We're in trouble
My daughters will live the rest of their lives in a conflict zone
Riley and I started watching Derry Girls with our two oldest daughters a couple of weeks ago. After the first eff word, my eleven year old looked at me and said, “Oh! So this is kind of one of our grown up shows!” Our viewing rules are kind of weird, I guess.
We don’t let them watch some of the things their peers watch. No reality tv, no Euphoria, no HS romcoms where the girl aches to be objectified and smiles triumphantly at the end when she finally is objectified, no disney/nick/whatever sitcoms about a conventionally pretty girl and her less conventionally pretty sidekick friend.
Basically, our rules have nothing to do with the number of curse words or the tv-rating. They’re about the themes. People get weirdly upset about this, “Your kids can’t watch Sandlot but they can watch We Are Lady Parts?!” Sorry, but the Sandlot Wendy Peffercorn storyline is very gross! And We Are Lady Parts is very good! Also, our rules don’t have to be your rules so…don’t fret?
Derry Girls is about five friends in Derry, a city in Northern Ireland. Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle and James. The series opens just a few years before the Good Friday agreement that officially ended The Troubles. (Of course, official stories never cover everything, do they? )
The series follows the friends as they move through adolescence in a world divided by barricades, blown up by bombs and patrolled by an armed hostile force. They are never safe, but they are safe with each other. They are uncertain of their future, but they are certain of the people who care for them. There is despair. But there is joy too. And hope.
It took hundreds of years of oppression to get to The Troubles. Starting around 1100 AD, England couldn’t keep its velvet gloves off Ireland. Ireland was thoroughly under England’s control by the 1600s. In 1609, a plantation was started in Ulster - today’s Northern Ireland. In this context, plantation means the organized movement of settlers into a territory. Plantations were used by invaders to gain control over uncooperative regions.
Ulster was particularly uncooperative, particularly Gaelic, particularly Catholic, and, because of their pastoral custom of creaghting, particularly hard to pin down. Under the direction of King James I (yes, he of The King James Bible), Protestant settlers from Northern England moved onto stolen land ,put up fences, created rights for themselves, and stripped rights from the Catholics.
(And yes, I am descended from both the oppressors and the oppressed. TALK ABOUT INNER CONFLICT.)
Ireland started its official journey to independence in 1922. But Northern Ireland remained under British control because of the 1921 partition. Gosh, 20th century Brits loved their partitions, didn’t they?
In 1968, The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association peacefully protested the continued State-enforced discrimination against Irish Catholics. They wanted equal votes, equal access to housing, equal access to representation, and an end to police brutality. The peaceful protestors were surrounded and brutally beaten by police. Many mark this as the start of The Troubles.
Some people call The Troubles a civil war, others call an irregular war or low-level war. It was waged between Irish Republican paramilitary groups, Loyalist paramilitary groups and the British Army. Over 3500 people were killed in the conflict. Many, like the 14 unarmed protesters on Bloody Sunday, were killed by British police.
There’s a heartaching scene at the end of Derry Girls Season 1. Orla, one of the five friends, is doing a step aerobics exercise for the school talent show. It’s about as goofy as it sounds. Giggles start across the auditorium. And then laughter. Her four friends rush up to the stage to dance with her. If she’s going to be laughed at, she won’t be laughed at alone.
Sometimes friendship is twirling while being laughed at by people who could never understand.
In the rush to defend their friend, a deeply unkind reaction from Erin is forgiven by Clare. They are all better together, and tomorrow they will be better still. It’s such a joyous moment. Sometimes friendship is twirling while being laughed at by people who could never understand.
In the middle of their dancing, the show cuts to a scene at Erin’s home. Her parents, grandpa and aunt are watching the tv in horror. There’s been another bombing and over a dozen people are dead.
Radio Times asked Derry Girls writer Lisa McGee about her decision to interrupt Orla’s dancing scene with the bombing, She said,
“I thought if I’m going to do this show and show this side of things, I have to at some point show that there were times when it floored you….I had a nod to that, there were lots of mundane bomb scares and things like Orange Order parades, where you had to change how you might go about your journey. There were lots of day-to-day things that were funny but occasionally there was something big like Omagh, that the whole nation went ‘this just has to change’ and I think, I wanted to mix that in with this 'life goes on' thing.”
I watched my girls' faces when we got to this part of the show. They both kind of just nodded their heads in sad solidarity. My kids were born into a kind of conflict zone. They are used to their childhood being interrupted by news of violence. Children like them are murdered by the dozen in classrooms, every year.
There is a moment after every report of school-based violence when they each ask some version of, “Will I be okay if this happens at my school?” And every time, I bite the inside of my cheeks while I try to think of an answer that is both reassuring and true.
