Twenty years since it first hit our screens, Emma O’Brien on why Bad Girls was an intersectional feminist dream come true


Judging by friends’ responses, and the occasional over-animated Twitter debate, there’s a general consensus that the big moment in representation for queer teenagers in the late 90s was when we all snuck into our parents’ bedrooms to watch Nathan’s first dizzying trip down Canal Street in Queer As Folk. With the sound down – because we knew it was shocking, even if we weren’t sure exactly why. 

Rather tragically, this is the answer I got from a good portion of the girls as well – which seems like a terrible waste. We were maybe a little too young to appreciate the ground breaking beneath our feet when Beth from Brookside snogged her mate, though I did often fondly (and guiltily) reminisce on that remarkable creature: the entirely unapologetic young lesbian. 

It was only later, at university, I discovered there had been angry protests from lesbians –in particular survivors of rape and sexual assault – at her feeble off-screen demise (while imprisoned for helping her mother dispose of her sadistically abusive father’s body under the patio), and understood that this was something rarer than I’d thought. Not only did Beth refuse to lie about who she was, or apologise for not being attracted to her male suitors, she frequently, loudly and absolutely ridiculed any suggestion that her sexuality was a legacy of her childhood abuse. She just wasn’t having that shit. She was there in your mum’s living room three nights a week – pretty, clever, resourceful, loving, flawed, strong and liking girls. And some of them liked her back. 

Viewers were delighted to finally see such a woman in plain sight, and understandably raged at the perception that she simply could not be – or they might all start getting ideas. In fairness to the writers, I should record that Beth’s sudden anti-climactic death was a necessity created by Anna Friel’s resignation. But, it seemed, that was that. Beth in all her messy, beautiful, authentic complexity could not be, and back into their boxes they went: the bad girls, the spunky, angry, queer, loud and lovable messes. They just don’t exist, and if they did nobody would want to see that anyway. I mean, really.

But then, on an unremarkable weekday night on prime time ITV in June 1999 – just months after Queer As Folk grudgingly allowed the girls to join the party as long as they drank herbal tea, had sensible hair and wanted babies (and completely out of the blue to my 15-year-old self) – Bad Girls appeared, and with none of the prurient tabloid horror that greeted Queer As Folk. In fact, it proceeded to turn that notion right on its head then stab it in the jugular with a broken bottle. (Sorry, I might have got a bit over excited there, but it’s relevant.)

Devised by Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus, the series was researched intensively and advised by the irreplaceable Chris Tchaikovsky, former Holloway inmate and founder of campaigning charity Women In Prison. It was meant to be a gut punch: in the opening sequence of the very first episode, a young woman almost bleeds to death behind her cell door. She has told the officer she is miscarrying and desperately needs help, and has been curtly informed she’ll get it in the morning. The catalyst for the central relationship of the first three seasons – between idealistic, indecisive wing governor Helen and seemingly untouchable, top dog lifer Nikki – is found in the latter’s angry rabble-rousing denunciation of the prison staff for allowing this to happen. Later, in a general studies lesson, I discovered by chance this was a real situation Chris had witnessed during her incarceration. It’s an unforgettable opener, and I am certain she intended it this way.

There are many such story arcs through all eight series (though things became slightly pantomime-y in later years – probably a combination of Tchaikovsky’s death and Gallagher and McManus getting better viewing figures with salacious camp-fest Footballers’ Wives). Even 20 years later, it’s not the sort of fare you’d be comfortable watching with your mum while your tea goes down (luckily I had a telly in my room by 1999). 

But what still stands out after all this time, even after The L Word, all the subtext on Xena and Buffy (before darling Willow took a somewhat problematic trip to the dark side), and, hell, even Orange Is The New Black – which, though based in reality, still gives me the saccharine feel of women in prison as a cis hetero man dreams about it – are the eponymous “Girls” themselves. I’ve never seen women like this, presented in this way: unapologetic, complicated, messy, and, my word, so, so, so, so queer

Here is Nikki, who takes no shit from anyone and is doing life for murdering the police officer who tried to rape her girlfriend, now adrift without the relationship that had defined and contained her. Here is Shell, irredeemable psychopath and sexual puppet master, sleeping with male officers for privileges while turning for meaningful sex and affection to teenage acolyte Denny – arsonist, bully and brutally open lesbian. Here are the Two Julies, separated from their children as punishment for the sex work they relied upon to provide for them. Here is Yvonne, who will order a hit on anyone who crosses her without blinking, but is the first to provide genuine unconditional affection to Denny, traumatised and abandoned by her alcoholic mother and the care system. Here, before trans visibility was a conversation, is not only a trans woman, but a Muslim one. Here are murderers, female sex offenders, mentally ill women adrift in the system, thieves, bullies, liars, mothers, wives, junkies – loving, infuriating, downright nasty, hilarious, warm blooded and, oh my word, so, so, so queer.

