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How 'Derry Girls' Laughs in the Face of Toxic Masculinity

By Ciara Wardlow | TV | August 10, 2019 |

By Ciara Wardlow | TV | August 10, 2019 |


(There are spoilers for Season 2 below)

Erin, Michelle, Orla, Clare, and James — these are the names of the titular teenagers in Lisa McGee’s wonderful sitcom Derry Girls, a Channel 4 series distributed internationally by Netflix. Largely inspired by McGee’s own experience growing up during the decades-long conflict known as the Troubles, the show finds levity in the everyday absurdities of life in the conflict zone that was 1990s Northern Ireland without ever making light of the situation itself. Aspiring writer Erin Quinn (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) and her friends tackle common teenage struggles — school, dating, parents — against the backdrop of a militarized state complete with regular armed vehicle searches and frequent bomb scares, resulting in a show that is refreshingly unique to the time and place in which it is set while still maintaining a universal appeal.

Even if you haven’t seen the show (and, to be clear, I highly recommend that you do), you might have noticed that one of the names in my opening list seems a bit of an outlier. This is because the fifth Derry girl isn’t a girl at all, or even from Derry, really. Born and raised in England, James (Dylan Llewelyn) is unceremoniously sent to Derry by his mother, Kathy, to live with an aunt he’s never met. His English-ness leaves school officials seriously worried for his safety at the local Catholic boys’ school, so the decision is made to instead have him attend Our Lady Immaculate College — the first boy ever to do so, much to his chagrin. Besides, at least there he has his cousin Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) to help him out. And she does. At least, kind of. Begrudgingly. Still, in spite of frequent griping, Michelle and the others bring James into the fold as the fifth Derry girl.

In season one, James’ fish-out-of-water status makes for plenty of funny moments, from his struggles to find a bathroom in the pilot (he’s not allowed to use the girls’, but he’s not allowed to use the men’s faculty restroom either) to how everyone just refers to him as the “wee English.” While the laughs continue in season two, the second installment of Derry Girls capitalizes on the potential for deeper commentary through James’ character instead of just a running gag. In making James “one of the girls,” the show taps into an age-old comedy trope that generally features some not-so-funny subtext. Namely, that men doing “girly” stuff is often depicted as humiliating or belittling. In such instances, the subtext underlying this humor is akin to the kind of thinking that leads machismo movie stars to make contracts demanding their characters never lose a fight or every-day straight dudes with similar paranoias to avoid recycling because not wanting to kill the planet is apparently a feminine quality and therefore must be avoided to maintain manly-man cred. Tl;dr: I’m talking toxic masculinity. And yes, I could go to much darker and scarier places addressing this subject, but ultimately this article is about a comedy television series. I’m not going to get into the crime-and-guns angle. It warrants significant discussion, but there is a time and a place, and this is not it. We’re keeping things focused on the “ludicrous contracts” and “real men don’t recycle” manifestations of toxic masculinity today — the sort of stuff that might be shared with the hashtag #masculinitysofragile.

While snarky comments on this sort of absurdity get plenty of laughs on social media, it is worth addressing the role laughter has played in maintaining and creating this situation in the first place. When comedies seek to make audiences laugh with men in dresses, sporting manicures, or otherwise partaking in activities traditionally deemed feminine, it casts these behaviors in a humiliating light. In this way, popular culture has long been one of the primary culprits in reinforcing the idea that getting caught partaking in “feminine” activities as a man is in the same wheelhouse as showing up to high school in nothing but your underwear as far as keeping one’s dignity is concerned.

On the rare occasion where a guy doing traditionally “girly” stuff isn’t played as a punchline, the character in question tends to be gay, or widely perceived as gay. On one hand, popular culture constantly reinforces the message that man + doing “girly” stuff = humiliation OR homosexuality. On the other hand, a critical mass of straight males display some degree of paranoia regarding doing things perceived as feminine. Correlation might not imply causation, but it does often suggest two things are linked somehow.

For some men, this disconcertion over straying from perceived masculine norms might be fueled by prejudice and homophobia, which is repulsive and to be clear these sorts of people are garbage. But even once you take out the human trash, there’s still the basic notion that people, generally speaking, want to be perceived by others in ways that align with how they see themselves. The concept that someone might be concerned about presenting behaviors they believe will lead others to misconstrue them is fundamentally understandable, even if in this particular context such concerns manifest in ridiculous and even downright problematic ways. When masculinity is so fragile supermarkets sell extra-large “man-sized” tissues (for all your manly crying needs), something simply needs to be done. The realm of rational thinking has clearly been left behind.

Now that we’ve got all this on the table, let’s get back to Derry Girls.

At the start of season two, James is more or less exactly where we left him at the end of season one: deeply uncomfortable being lumped with the “girls” and constantly reminding people that he’s “a boy, a real live boy” even though his protestations fall on deaf ears. In the first episode, the whole gang attends a week-long “Friends Across the Barricade” program intended to foster connections between the students of Our Lady Immaculate and a local Protestant boys’ school. James is particularly hyped about the program, but his enthusiasm has ulterior motives — namely, the prospect of befriending other “lads.” Instead of featuring jokes at James’ expense because he’s a guy stuck in an all-female environment, the episode features jokes at James’ expense because of his performative masculinity. His over-the-top efforts to save face and convince the other boys he’s a right proper lad and therefore worthy of their time — lowering his voice an octave, gloating about the hot “bird” he has back home (a total fabrication, no such girl exists), being overly confrontational and aggressive — consistently backfire, causing humiliation instead of preventing it.

James has the most distinctive evolution of any character over the course of the second season. He starts wanting nothing more than to prove his “lad” cred and ends the season wholeheartedly embracing his “Derry girl” status. When his absentee mother makes a sudden reappearance in the season finale and offers him the opportunity to return to London with her, James jumps at the chance to return to his old life — until the reality of saying goodbye to Derry sets in and he realizes he really is a Derry girl after all. He rushes back to Erin and the gang and proudly proclaims his change of heart for all to hear: “I AM A DERRY GIRL!”

It’s the sort of moment that could be played for laughs — featuring all the problematic subtext discussed earlier — but is instead genuinely moving, a touching, heartfelt scene that serves as the emotional crux of the entire season. Even rewatching it while preparing this article warmed my stone-cold lizard heart. Considering the second season suggests a blossoming romance between James and Erin, his embracing his status as “one of the girls” is far from emasculating. Speaking as a straight woman, it’s arguably the single most attractive thing James has ever done on the show.

Through subverting typical masculinity tropes and ridiculing toxic masculinity, the second season of Derry Girls presents a refreshing alternative to comedic trends that ultimately help propagate problematic masculine norms. Considering the role popular media has played in propagating toxic masculinity, it’s in a sense only fitting that popular culture take a proactive role in fighting it, and on this front Derry Girls sets a commendable and entertaining precedent for others to hopefully follow.

Ciara is one of Pajiba's film critics. You can follow her on Twitter.

Header Image Source: Netflix