There is no life lesson that can’t be communicated through your TV in an hour or less, factoring in adverts. In fact, you can keep your Oprah Winfreys and your Hillary Clintons (love you Hillary). The only inspiration I’ve ever needed has come from the fictional heroines on my TV screen.
Joey Potter (Dawson’s Creek) was my spirit animal. Lisa Simpson (The Simpsons) was my moral compass. And Angela Chase (My So-Called Life) was the benchmark for my contrived teenage angst (and icon of my Nineties’ grunge dreams #plaidgoals).
At every stage in my life, the small screen has given me a girl or woman to worship, admire, relate to or identify with. The Netflix US reruns of Dawson’s Creek and The Gilmore Girls, and the millions of views of Blossom and Roseanne on YouTube are proof of their enduring influence on our lives. (You can pretend you’re watching ironically but let’s all agree that the ‘Beauty Contest’ episode in season one of Dawson’s Creek, where Joey sings On My Own, is one of the most emotional scenes in television history.)
I’m not sure if it’s really impressive or deeply tragic that I still remember whole lines of dialogue or even entire con- versations verbatim from some of my favourite shows. As a kid, I spent an unhealthy amount of time sitting in front of the TV. I had nice parents, siblings to play with, books and even friends but, honestly, I just wanted to watch the telly. It didn’t matter what was on. Blind Date, Match Of The Day, ’Allo ’Allo!, I watched the lot, regardless of how age- or subject-appropriate it was. And the best bit? The cool, funny, clever, stylish and outrageous female characters that taught me lessons about things like running away from home, get- ting to ‘second base’, Nineties fashion and unrequited love for the boy next door.
LISA SIMPSON, THE EIGHT-YEAR-OLD FEMINIST (THE SIMPSONS, 1989-NOW)
Even now I envy Lisa for getting to remain eight years old forever. The lucky thing will never have to endure the tyr- anny of periods, credit card payments or smear tests. Just like me, Lisa was the middle child with a rebellious older brother and sweet little sister. And she was probably the first feminist I ever encountered. In the episode Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy she’s appalled by the drivel spouted by her new talking Stacy doll (‘Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl!’) and tracks down the doll’s creator, Stacy Lavelle, to complain.
Lisa: Excuse me, Miss Lavelle? I’d like to talk to you about Malibu Stacy?
Stacy Lavelle: You have any idea how many kids have tried to track me down?
Lisa: Am I the first?
Stacy Lavelle: ...Yes.
As a 10-year-old girl who spent her childhood playing football in the garden in muddy jeans, I loved the idea that you didn’t have to conform to silly, girly stereotypes and that you could even try to do something about it. And I was growing up in the aftermath of Thatcher’s Britain, so even though it might not have registered at the time, the idea of a woman taking charge was as exciting as it was tangible.
As much of a goody two-shoes as Lisa is, she still knows how to have fun, howling with laughter when watching the gruesomely violent Itchy & Scratchy Show with her brother Bart, or behaving just like her lovably gormless father Homer.
Lisa: Oh my God, I’ve created life!
Marge: Lisa, breakfast! We’re having waffles!
Lisa: Ooh, waffles!
Lisa was clever, hard-working, spirited, supremely witty and she always stuck to her guns. What a brilliant role model for any young girl to have.
BLOSSOM RUSSO, THE SASSY TEENAGER (BLOSSOM, 1990-1995)
If you don’t remember Blossom then we can’t be friends. The Nineties US sitcom about a teenage girl who lived with her dad and two brothers is now a cult classic. More importantly, Blossom was called Blossom (what a name!) and had a best friend called Six (Six!). I had friends called Laura and Natalie. Life wasn’t fair.
Blossom: You have to admit your parents gave you a pretty weird name.
Six: My dad says that’s how many beers it took.
The other major appeal was that Blossom was played by an actress called Mayim Bialik who was Jewish, just like me. It wasn’t so easy to find cool, famous Jewish teens to identify with in the Nineties so I was grateful. Blossom also had an incredible wardrobe made up of fun florals, double denim and natty, floppy hats.
Blossom and Six were fun, fashion-loving teens in the throes of burgeoning adolescence – just like me! The 13-year- old me was massively into Take That, newly acquainted with the idea of liking boys and flirting with the notion of dressing to impress them, so it was brilliant to see all of my confusing new feelings projected back to me on the TV screen every Friday night at 6pm.
