I want to talk about Some Girls. Some Girls is a teen comedy on BBC Three about four 16 year old girls (as they begin the first series) who attend the Greenshoots Academy in South London, all play for the school football team and live on local estates. It is written by Bernadette Davis and the four main characters are Viva (Adelayo Adedayo), Holli (Natasha Jonas), Saz (Mandeep Dhillon) and Amber (Alice Felgate) and it’s Holli who says she’s just ‘keeping it real’ when talking about how their friendship group doesn’t get one with another group of girls at school. I’m having to write this in a simplistic and probably quite boring tone because there is so much I want say about Some Girls that I’m struggling not to get distracted for the four millionth time by conflicting approaches of analysis. But I’m going to talk about reception. I’m going to talk about Some Girls’ reception in relation to that of Girls (2012 -) and Sex and the City (1998 – 2004) and why such a comparison is a bit weird. And I’m going to talk about notions of realism and authenticity as discourses of quality in female television comedy and the construction of authenticity within Some Girls as a departure from ‘kitchen sink’ social realism.
For the Norwich branch of this year’s International Day of the Girl events, arranged by UEA’s Dr. Victoria Cann and Dr. Sarah Godfrey, I took part in a series of café conversations at the Millennium Forum where I prepared a selection of reviews of Some Girls from the press cuttings section of The British Comedy Guide web site. I asked those who were kind enough to join in to look at the reviews and see what kinds of constructions of girlhood they could glean from the language: what was deemed appropriate behaviour for teenaged girls in the reviews, what reactions did the group have to who was responding to the programme and the comparisons drawn to other television programmes?
There were several themes that arose, but the conversation focused most prominently on the ways in which the reviews judged the programme on the accuracy of its portrayal of ‘real’ school life and the ‘reality’ of British female adolescence. The Guardian’s Hannah J Davies describes the show’s “true-to-life warmth”; talking about the “crowded playground” of school-based sitcoms, Keith Watson of The Metrosays Some Girls “scores one vital A* over the opposition: it looks as though it’s set in a school that might actually exist”; an anonymous contributor on an article by an adult male who failed to see the humour in the show said “I actually am a teenage girl and I can tell you that the conversations between the girls in this sitcom are unbelievably similar to the ones me and my friends have with each other”; The Guardian also published a review by a teenaged girl which held the tagline “South-London school drama Some Girls doesn’t fall into the Skins trap and manages to portray teenage life realistically, says 16-year-old Grace Berger” where Berger wrote that the show is “very true to life”.
The use of this rhetoric about a sense of realism in the show and to whom this realism speaks is not unusual in the reception of the fairly indistinct category of comedies-that-have-a-cast-of-four-females-who-talk-about-sex. In order to make sense of the show, some of the reviews and comments on Some Girls use comparisons to and distinctions from two HBO series that have gained a lot of attention from critics and the academy, Sex and the City (1998 – 2007) and Lena Dunham’s Girls (2012 -): Yolanda Zappaterra wrote for Time Out “A standout scene with the four girls in a café is played so well it could be a flashback in Sex And the City…”; Hugh David writes for Cult TV Times, “[t]he next time someone says there are no interesting roles for women or for persons of colour on British television, or complains that only HBO break new ground in that area with the likes of Girls, tell them to watch Some Girls”. In another review of Some Girls for The Independent, Neela Debnath says of a female comedy revolution: “Across the pond there is also Lena Dunham’s Girls which has been met with critical acclaim for its true-to-life humour”. Here we see the connecting rhetoric between Girls and Some Girls and the emphasis on the realism of these shows’ content.
I have some issues with these programmes being compared. While I’ve noted above the general criteria for comparison, the difference between the girls in Girls and SATC and the girls in Some Girls is that the latter are actually girls – in the International Day of the Girl sense of the word, they’re under eighteen. They’re not mid-twenties-crises suffering Williamsburg hipsters, failing to quite grow up despite their post-college status and they’re not fully established grown women in their thirties or forties confidently mastering their professional lives, love lives and sex lives in a glamourous, hyper-consumerist vision of Manhattan.
But while the comparison might be troubling for its reductiveness or lack of rigour, looking at the reception of Girls and SATC also highlights where the rhetoric of authenticity and realism, picked up on by the café conversation, serves to differentiate between criticisms of (a lack of) representation in aspirational American comedies (or comedy dramas, depending on how you classify these two shows) and the traditions of social realism in British television comedy that Some Girls content offers.
Diversity as Realism
As Lisa W. Kelly observes in her CST blog, both Girls and the show’s creator have had a mixed relationship with their critics: on one hand Girls is celebrated for its honesty, authenticity of a contemporary female experience and the multi-faceted characterisation of the four central female characters; Dunham’s body and her showing of it as unusual to American television terms has also been key to the show’s reception as authentic – to the point where whether Dunham’s images in magazines such as Vogue are airbrushed or not becomes a very specific kind of scandal: “[Dunham’s] body is real. She is real. And for as lovely as the Vogue pictures are, they’re probably not terribly real”. What makes Girls un-real in its reception, is the limitation upon to whom its stories and representation of girl/womanhood reach. As Kelly points out, it is assumptive and problematic for intersectionalist feminist rhetoric to use the universal term ‘Girls’ to title such a specific, privileged, white version of womanhood as that experienced by the four twenty-something women on screen.