I used to understand school shootings as a kind of singular problem - disaffected, conspiracy-corrupted, angry boys inflicting harm as a way to feel powerful. Because they were not operating under one paramilitary group, it took me a long time to see they were an extreme wing of a larger movement. I suppose I thought as suddenly as they appeared, they would someday disappear.
But I can now see how mass shooters, Christian Nationalists, Qanon conspiracy theorists, incels, a certain type of venture capitalist, and MAGA politicians are part of a broad coalition. They’ve come together to restrict the public sphere, some through terror, some through Twitter. If people cannot access the public sphere, they cannot access, or share, power.
Antisemitism, voter suppression laws, mass shootings, Black churches burning, legislation requiring children to undergo genital checks, and some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws are part of an irregular war on a porous front. It’s being waged by those who want to burn against those who want to build.
People write about how right-wing extremists want to get rid of America’s democracy - and of course, that’s true. But that’s a requirement of their project, not the project itself. What they seek has nothing to do with republics or democracies, or with a return to good or bad days. It’s something new. Something that could only exist in a world that’d produced surveillance capitalism, Christian Nationalism, high capacity magazines, and viral misinformation.
I recently wrote about Stephen Wolfe’s book The Case for Christian Nationalism. He frames it as a return, but it’s really a new differently horrifying thing.
The form might be new. But the hate that fuels it isn’t. That coalition wants this land to belong to white people, this country’s rights to belong to white people, and everyone who isn’t white, to belong to white people.
America’s troubles can’t, and shouldn’t, be mapped onto The Troubles. But their origins are nearly as old. The genocide of Indigenous people started on this continent in the 1400s. Millions of Indigenous people had been killed by the 1700s. In 1619, just ten years after Ulster was made an official plantation by King James I, the first ship with enslaved Africans arrived in America. It was the start of US slavery. The official story has always been that the Civil War ended slavery. But the official story never really covers everything, does it?
I don’t think history teachers in the future will teach the Civil War as a period very distinct from ours. The war ended but for too many the fight wasn’t truly decided. The Second Industrial Revolution began just a few years after the Civil War. Industrial capitalism’s insistence on the primacy of the white nuclear family, and the reinforcement of the white domestic sphere, maintained an unlimited supply of unpaid care work. It also justified the subjugation and exploitation of low-income and Black workers. And it helped maintain the caste system instituted during slavery.
White supremacist rhetoric, Christian Nationalism, and increasingly anti-democratic venture capitalism are reactions: To decades of court decisions like The Civil Rights Act, Roe v Wade, and Obergefell. To advocacy for equal rights to voting, to housing, to healthcare, to a life freely lived. To the work being done and the work that will be done. To the distant possibility of a country that, instead of capitalizing, cares.
Everyone is happy there wasn’t a wave, but I keep thinking about how it’s possible to drown in just a few inches of water.
I am relieved there wasn’t a MAGA-QANON fueled red wave yesterday. But Ron Desantis - who has overseen the passage of forced genital exams on children and facilitated the kidnapping of asylum seekers - won by a huge margin. Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor who believes the 2020 election was rigged, is poised to win in Arizona. And Blake Masters, who recommends books by white supremacists and is a proponent of The American Home(™), is gaining ground with every count. Everyone is happy there wasn’t a wave, but I keep thinking about how it’s possible to drown in just a few inches of water.
It took hundreds of years to make our troubles, it will take more than a few election cycles to unmake them. And I feel nearly certain that my girls will live the rest of their lives in a conflict zone. And I wish it wasn’t so. But that wish isn’t unique to me, or our time. Their years will be made up of jolts of violence and singed pieces of peace.
My worry cannot compare to the worry of so many other mothers today.
I don’t think they’ll get to see the end of mass shooters or misinformation. I have no sense that they’ll ever live in a country where Christian Nationalism is entirely vanquished and white supremacy is relegated to history books. And of course, as white girls from a middle class family, they will be safer than many. My worry cannot compare to the worry of so many other mothers today.
When I think of the sorrow of other mothers, mothers now, mothers hundreds of years ago, mothers tomorrow and the next day and the next, I find myself reaching with my right hand - for what? Maybe a plate to set on a table, so we can sit together and eat. Or maybe so I can lift just one thing they’re carrying? Or maybe. I don’t know. Maybe I am just reaching for their very selves.
Back to the show.
I guess, when I sit down with my girls to watch Derry Girls, I’m showing them good lives in the middle of bad politics and old hate. I hope they see that even little resistances push toward a greater good. Rights might be restricted, but the kitchen table is always expansive enough to seat one more. That the work of liberation is their work. And it is grinding, generational and, ultimately, sure. If they do not live to see the ceasefire, they’ll have helped to create the circumstances that allowed their grandchildren to see it.
I guess I want the show to help them see that they’ll know despair. But they’ll also know joy. And hope too.
And if there’s step aerobics and the odd eff word along the way? Well, all the better.