Warning! Mild spoilers ahead for season one of Paper Girls
We’ve all seen movies and TV shows about a group of friends – who are usually very nerdy – banding together to save the world from some epic, life-ending catastrophe. Sometimes it's four grown adults fighting ghosts (Ghostbusters), sometimes it's four kids and a superhuman girl fighting monsters from another dimension (Stranger Things). Very rarely do we get to see a sci-fi show about saving the world which features an all-female cast. Amazon Prime's Paper Girls is that show.
On the outside, it simply looks like an all-female Stranger Things. I mean, this is a show about four 12-year-olds in the late '80s who are faced with otherworldly forces that are way bigger than themselves. But calling it a female version of the esteemed Netflix show would be doing it a massive disservice. It only takes half an episode to realise that Paper Girls is so much more than that.
Based on the 2015 comics created by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, Paper Girls is, at its core, a show about friendship and grief. It's about the growing pains of four innocent tweens juxtaposed with the extremely precarious task they’ve been handed. It's about realising that your life won’t always turn out the way you imagined it would, mixed with some bittersweet life lessons and some kickass science fiction.
The greatest thing about this show is the way it explores girlhood. Being a woman means you’re multidimensional and multifaceted; you can be nerdy and intelligent like Tiffany, tough and rough around the edges like Mac, girly and compassionate like Erin or sporty like KJ. These girls are not accessories to a story, designed purely to take the plot forward. They are the story, and somehow that is so much better.
It's in the way a Black girl’s older self teaches her how to do her hair before bed, or in the pressures of living up to familial expectations, or in the hilariously awkward way in which the girls deal with their introduction to menstruation.
There is a moment in episode five where Erin gets her period. Upon learning that using tampons can give you Toxic Shock Syndrome, Erin says she wants to quit the entire thing, to which KJ responds: "I don’t think you can quit your period." Anyone who has ever menstruated can heartily relate to the struggle.
But one of the show’s most groundbreaking moments is the way it handles KJ’s exploration of her sexual identity. And this is where this show bears a stark contrast to Stranger Things.
In Stranger Things, it took four seasons for Will’s sexual identity to be all but confirmed and when it happened it was in such a way that it wasn’t his moment alone. It was the driving force for Mike – Will's best friend, whom he obviously loves – to realise how much he actually loves Eleven. Whereas when KJ has her sexual awakening, it is handled in the most delicate way imaginable. Here, there is nothing else to focus on. It is KJ’s moment alone as she grapples with the fact that her future self is a gay student majoring in film at NYU.
There is a very poignant scene when the young KJ goes to the movies and sits behind adult KJ and her girlfriend, Lauren. KJ watches her older self laugh and realises that she looks very happy. Later on, she accidentally-on-purpose bumps into Lauren outside the cinema and we get to see KJ’s sexual and cinematic awakening unfold in real time.
The whole conversation is a double entendre, as KJ says of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey: "At first I was kind of confused, then I stopped thinking about it so much and I listened to the music and watched what was on the screen and it was really beautiful."
She attempts to understand her older self’s feelings and how she has carved out a life that is completely different from the one that was basically cherry-picked for her. You experience KJ’s nervousness and confusion in full force. You see the angst on her face, the vulnerability in her eyes as she ventures into the realm of understanding one’s own sexuality. This moment ties into young KJ’s realisation that she might be crushing on her friend Mac.
"When did you know that you were someone who liked…movies?" she asks Lauren.
"The good news is that everybody moves at their own pace. And it can be overwhelming. But every person’s journey is different. A lot of people aren’t gonna understand at first. But when you find a movie that you really connect with, it feels really, really great," Lauren explains to her.
Another area where Paper Girls truly shines is in its handling of grief, disappointment and acceptance, and the different forms they can take. The pain of realising that you didn’t grow up to be what you dreamed of or finding out that you don’t live past 16, of learning that you’re not on good terms with your closest family and friends, of losing someone you love right in front of your eyes. This show never sugarcoats it. Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you want it to. And it’s okay.
We see the girls help each other come to terms with their own grief, sometimes without even knowing what the other one is going through. Because, in the end, it's all about friendship. A bond born out of circumstance but strong nonetheless. It is their – and the show’s – greatest asset.
Paper Girls is a show with an enormous heart. It is about exploring the grey area of when you’re not quite a child or an adolescent. It is all the awkwardness of coming of age juxtaposed with the innocence of childhood. The vulnerability of growing up and facing harsh truths about our older selves. It is about four awesome paper girls being each other’s greatest allies, all while experiencing some hard science fiction and time travel insanity.
This show has something for all age groups, for any problem you might be facing. As you watch this hilariously bonkers time travel adventure, you might learn a couple of life lessons along the way, too.