Blossom was bright (do you sense a theme emerging here?), mature and, looking back on it 20-years later, she remains a paradigm of positive-but-not-too-wholesome teenage girlhood. That, and how to wear culottes.
ELAINE BENES, THE LOVABLE ODDBALL (SEINFELD, 1989-1998)
Any woman who can pull off neurotic and adorable without edging into ‘manic pixie dream girl’ territory is a win- ner in my book. Seinfeld definitely falls into the category of TV-I-watched-before-I-was-old-enough-to-understand-it- properly, but I consumed enough of the show for it to become as much the fabric of my existence as Global Hyper-color T-shirts, scrunchies and Game Boys.
At the time, I loved that Elaine was a boy’s girl, hanging out pretty much exclusively with fellow pedants Jerry, Kramer and George. Of course, I later revisited every episode as a teenager (and still do now) when I was old enough to appreciate how brilliantly Elaine held her own against the guys.
Elaine: Is it possible I’m not as attractive as I think I am?
Jerry: Anything’s possible.
When I was 15, much of my cultural life was preoccupied with listening to *NSYNC, rewatching Clueless and using my nifty new pager, so you can just imagine how cool I thought I was relating to these smart, bantering, New York twentysomethings.
Elaine was quick and strident but she was also superficial, selfish and argumentative while managing to remain utterly endearing. And the fact that Julia Louis-Dreyfus who played Elaine grew up to become the wonderfully toxic Selina Meyer in Veep only deepens my affection.
ANGELA CHASE, THE TORTURED REBEL IN THE YEAR ABOVE (MY SO-CALLED LIFE, 1994-1995)
I still believe that My So-Called Life was aired in perfect synergy with the arrival of my hormones. With lines like ‘School is a battlefield for your heart’, Claire Danes’ Angela Chase definitely had my number. At that time in the mid-Nineties, I used to steal my brother’s Nirvana CDs and developed an infatuation with his best friend Ben, who in my eyes was a dead ringer for Kurt Cobain. So when Angela fell for Jordan Catalano (the soulful, brooding Jared Leto), I really felt her pain.
Angela: We both stopped talking. Part of his sleeve was touching my arm. I don’t know if he knew. Then everything started to seem perfect for some reason. The feel of his shirt against my elbow, the fact that I still had an elbow. It was the perfect moment for him to kiss me, for him to anything me.
Even as a relatively clear-headed grown up, the memo- ry of tortured moments of teen infatuation like this still makes my heart hurt a little. The show also addressed themes like homophobia, alcoholism and drug use, making it the edgiest thing I’d seen on TV since that time on Byker Grove when PJ and Duncan fell out with Spuggy.
Watch this scene. Ridiculous!
RACHEL GREEN, MONICA GELLER AND PHOEBE BUFFAY, THE ULTIMATE BESTIES (FRIENDS, 1994-2004)
I used to sit on the phone with my best friend Sophie every Thursday evening after school while we watched Friends and ER on Channel 4. We didn’t talk, we just liked to know the other was there. God knows what kind of phone bill I racked up on the landline over the show’s 10 season-long stint.
You have to remember that Friends, and all of the shows I’ve mentioned so far, aired in a pre-Twitter world. The internet was out there but my interaction with it as a Nineties teen was limited to occasionally googling my homework subject or visiting AOL chatrooms where my friends and I pretended to be models when we were bored. So it seems incredible to me now that shows like this could be such a global phenomenon with no trending hashtags or online hype.
My number one favourite was always Rachel. Beautiful, a little bitchy and the global poster girl for layered hair (at school, every girl in my year tried to copy that haircut and let me tell you, it’s not a favourable look on an under- confident 16-year-old with wavy hair and a bad fringe).
But most of all, I was a sucker for her amazing friendships with Monica and Phoebe. They had so much fun, were fiercely devoted to each other and weren’t afraid of a scrappy confrontation or sarcastic aside.
Rachel: God, could you believe what a jerk Ross was being? Monica: Oh I know, he can get really competitive.
Phoebe: [Pretends to pick up a phone] Hello kettle? This is Monica. You’re black!
Talk about squad goals.
JOEY POTTER, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (DAWSON’S CREEK, 1998-2003)
In retrospect, I have some issues with Dawson’s Creek but in my mid-to-late teens, I was infatuated with both the show and its heroine, Joey Potter. She seemed like the Nineties embodiment of another childhood heroine of mine, Josephine ‘Jo’ March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. She was feisty, emotional, bloody-minded and wore cut-off denim shorts like no one before or since (Potter, not March). Also, Donnie Darko and The Royal Tenenbaums were in the cinemas and I’d started listening to The Strokes so I was entering my angsty, deep-and-meaningful phase.
