by Akshata Atre
(tw: mention of self harm)
“Sorry.” “Excuse me, sorry.” “Sorry!” “Oh my god, sorry”
Ask any woman how many times a day she says sorry, and the number is probably higher than you think. Much higher. We apologize constantly. And if you’re a woman and you say “sorry” fewer than five times a day, I genuinely commend you for breaking the cycle. Because it runs deeper than we may think.
I found myself confronting this reality in a less-than-frivolous sense whilst watching the 2016 teen movie The Edge of Seventeen, starring Hailee Steinfeld. Watching that movie made me so frustrated and anxious that my hands quite literally shook. And look, I know I’m in the minority here (as it’s rated 77% on Rotten Tomatoes and was positively reviewed by critics). However, as someone who has dealt with her fair share of being alone in the aftermath of difficult social situations, this movie made my blood boil.
The film opens with the main character, Nadine, storming into her teacher’s classroom with the declaration that she is going to kill herself. From there, the film works backwards to uncover what has happened to Nadine up to this point, primarily the fact that her childhood best friend Krista (read: her only friend), has started dating Nadine’s uber-popular older brother, Darian. Nadine is understandably extremely upset, and being left in a fragile emotional state after fighting with Krista leads her to do some rather shockingly regrettable things, namely sending a very graphic sext to her crush and stealing her mom’s car.
You can probably guess where the movie is going. Nadine confronts her brother, only to learn that her brother has problems too, like having to “deal” with their emotional mother (who does not get along with Nadine at all) and the fact that Krista is the only girl right for him (a boy who, you might remember, a super popular jock). So Nadine must apologize to him for not understanding that he has issues too and blah blah blah. She then becomes friends with Krista again, even though Krista fully ditched Nadine to hang out with Darian’s “cooler” friends. Oh, and Nadine ends up with the cute nerdy boy, because that’s what happens in all teen rom coms I guess. She even apologises to her new boyfriend because she didn’t realize that he was into her, which is somehow her fault?
Look, it’s fine that Nadine apologizes and owns up to her mistakes. Like I guess ethically that’s the right thing to do. But the thing is, no one ever really, truly apologizes to Nadine. Her mother, Krista, and Darian all blame her for her emotional response to the situation without acknowledging that they have left her totally alone to deal with all of her issues. She literally has no one to talk to. She’s all alone. And yet she’s supposed to bear the burden of apologizing and begging for her forgiveness when she was just reacting to what other people have done. Why is she supposed to be okay with her brother tearing her only friend away from her? Like, what sense of male entitlement is that on his part? And seriously, are we supposed to believe that her getting a boyfriend is what makes it all better? I mean really. This is 2016, not 2006.
To me, all this apologizing that Nadine must do underscores that fact that women in film and television are still, for the most part, not allowed to make mistakes. If they mess up, they have to repent right away, or else they won’t be able to move on with their lives or pursue a romantic relationship, which is still, frustratingly, the end goal for so many of these stories.
However, while 2016 brought us tired teen movie tropes in The Edge of Seventeen, 2018 brought us some refreshing female representation in Derry Girls, masterfully written by Lisa McGee. This television program brought to the US via Netflix from Channel 4 in Ireland is an absolute gem of comedy gold. The show is set in Derry, Northern Ireland during The Troubles (the conflict between the Loyalists and Irish nationalists) of the 1990s. The story follows Erin, Clare, Michelle, and Orla-- all of whom are fully developed characters with vibrant, colorful, and hilarious personalities-- as well as Michelle’s British cousin James, a sweet and scared comedic punching bag you can’t help but root for.
In the very first episode, we see the five teens end up in detention after threatening some younger girls on the bus. During detention, a sequence of absolutely absurd and hilarious events occurs (which I simply cannot do justice in this post). To poorly summarize: Erin tries to escape to see her crush David’s gig, Michelle tries to steal her lipstick back from a (seemingly) sleeping nun, Clare inhales a sandwich (having completed a four hour fast to raise money for children in Africa), and James pisses in a trash can (as there are no boy’s toilets at the girls’ all-girl Catholic school). When they realize that the nun is, in fact, dead, they are found out by the delightfully sarcastic headmistress Sister Michael, who proceeds to call their parents and tell them off as best she can, a difficult task given that she cares very little about her job. The episode then ends perfectly, and you are immediately left wanting more.
And you get more, because in every episode the gang manages to get themselves into some kind of deliciously ridiculous mishap (which I won’t even try to summarize because you just have to see it for yourself). The point is that these multi-dimensional, strong female characters (and James) are allowed to mess up over and over again, and they are rarely made to apologize for what they’ve done. It’s understood that they’re kids, and they should be allowed to make mistakes, have fun, and be themselves. While there are cliche romantic side plots sprinkled into the show, they are never the focus, and they are never the end goal. The focus is solely on the girls (and James, kind of)-- their insecurities, flaws, and, to some extent their strengths. In Derry Girls, we finally get to see female characters as real girls with real personalities. They aren’t perfect, and they don’t try to redeem themselves all the time, because, let’s be honest, none of us really ever do that. Even Sister Michael is flawed, and through her perfect one-liners she flips the script on the common characterization of a nun. In fact, every female character on this show is perfectly imperfect, both lovable and laughable.
So, to all the writers out there: stop making women apologize. We’ve apologized enough, especially within the confines of your cheesy, heteronormative romance plots. As Derry Girls shows us, stories in which women are allowed to mess up are just better. So it’s time to let women to be flawed, be themselves, and be absolutely ridiculous. It’s time to let girls be girls.