In 2018, British Channel 4 broadcasted the first season of Derry Girls, a show that, at first glance, seemed to be a comedy about a couple of teenage girls in Northern Ireland of the ‘90s. However, the series proved to be more than just an entertaining coming-of-age story, as it followed two intertwining narratives - a fictional one, about the relations of the main characters, and a realistic one, about the political conflict in Northern Ireland of the time, also known as The Troubles. This article will look at how the TV show portrays truthful and fictional narratives to create a realistic piece of media, represent the time frame and gain the attention of viewers.
The Girls and the city of Derry
‘Derry Girls’ is a 3-season situational comedy sitcom which ran from 2018 to 2022 and has been widely acclaimed by both field professionals and audiences, winning a plethora of awards and becoming the most-watched series in Northern Ireland since the modern records began (Belfast Telegraph, 2018). It focused on the daily lives of four Irish girls, Erin, Orla, Claire, Michelle, and Michelle’s English cousin James, all attending a Catholic girls’ secondary school in the city of Derry or, to quote the show, “Londonderry, depending on your persuasion”. The episodes follow the leads as they navigate growing up, forming and breaking friendships, dealing with family issues and discovering their identities. Throughout the show, they deal with a variety of absurd circumstances which develop each of the leads’ characters, but also provide some internal context on the other conflict the show explores - the historical one.
The story is set amid the national unrest in Ireland better known as The Northern Ireland conflict or The Troubles, a conflict which spanned from the 1960s to 1998. The unrest was caused by the status of Northern Ireland, namely whether it was part of the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. Even though both sides were respectively named ‘protestant’ and ‘catholic’, the conflict was not religious but rather nationalistic as it started with civil rights protests in Northern Ireland to stop discrimination against its nationalist minority by the unionist government (Wallenfeldt, 2023). The city of Derry saw quite a lot of the conflict, as it is located near the border between the two opposing sides and considered the site of Troubles’ many tragedies, including one of the most violent and reported-on events - Bloody Sunday, a massacre which took lives of 26 civilians (Melaugh, n.d.). Derry Girls shows how Troubles end and the effect they have had on the lives of ordinary families, as well as the changes they brought to societal structures. The show does not explicitly describe any of the events but rather shows how they were impacting the lives of regular Derry citizens, as they were continuing with their routines through tragedies.
Fiction and Reality of Derry Girls
Even though there is a complicated historical context underlining the premise of Derry Girls and the series’ creator and writer Lisa McGee based the story on her own experience of growing up in the ‘90s Derry, the main plot is still fictional. The characters, as well as most of the situations they deal with, while inspired by real historical background, are fully fictional. However, in ‘The Distinction of Fiction’ Dorritt Cohn points out that fiction does not have to reference real events, facts or figures, it can be fully ‘non-referential’, while still portraying reality (2000). Fiction contains truth whether it has factual references or not, as it provides a reflection or commentary of reality through its narrative and context.
Derry Girls is not a fully non-referential narrative, as it does mention general facts and events from Northern Ireland in the 1990s. The truth and facts from the historical events act as context for the actions of the characters. It is used as a lens which is applied to show how the people, while not involved in the political conflict directly, are affected by the generational trauma that the events impose on the community. The series does not represent reality in full detail, but it does use the combination of truth and fiction to reflect on said reality.
The truth of the historical events act as context for the actions of the characters, showing how the people not involved in the conflict directly are affected by the generational trauma that the events impose on their community.
The narrative utilizes realism to form comical and critical predicaments in the plot. James’ character, for example, has to go to an all-girls school because he is English and the locals have a negative view of those from mainland Great Britain due to the conflict. Similarly to this, plotlines of episodes often combine the ‘trivial’ situations the teens in the shows deal with and the real-world tragedies. These stories are contrasting each other, but also are a reflection of how the public had to move on with their daily lives, living through their own small troubles, while the conflict was ongoing. For example, in episode 6 of season 1 the storyline follows a personal conflict between Erin and Clare, the latter coming out as a lesbian to her best friend and receiving a negative response. Throughout the episode they are both dealing with inner conflict, only reconciling at the end while dancing together in the school’s talent show. This scene is followed by another one, in which the adults of the show are watching a news broadcast of a fatal bombing in Northern Ireland.
This type of narrative building creates what Nannicelli describes as a deliberate blurring of truth and fiction (2009), as the facts and made-up stories are mixed to create one cohesive media through small details that impact one another. While the characters in the series are made up, they go through the events of the real world, moreover, ones that have been impactful on the real public of Northern Ireland. The plots of episodes are fictional, but they reflect real events and are backed up by the intricacies of social structures and events of the time. Derry Girls exists in-between truth and fiction, telling a fictional story from a real perspective.
Authenticity, Perspective and The Girls
Another aspect of Derry Girl’s realism is the attention to detail and authenticity in the show itself. Referencing historical events such as the Troubles or the Chernobyl catastrophe is not the only way to signify the reality in the narrative. The surroundings, the way characters look, act and talk, and the smaller time-appropriate references are all details that, when combined, make the overall story authentic and give justice to the truth. Derry Girls represents the typical culture of Northern Ireland, and Derry specifically, of the late 80s to 1990s, everything from accents, popular culture and style to the character archetypes.