See these lesbians? See them out, living, loving, taking up space and refusing to apologise for any of it? Guess what else, teenage Emma? Bisexual. Women. Are. A. Thing. It’s a testament to the impact of this that I’ve grown up rather like Helen Stewart – a well-intentioned but over-angsty public sector worker with smudgy lipstick, unsuitable boyfriends and a crippling fear of her own potential, romantically and otherwise. I’ve never worn a twinset as bad as hers in the early episodes, though, and happily reconciled that my sexuality was not a wilful contradiction long before she did (with a line more deserving of iconic status than “I got off the plane”,  Helen finally fronts up to newly released Nikki, explaining her dull boyfriend is “everything I could want in a man – but I want a woman”. Anyone got a tissue?). 

By the time I hit uni, my mates and I were fully paid up and had picked sides in the ongoing travails of Helen and Nikki (and a considerable amount of my leisure time was taken up reading the multitude of fan fiction this generated). Evidently, I wasn’t the only slightly dykey, scaredy-cat teenage girl watching telly that night and, as it turns out, some of them were actually in prison.

My mate, K*, who did time for an offence she committed while desperately mentally ill, excitedly reminisces about how everything on the wing would grind to a halt at 9pm for the show. “You could hear women laughing all over – a proper solidarity moment,” she told me. “It’s that moment where when you’re a teenager and you’re different in some way. You finally see yourself reflected back at you somewhere else in the world.” I’m honestly heartened that it could be the case for both angsty, bookish, lower sixth bisexuals like 1999 me and someone like K, who knows more about the serious injustices women still face in the criminal and social care systems than anyone should have to. 

It’s a testament to how fully drawn and complex these women on our screens were, in a way I’ve rarely seen before or since. They’d done terrible things – sometimes for fun – and they weren’t tragic, cautionary tales. The show was masterful in putting across the abuses and disasters that lead many women to prison without ever removing their agency as thinking, feeling human beings. You were batting for them as they infuriated you – Nikki’s intense slapability was a huge point of debate for my mates and I well after she bagged her woman in uniform. But she very often had a point. She was gay, yeah, and entirely open about it, but this was a fact of her being rather than a titillating hook or a replacement for her entire personality.

Russell T Davies observed of Queer As Folk that it only worked well as representation because the main character was basically such a bastard. And so it was that Nikki Wade and her broken bottle did for me what Stuart Jones had done for my best mate, Ste, the year before: a real-life gay person who isn’t a pariah or a punchline. 

The older I got, and the more I learned from a decade-and-a-half working in social care – full disclosure: I did consider applying to be a prison officer after uni solely because of this show (shut up, I was idealistic) – the more I noticed we don’t get a lot of women like this in our living rooms, with our mums, after Coronation Street any more. And even after all the strides we’ve made in representation, and centring marginalised voices of all manner of us who identify as women in the past two decades, I’ve still never – as a bisexual woman – felt so entirely seen and left unabridged. 

Sexuality, like much else in life, is messy and complicated, and not always as linear as we’d like. Nor are human beings themselves, and women don’t often find a space as sexual or emotional beings where we don’t somehow have to apologise, or deny, or “yes but”, or have amazing tits to make up for it. It makes me smile to remember all the other girls I’ve met along the way who found that on G Wing as well – the straw polls of who wanted to get off with which character, the sobering horror as we realised this was actually happening to real-life women right at this minute,the flickering switch where we began to understand what made an unsympathetic killer the way she was – and think about how much better we can start to do now. 

Why, in Larkhall’s intersectional cellblocks even Beth Jordache would have likely found a firm place in the pecking order. A space to unpick what had happened to lead her there. A group of friends who would have seen her as she was, in all her complexity, and shrugged and told her their own tales. Maybe even another warm body in the bunk with her on long, dark prison nights. And then, one day, a life and a space to love and rage and shout and never, ever apologise – back in the imperfect outside with the rest of us. 

Hands up, who’s writing the fan fiction?

This article originally featured in the July 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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