Netflix’s ‘Derry Girls’ Is A Great Reminder Of How Cringeworthy Being A Teenager Was
'Derry Girls' invokes memories of trying to impress some truly heinous dude who drove a Holden VL.
Welcome to ‘Should You Bother Watching’, Junkee’s column which helps to answer the streaming-age’s biggest question: is this show for me? In this one, we tackle Netflix’s Derry Girls.
As someone who routinely criticises Riverdale (seriously, who made Archie this way? I just wanna talk) but also reads fan theories on Reddit for hours on end, I’m always looking for the same thrill I got when I first discovered, as a 13-year-old, that there is a whole genre of TV dedicated to the shittiness I was feeling during puberty.
On a late night scroll through Netflix, contemplating To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before or Young Justice again, the Derry Girls trailer autoplayed. And so I binged it, naturally.
Derry Girls follows four Northern Irish girls at a Catholic high school in the ’90s during the Troubles: Erin the angsty teen, Orla the odd but free spirit, Clare the by-the-book best friend, Michelle the bundle of hormones, and her cousin James, the ‘wee English fella’ (who’s enrolled at the all girls school because of the danger of sending an English kid to an Irish boys school)
What we witness over the next six episodes is a hilarious coming-of-age story that unfolds in the wake of a potential bombing in their hometown of Derry.
Derry Girls questions how a corrupt world can affect innocence, and if it does at all.
In a time where your safety is at stake for the religion you follow, (which, in case you missed it, hasn’t changed in the slightest) Derry Girls examines what that means for how you view your life.
The show is dotted with obvious gestures at how scary Northern Ireland was, without stating it explicitly — military casually seen around schools and church, and news playing in the background indicating all the terrible goings-on around the country.
But the characters go about their lives, experiencing some semblance of normal teenage pandemonium including setting an apartment on fire, a dead nun in detention, and a wild coming-out story.
Politics — but make it funny
Derry Girls as mentioned is set during the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
For those unsure of what the Troubles were, it was a conflict where Unionists (mostly Protestants) wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, while Republicans (mostly Catholics) wanted to leave and become a united Ireland. This resulted in 30-40 years of clashes.
As the main protagonists are Catholic and anti-Unionists, what follows is a lot of shit-giving to the British and criticism against their intervention in Ireland, with James made the butt of most jokes — being as he’s the only English character in the show.
While there’s a lot saying what we’re all thinking — that the British need to mind their own business — it never forgets that this is a show directed at young people, and finds perfect harmony in weaving the commentary with typical teenage mannerisms.
In the middle of studying for an Irish history exam, Michelle remarks, “if your lot stopped invading us for five fucking minutes there’d be a lot less to wade through, you English prick.”
You also witness the adults getting involved in the sideswipes. In church with Ukrainian refugees, Sister Michael, a school nun, reassures them not to worry about the civil unrest happening around them: “all you need to know is we’re the good ones.”
— Danny Donnelly (@DannyDonnelly1) April 10, 2018
But there is a hopefulness about it.
In the final scene of the show, their parents watch the news in horror as the worst happens, while the girls dance around on stage during a talent show. It’s a bittersweet moment, seeing the gang confront their fears after a whirlwind episode.
Watching their families see the news unfold nevertheless breaks your heart for these characters you’ve grown to love.
Derry Girls is a great reminder of how cringeworthy being a teenager was
Over the course of the season we witness Michelle desperately try to lose the ‘other half’ of her virginity, contemplating relationships with an Orangeman (a Unionist), a man who she thinks she saw in her tarot reading, and the soldier who inspects their school bus every morning.
Erin questions why she doesn’t smoke when her crush asks her for a light. Orla participates in a talent show when she she thinks she’ll ‘go all the way’ with her aptitude for step aerobics.
We also see Clare wearing a Union Jack t-shirt at a house party, claiming ‘wearing this should be meaningless. This is just colours and shapes! We need to take the power out of these symbols!’
— Derry Girls Fans (@GirlsDerry) January 3, 2019
Derry Girls invokes memories of trying to impress some truly heinous dude who drove a Holden VL by taking up smoking or drinking JD and coke, even though you hated it.
Or how we supported KONY 2012 and that was our form of activism. Remembering your high school years is an act of wincing and recoiling in embarrassment, and being glad you’re not fifteen anymore.
The soundtrack is without a doubt one of the best on a TV show right now, all without being gimmicky or overly trendy.
It could have easily gone the other way and tried too hard to jump on the flashback bandwagon, but it is a perfect balance of reflecting the times without riding the 90s wave too hard.
Derry Girls first aired last February in Ireland, not long after the death of Dolores O’Riordan, so prepare for a lot of The Cranberries.
— Vaish (@hippopotatomus_) January 10, 2019
Too 90s perhaps?
It can be very of its time in the worst ways, which is to say, be prepared for ableist language and gay jokes.
Here’s the thing; it could be shitty screenwriting (which it probably is), but for me it served as a reminder of how terrible my understanding of lived experiences was. It’s something a lot of people are still unlearning today, and for me personally, it took until the third episode to realise how ableist the language actually was — a humbling indication that I’m still learning sensitivity and inclusivity.
It’s a shame though. Nobody’s asking to erase how we used to be, and I certainly don’t advocate being self-revisionist to pretend I have always been perfect. But it was an opportunity to use more inclusive language to suit today’s audiences, and they didn’t..
Not to be a parody of myself but Derry Girls is the best thing on Netflix right now pic.twitter.com/8RCPOjrPlT
— 💖💖aisling 💖💖 (@aislingrubinic) January 9, 2019
So, is Derry Girls worth watching?
A lot of the reviews I read after finishing the show was that it’s a cross between Skins and The Inbetweeners, which is not untrue.
There’s plenty of drinking, drama, swearing, and the potential to have sex is in the air, with an element of ridiculousness attached to all of it. But this is better, ten fold.
Skins in many ways was how you wished your teenage years would be — full of drama, house parties, and a mysterious alter ego like Effy. But it was all a bit extra.
The Inbetweeners started out as an enjoyable show to watch, then was undone by its own unwillingness to grow out of the ‘lad’ humour, which ultimately became tiring.
— LezWatch.TV 📺 🏳️🌈 (@lezwatchtv) January 11, 2019
But Derry Girls does what neither of those shows could do — and that’s a fearlessness to be authentic.
It finds the perfect balance of bizarre, cringeworthy, things teenagers do while also looking at how difficult it is to be figuring out your life when you understand so little about the world.
For a series set against the backdrop of some of the worst terrorist attacks in the UK, it still managed to make me cross my leg to stop from weeing myself after laughing so hard. If not for the completely gross yet hilarious events that occur, then watch it for the tenderness it inches towards, and the heart that reveals itself in the final episode.
It’s worth the wait.
— Abriana (@dreamformetoo) January 13, 2019
Vanessa Giron is a freelance writer based in Naarm/Melbourne. She is a member of the West Writers Group with Footscray Community Arts Centre, contributor for Djed Press and critic for The Big Issue.