No one would give a note asking Walter White to be sweeter – so why should women on TV be appealing?
In the noughties, I adored Sex And The City. Like women everywhere, my friends and I debated which of these four impossibly stylish, successful women we were – when the reality was a bunch of university freshers who drank Buckfast from the bottle and lived in hoodies. We probably had far more in common with The Inbetweeners, but there were no female Inbetweeners on screen to compare ourselves to. Where were the messy women? The loud women, the ones who were complete eejits?
When I got the script for Derry Girls many years later, it felt like being handed the holy grail. Erin, Orla, Michelle and Clare (my role) were the female characters I had been waiting for: properly funny, obnoxious, unlikable at times. I remember the show’s creator, Lisa McGee, telling us that she had received a note asking her to make Michelle (the gobbiest one) a little softer, less in your face, more palatable. Her response: why?
So much television allows for, even centres on, deeply flawed male characters, far less so women. Would anyone give a note asking that Breaking Bad’s Walter White, one of TV’s best villains, be a little sweeter? Of course not. It made me wonder how many complex women have been toned down, or removed from our screens, on the basis that women have to be likable above anything else.
When we were filming the first series of Derry Girls, I worried whether people would like it. I had watched the intense backlash against the female Ghostbusters film unfold, an experience its director, Paul Feig, described as the worst misogyny he’d ever encountered. Seeing my comic heroes Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy get trashed online made me fear how the “women aren’t funny” brigade would react to our show.
But I shouldn’t have. When Derry Girls went out in 2018, it quickly became Channel 4’s most successful comedy in 13 years, proving what I’d long suspected: that there was a hunger for stories about women and girls. Who knows why it was embraced when something like Ghostbusters wasn’t; perhaps it helped that our show was an original piece, and that we couldn’t be accused of “ruining men’s childhoods”, as some had claimed, by inserting women into a male franchise. Derry Girls was always going to be about, well, girls.
During filming, we worried about making performance choices that were too “big”, or “going full Rik Mayall”, as I like to call it. But our director, Michael Lennox, encouraged us to “go there”, which I think is a huge part of the reason people responded to the show. These girls were free to be “a gang of dicks”, as McGee lovingly calls us. Fans tell me that they’re the “Clare” of their friendship group, and their best pal is the “Orla”. Women were able to see themselves in these characters.
After Derry Girls’ second series, I had the rare luck of being cast in another show that explored the complexity and depth of female friendship. In Bridgerton, I play Penelope Featherington, a shy young debutante in Regency London, who has a ride-or-die best friend in the form of Eloise Bridgerton (played by the wonderful Claudia Jessie). During filming, we met Julia Quinn, author of the books Bridgerton is based on. She explained that, yes, her books were love stories – but that the biggest romance, in a sense, was the friendship between Penelope and Eloise. The show has since become Netflix’s biggest hit to date, and it’s gratifying to see audiences connect with Penelope and Eloise, or #Peneloise as the kids are calling us. We have been written as real human beings, not facsimiles of what we think a Regency woman was.
When you look at some of television’s recent successes, you see what happens the moment after the Bechdel test is passed (in which two women talk about anything other than a man). You get into the nitty-gritty of what happens between complicated women. Thank God Fleabag and her sister Claire are allowed to be so awful to one another, so that the moment when they express their love becomes hugely poignant. Thank God Arabella and Terry betray one another in I May Destroy You, because women don’t always do the right thing. And thank God for Abbi and Ilana in Broad City, whose weird, compulsive connection completely reflects how obsessed I can be with my female friends; with their humour, their kindness, their tenacity, their talent. Blessed be the friendships between Leslie and Anne in Parks And Recreation, for Rue and Jules in Euphoria, for Candy and Lulu in Pose.
The best moments on the sets of Derry Girls and Bridgerton came when the young women were allowed to be unapologetically themselves, never worrying that they might not be appealing. I, for one, am excited by all the difficult, brilliant, complex women to come, who have yet to grace our screens. Long may the sisterhood reign over us.
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