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Bridgerton star Nicola Coughlan is calling for a more diverse representation of women characters on screen. The actress wrote an op-ed for The Guardian—published just two days ahead of International Women’s Day—in which she reflected on the shows she grew up watching and questioned why the women in them were always so much more glamourous than they were realistic.
“Where were the messy women? The loud women, the ones who were complete eejits (idiots)?” she wrote. Coughlan says she grew up adoring Sex and the City with her and her friends debating which of the “four impossibly stylish, successful women” they were. “We probably had far more in common with The Inbetweeners, but there were no female Inbetweeners on screen to compare ourselves to,” she wrote.
She then explained how getting the script for the 2018 sitcom Derry Girls felt like “being handed the holy grail. Erin, Orla, Michelle and Clare (my role) were the female characters I had been waiting for: properly funny, obnoxious, unlikable at times.” She also recalled learning that the show’s creator, Lisa McGee, had received a note asking her to make the characters “a little softer, less in your face, more palatable,” but refused.
“So much television allows for, even centres on, deeply flawed male characters, far less so women,” Coughlan wrote. “Would anyone give a note asking that Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, one of TV’s best villains, be a little sweeter? Of course not. It made me wonder how many complex women have been toned down, or removed from our screens, on the basis that women have to be likable above anything else.”
This realization also made Coughlan worried about how Derry Girls would be received, especially after the women-centered remake of Ghostbusters got so much hate. “Seeing my comic heroes Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy get trashed online made me fear how the ‘women aren’t funny’ brigade would react to our show,” she wrote.
Fortunately, the show saw success, quickly becoming “Channel 4’s most successful comedy in 13 years” and proving to Coughlan, “that there was a hunger for stories about women and girls.”
She then went on to write about her role in Bridgerton, “another show that explored the complexity and depth of female friendship.” In the period drama, Coughlan plays “Penelope Featherington, a shy young debutante in Regency London, who has a ride-or-die best friend in the form of Eloise Bridgerton (played by the wonderful Claudia Jessie).” She revealed that she met Julia Quinn, the author of the books the show is based on, and learned how significant female friendship was to the story. “She explained that, yes, her books were love stories—but that the biggest romance, in a sense, was the friendship between Penelope and Eloise,” she wrote.
Coughlan wrote that it’s been gratifying to see audiences connect with Penelope and Eloise, aka #Peneloise, and believes it’s because the characters were relatable because they were “written as real human beings, not facsimiles of what we think a Regency woman was.”
She then expressed her gratitiude for the realistic female friendships in several shows she didn’t star in, including Fleabag, I May Destroy You, Broad City, and more. “Blessed be the friendships between Leslie and Anne in Parks And Recreation, for Rue and Jules in Euphoria, for Candy and Lulu in Pose.
She ended by writing about how eager she is to see all the complex women characters in shows that have yet to be made. “I, for one, am excited by all the difficult, brilliant, complex women to come, who have yet to grace our screens,” she wrote. “Long may the sisterhood reign over us.”