry, as Erin’s family huddle close together for support. This scene is continually interjected by scenes of all five girls in school dancing together without a care in the world, oblivious to what had happened. The song ‘Dreams’ by The Cranberries plays, and the band sings, “oh my life is changing everyday, in every possible way.” Here, we see how life during the Troubles was often lived with extreme anxiety, paranoia, and fear. Down the road a bomb might go off anytime, and life changes everyday – it changes without much regard for you at all. At the same time, the optimistic innocence of the girls reminds us that because life changes everyday, we tend to romanticise the naivety of the past. In the context of McGee foregrounding the emotional impact of the bombing in Derry, the girls’ innocence sharply evokes the nostalgia for our own, for a time before we recognised how cruel the world actually is.
Furthermore, the dance by the Derry girls is also matched by them coming together to uplift each other during the dance – particularly after Clare’s coming out, and Orla’s humiliation by her classmates. In this way, Derry Girls reminds us that while we may be tempted to romanticise past, the present is where our focus should be at, because it is where people are. It is where we still have each other. Violence may persist, and the temporality of life will be indifferent to our pain, but what remains is our relationships with the people we love, the people we encounter by chance, and the people in our community. The anxiety and violence which characterises the current state of politics means that we owe each other to be kind, for how we treat each other can change as opposed to large political decisions we might not have sway in.
Derry Girls focuses on the everyday lives of teenagers, because the everyday tells us that moving forward does not begin from youthful idealism. Rather, moving forward begins with our tenacity to handle what we can concretely see and touch. What we can see are the people around us, and what we can choose to do is to be kind to one another, even if politics remain violently complicit in our pain, suffering, and death. It is thus unsurprising that in the finale of the second series, the girls literally turn their backs to Bill Clinton’s visit to Derry in 1995 to embrace James as a Derry girl. As Michelle says,
Being a Derry girl, it’s a fucking state of mind.
In the context of political violence, the solidarity espoused by Derry Girls should be our state of mind too.