As established by Hall (2007), representation is a complex concept which is constructed through an array of concepts, meanings and emotions. In the show, the combination of characters’ interactions with the historical narrative and amongst themselves, combined with the traits that relate them to their respective time period, create a representation of Northern Irish teenage girls and tell their perspective of the Troubles and the world in the 1990s. The details which seem negligible in the show at first glance make the characters believable. Erin Quinn, the main protagonist, has a rather complex personality: she is ambitious, especially about her dream of becoming an acclaimed author, thinking of herself as an intellectual that has strong liberal views, which is contrasted by the problems she faces in the episodes - her awkwardness, specifically around boys, the conflicts with her family members and the closemindedness in viewing situations from points of view other than herself’s. These traits are complemented by her interest in popular British music of the ‘90s, namely Spice Girls and Take That, her use of Irish and teen slang and the narration of her diary entries. All of these details create a complex character, one that has strong motivations and admirable traits but remains a teenager both through her interests and interactions with the outside world. The character of Erin, just like all the others in the show, does not only exist in the context of living during the Troubles or being a teenage girl, her role is diverse and, thus, authentic.
The show does not shy away from portraying the perceived ‘triviality’ of conflicts and interests of teenagers, especially the girls themselves. These are all part of character building and reflection on the bigger theme of the show - growing up in times of conflict. The perspective of the show differs from the typical perspective media offers of the Troubles. The political conflict is portrayed through reports of bloody violence and tragedies, a view straight from the heat of the battle (Cottle, 1997). While this is an important perspective, it overshadows the one which is just as relevant - one of the average citizens, one of the youths who were born in the midst of conflict, were affected by it growing up and are responsible for handling it in the future. Derry Girls advocates for the inclusion of young people’s perspectives, as it shows the character complexity of teenagers who are growing up in conflict.
There are multiple examples in the narrative in which the teens question the conflict itself, one of those being the story of an ‘honorary Derry Girl’ James (Figure 1). The girls let James join their company even though he is English and, hence, associated with the oppressor. While the characters do poke fun at James’ character throughout the show, they are not hostile towards him. Moreover, they proceed to accept him as a part group, while the adults of the show continue viewing him as the ‘odd one out’ in Derry, reminding him to watch his back (Reese, 2022). A fresh perspective is what the youth has to offer in times of conflict, and Derry Girls exemplifies the importance of stopping the infantilization of young voices and the need to listen to what the new generation has to offer (Dixon, 2021).
The Girls: Popularity and Impact
The premise of Derry Girls seems rather niche, the show is very characteristic of the region it portrays - from the references mention to the thick Irish accent of the characters combined with slang. Despite this, it rose to popularity beyond Derry, Northern Ireland and even the UK, and has made a great impact in the aforementioned regions - serving as a lesson in history and a fresh perspective for current politics (Carroll, 2022; Garden, 2022; Rosman, 2022). There is a plethora of reasons for the success - clever writing, witty humour, and uniqueness of the narrative to name a few. After all, Derry Girls approaches a tragedy through a comedic perspective, an unusual, but intriguing for the viewer way of portraying a conflict. However, a particularly important reason for such great reception is the relatability of the characters and the way they resonate with the current people of Derry and the world.
From a fiction standpoint, the main girls (and boy) are representative of more than just locals or teen stereotypes. Derry Girls offer a perspective on adolescence which seems much closer to real experiences, one that people can relate with. The group, while dealing with the typical teenager conflicts, are also shown as young people with big ambitions, maturing and finding themselves in the current troubled society. The show does not lean into the glorification or invalidation of the teen experience, instead showing the process of growing up as is. All while showing more complex narratives throughout, for example, growing up with generational trauma or experiencing other life-changing realizations. Clare coming out as a lesbian, dealing with homophobia and finding support from her loved ones is one of those plot points. Queer representation in shows is not uncommon nowadays, but back in the days that the show takes place it was. Telling the narrative of a lesbian teen who is out in the 1990s is inspirational for the audiences, to the ones who lived through that time and those who are discovering their sexuality now, as they can see themselves in what Clare is experiencing (Noyce, 2022). The Derry Girls narrative draws the viewers in with its authenticity, a fresh take on the time and the teen life stage.
The show has undoubtedly resonated with the people of Derry, as it gave justice to the period it portrayed and finally voiced what the locals were going through as the conflict unfolded, as creator Lisa McGee got to reflect on her own life back then. The girls are now depicted on a mural in the city, representing the people and reflecting the memory (Figure 2).
The Troubles ended with the Good Friday Agreement being voted on by the citizens and signed, which is what the Derry Girls finale showcases, however, the stress is present to this day. The series was airing in the times of Brexit, as tensions on the national divide in Northern Ireland started rising yet again. BBC Newsnight released a documentary short film titled “The real Derry girls and the dissidents” (2019), in which journalist Peter Taylor talks to a group of female activists from Derry that lost one of its members in a riot organised by an Irish dissident party. The documentary showcases how the conflict is still affecting people to this day, but also highlights the importance that the message of the series holds to the residents of Derry. A show that does well in portraying the trauma conflict inflicts on the nation is an important reminder of why violence does not solve issues. The women interviewed in the film express how the show made them feel united, even through loss, which emphasises the impact Derry Girls has had. Moreover, the show keeps the truth alive, providing a perspective on history to those who are less familiar with it.
Final Thoughts on Derry Girls
Derry Girls, as a series with a fictional plot and characters, does justice to its historical context while working to showcase a previously dismissed perspective - how were regular people, especially teenagers, affected as they were living through a violent conflict. Furthermore, it stays authentic to the era that it portrays, incorporating small details and greater concepts to establish a realistic narrative which mirrors Northern Ireland of the 1990s. The authenticity of the characters is how the show manages to get its message across, namely how the experiences of young people should be listened to, but it is also the reason for the show attracting its audience. Derry Girls is strong on its representation of Derry itself, teen experiences, and world issues. Thus, it grabs the attention of the audience to make a worldly impact, shine a light on the happenings of the modern day through a lens of the past and reflect on history to give hope to people who continue to be affected by conflicts in the present.
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