Conformist sexuality and Derry Girls during ‘the Troubles’

By Sarah Arnold, September 25 2023

Derry Girls (Channel 4, 2018-2022) is a British-produced, Northern Ireland-set comedy drama about the coming of age of young Catholic Irish high school students living in Derry – a location central to the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’.

The ‘Troubles’ is the name given to the period of civil unrest and violence that lasted for decades, until the ceasefire and downing of arms that came with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It is against this tense political backdrop that the girls (and one boy) of Derry Girls go through the various trials of adolescence, which, of course, juxtapose greatly with the political events that unfold in the background of their lives.

Derry Girls as coming-of-age

There is much that situates Derry Girls within the tradition of the coming-of-age narrative, particularly the Teen TV genre described by scholars such as Davis and Dickinson (2004) and Marghitu (2021). Here, the genre is understood broadly, as transnational and generically hybrid, inasmuch as national versions of Teen TV adopt and share characteristics of Teen TV from other jurisdictions as well as other genres. Derry Girls is, of course, transnational by fact of its ‘hybrid’ identity as Irish and British and it is generically hybrid as a ‘comedy-drama’.

Derry Girls also reflects many of the conventions of coming-of-age narratives and Teen TV. It is steeped in nostalgia for youth, reflecting the tendency of Teen TV to be written and produced by adults who can only remember youth. This series is part memoir of Derry Girls’ creator, Lisa McGee, who grew up in Derry in the 1990s. This nostalgia ultimately produces a somewhat idealised narrative in which the challenges and tensions of youth are resolved by the end of the series; tensions which are sometimes related to the political events that shape the lives of Derry Girls’ youth, but more often related to gender dynamics, sexuality and relationships.

Figure 1. The girls and boy of Derry Girls, season 1, episode 1.

Conformist sexuality and gender identities

Derry Girls is notable for its focus on the experience of the ‘girls’ during the Troubles and the run up to the Good Friday Agreement, instead of the typical male narratives which have dominated this period in history. The Derry Girls are formed of Erin, Michelle, Orla, Clare, and James each of whom matures in a different way throughout the three seasons.

This maturation largely centers on their assertion of sexual and gender identities which, at first glance, may seem to situate the series as progressive in its frank depictions. Michelle is sexually assertive and confident, Erin expresses desire for another boy and shares a kiss with love interest James, while Clare comes out as a lesbian. However, despite the series’ embrace of such topics, its handling of them ultimately falls within what Berridge (2013) and Davis (2022) each call a ‘conservative’ ethos and ideological framework. For Davis, the inclusion of gay characters in what ultimately transpires to be a heteronormative social order of Teen TV results in individualising and isolating gay characters from their heterosexual peers.

For Berridge, writing about popular British TV series Skins, Teen TV can revert to problematic stereotypes in which male sexuality is naturally ‘unstoppable’ and violent and women are held responsible for sexual behaviour (2013: 799).  While Derry Girls does not depict male sexual violence or aggression, the girls’ gender identity and sexuality are largely conformist inasmuch as the ‘proper’ sexuality for girls is passive and responsive. Committed romantic relationships are idealised, while sexual assertion and disinterest in commitment are foreclosed. Derry Girls, therefore, suffers from the same problem as most Teen TV: an ambition to be progressive and liberal, yet ultimately reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes.

Figure 2. Representation of lesbian desire, season 3, episode 6.


Berridge, S., 2013. ‘Doing it for the kids’? The Discursive Construction of the Teenager and Teenage Sexuality in Skins. Journal of British Cinema and Television10(4), pp.785-801.

Davis, G. and Dickinson, K. eds., 2004. Teen TV: Genre, consumption, identity (p. 10). London: British Film Institute.

Marghitu, S., 2021. Teen TV. London: Routledge.