The emphasis on Dunham’s narrative as semi-autobiographical puts the show under even greater scrutiny for its relationship to universal authenticity: Dodai Stewart writes for her Jezebel article “For those of us who are – or have been – young twentysomethings living in New York, this version of New York is a bit peculiar”; Kendra James wrote for the blog Racialicious that from personal experience of being friends with people who knew Dunham, “I know her life couldn’t possibly have looked as white as the posters for Girls” .
Sex and the City has also been part of the conversation both about Girls and Some Girls as a show that uses candid talk between the four ‘girls’ about sex and relationships to source a lot of its comedy and has been celebrated for being ‘real’ in doing so. But it too, like Girls, exhibits a very specific urban experience of New York that doesn’t make space for different cultural experiences of womanhood. Despite the attempts at making the four characters different and conflicting in their personalities, their personality traits could all be part of the same white, rich, heterosexual female. While it might be glossy and aspirational in its aesthetic, SATC’s specificity is not diverse or nuanced enough to be ‘real’.
So the realism of girl/womanhood in these two comedies is firstly dependent on a sense of honesty and visibility of the characters’ sexuality and secondly on whether this is in fact a universal enough experience of womanhood to feel real to women of a range of cultural experiences.
Realism as Normality
What Some Girls does differently, is note first and foremost in its title that it is expressly not representative of all forms of girl experiences. And its audience is reminded of this often within Viva’s narratives of how the characters relate to other girls’ experiences and expectations: “For some girls, this would be just about the most embarrassing thing that could ever happen…for us, somehow I think there’s more to come”.
The show also presents an urban environment that doesn’t gloss over representations of class or multi-culturalism: Viva is black British, Saz’s family are Asian and Sikh and Holli and Amber are white. Avoiding another example of woman/girlhood as an exclusively white, middle class, privileged existence that is supposed to feel universal.
While one review by Keith Watson for The Metro dubbed the programme “painfully PC” and Rhiannon Harries for The Independent observes a conscious “right-on correctness” purely on the grounds that not all the characters are white, the show does more to render its multi-cultural casting as normal rather than a lesson in tolerance. As the podcast Black Girls Talking notes, “there’s things they don’t feel the need to explain…like with Saz being from a traditional Sikh background, if that was on an American teen sitcom over here there would be a whole episode dedicated to what it means to be Sikh”.
Viva doesn’t have an ongoing issue with her race either but instead performs her British national identity through her inability to understand the Kiwi accent of her football coach and father’s girlfriend Anna (Dolly Wells).
This idea that these are not girls who are fundamentally troubled by their working class, culturally diverse backgrounds and relationships is, for the presenters of Black Girls Talking “refreshing” and “it’s a shame that this is a revolutionary idea”.
The ‘reality’ of a these girls’ teenage experience includes dropping sex, teenaged pregnancy, abortion, absent parents, drug use and alcohol dependency into the dialogue as part of the comedy. Without making these issues resonate with the taboos that might stigmatise girls’ relationships with these subjects elsewhere, their inclusion in the show, in a way that could not be included in the suburban world of The Inbetweeners for instance, actually normalise what is otherwise deemed ‘gritty’, ‘kitchen sink’ or challenging in the social realist turmoil of a more conventional social realist comedy such as Shameless. The BBC’s initial announcement about the show’s commissioning makes this an explicit intention, calling Some Girls “a comedy about the kind of girls more usually seen in worrying documentaries about inner city teens”.
While I don’t argue that funny is a universal criterion and therefore everyone should find Some Girlsentertaining, or that it isn’t possible that a number of people from a variety of different backgrounds have been offended by moments by the show, the reviews themselves point to criticisms about its social realism (which often translates ‘real’ into ‘the lives of the non-aspirational’) for being too conscious. However, for the teenaged girls who rave about it online not only is the show hilarious, it represents a sense of reality that the American shows to which Some Girls has been compared have failed to achieve. It’s not the case that the traditional signifiers of social realism make the show challenging, consciously progressive or politically correct for the sake of it, it’s because without these signifiers, the realism, the sense of authenticity and the connection girls describe feeling towards the experiences on screen all go out the window. Along with the kitchen sink.
Erica Horton began studying comedy during a year abroad at San Francisco State University, for her BA in Film and American Studies with the University of East Anglia. This interest was pursued in her Masters dissertation, ‘No Girls Allowed: Gender Politics in the Contemporary Film Comedy of Judd Apatow and the Frat Pack’. During time away from academia, Erica writes sketch comedy and produces a podcast as part of writing duo Bad Jacket. Returning to UEA, Erica is working towards an academic career, researching comedy performance, agency and creative processes in film and television studies.