Joey lived up the creek from her unrequited love, earnest film nerd Dawson Leery, and spent six seasons embroiled in a love triangle with him and his best friend, sarcastic slacker Pacey Witter. On paper, they’re the most righteous, verbose and melodramatic 15 year olds on the planet but my friends and I swooned over the snappy, bantering dialogue and emotion- al honesty.
Joey: I think I’m in love with you.
Pacey: You think or you know?
Joey: I know.
The tomboyish girl-next-door with the vocabulary of a 35 year old and a gift for making tie-front shirts look stylish, Joey Potter was a teenage dream.
CARRIE, SAMANTHA, CHARLOTTE AND MIRANDA, THE FABULOUS FOUR (SEX AND THE CITY, 1998-2004)
You may have built up enough of a picture of me by now to conclude that I must be a Charlotte. Wrong! Sex And The City hit TV screens as I arrived at university and went through my rite of passage moments of rebellion, self-discovery and intellectual enlightenment, so I’d like to give myself a little more credit.
Obviously, every young woman wanted to be protagonist Carrie Bradshaw. As an aspiring writer, I was this close to taking up smoking (having never smoked) just because it made her look so damn cool as she tapped away on her laptop.
The programme showed a whole generation of young women that it was OK to talk openly about sex (‘What’s the big mystery? It’s my clitoris, not the sphinx’), be hopelessly devoted to fashion (‘Oh my god! Do you know what these are? Manolo Blahnik Mary Janes! I thought these were an urban shoe myth!’) and trying to figure ‘it’ all out (‘I will never be the woman with the perfect hair, who can wear white and not spill on it’).
In the early 2000s, everywhere you looked there were women marching around in groups of four, eating brunch while discussing men and Jimmy Choos. Not to mention the new era of terrible internet blogging that Carrie’s writing spawned. In her job as a columnist for the fictional New York Star, she spent an awful lot of time wondering about things.
Carrie: So, when it comes to finance and dating, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why do we keep investing?
Carrie: I couldn’t help but wonder: Can you get to a future if your past is present?
Of course, I think the show did much more good than harm. It debunked taboos, gave respectability to the idea of idle gossip and unapologetically celebrated the unadulterated joy of shopping.
LIZ LEMON, THE BRILLIANT BOSS LADY (30 ROCK, 2006-2013)
Up there in my top five funniest TV programmes of all time, 30 Rock was created, written and directed by my ultimate shero, Tina Fey. Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, is a preposterous and refreshing blend of sassy, curmudgeonly, confident and nerdy. She inspired women like me to want to be bosses. Liz never had to behave like a man to do her job. She showed me and my friends, who were trying to master our own fledgling careers post-university, that you could be intelligent and ambitious and unsure at once, as well as unapologetically silly.
Liz Lemon: Who hasn’t made mistakes? I once French kissed a dog at a party to try to impress what turned out to be a very tall 12 year old.
Liz Lemon: This better be important Jack, I was in the middle of buying a bag of bras on eBay.
Who else but Tina Fey could make a feminist sitcom that’s cry-out-loud funny? TV roles for women so often fulfil ‘types’ but I can’t think of a more unique character than LL.
HANNAH HORVATH, THE HIPSTER CREATIVE FINDING HER WAY (GIRLS, 2012-NOW)
The fifth series of Girls is airing now and it’s impossible to talk about Lena Dunham’s era- defining show without mentioning the whole ‘voice of a generation’ thing. But it’s true.
Having lived through the Sex And The City era, the cultural and social shifts from Carrie and crew’s glossy Manhattanite womanhood to the selfie-obsessed, hipster Brooklyn brattishness of Hannah Horvath’s BFFs is fascinating and relatable for any young millennial.
She speaks to her friends, boyfriends and parents with honesty, realism and quarter-life self-indulgence. Privilege aside, she’s the embodiment of the Insta-generation that anyone with a smartphone and a heart can relate to.
Hannah Horvath: I just want someone who wants to hang out all the time and thinks I’m the best person in the world and wants to have sex with only me.
Hannah Horvath: I have work, then a dinner thing, and then I am busy trying to become who I am.
Like any groundbreaking cultural moment, the show has received a ton of criticism but for me and a generation of Girls groupies, Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna are the most entertaining, flawed, funny and vividly realised twentysomething women on TV.