Growing Up (Or Not) in the Share-House on Screen

Best friends Tyler (Alia Shawkat) and Laura (Holliday Granger) wrestle over if living together is the dream or limits them from truly growing up in Animals, dir. Sophie Hyde (2019). Bonsai Films.

By Zoë Almeida Goodall | July 30, 2021

In many narratives about youth, the story ends with either high school graduation or the move to college, which means the story is generally set around the family home. But, in narratives about what comes afterwards – early adulthood – it is share-housing which is often used as a backdrop for character development and interaction. If, compared to living with your parents, living with a partner or on your own is perceived as ‘grown up’, then share-housing occupies an uncertain middle ground. 

Share-housing – that is, living with people other than family or a partner – isn’t new; people across history have lived with non-family for financial reasons. These days, it’s mostly seen as normal for young people in many countries, especially Australia, the US and the UK. This mainstreaming of share-housing can be seen in the countless sitcoms from the 1990s onwards that place its characters in shared homes, although this has as much to do with convenience as it does with housing norms. On New Girl (2011-2018), How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014), The Big Bang Theory (2007-2019) and many more, positioning the characters as housemates means they can conveniently interact without contrived excuses for sharing space all the time. 

Looking at narratives specifically about being young and stumbling through adulthood, share-housing occupies a varied role. In real life, of course, share-housing can be anything from a fulfilling source of companionship to a truly miserable experience. But what’s interesting is how the representation of share-housing reflects ideas about what constitutes ‘adult’ or ‘proper’ housing. Is share-housing a place where characters can grow up, or a place they have to leave in order to grow up – a transitional arrangement that must be abandoned once the characters are past a certain age? This is especially worth talking about in the current housing context for many countries, where share-housing is becoming more common and is often done for longer, due to a combination of increasing house prices and more flexible lifepaths.[1] When homeownership is beyond obtainable, solo living is expensive, and partnering up and having kids is deferred or not even a goal, then share-housing becomes more than just a ‘stepping stone’. 

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In the mid-to-late 20th century, share-housing became an ideological choice in some Western liberal countries, where young people deliberately attempted to create politically progressive or anti-establishment homes in opposition to the nuclear family unit. On-screen during this period, the anarchic share-house featured in The Young Ones (1982-84) and Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein, 1986). At the tail end, Lowenstein returned with the film He Died with a Felafel in his Hand (2001), which might be the most iconic on-screen representation of share-housing.[2] Felafel follows Danny (Noah Taylor) as he moves across three terrible share-houses in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, and his housemates’ whacky behaviour drives the highs and lows of the narrative. Here, share-houses are depicted as lawless wastelands for weirdos, but as Jake Wilson points out in his review, most of the housemates “have nothing to say to each other”; share-housing is something they put up with, rather than something they enjoy. After the titular death, Danny walks away from the memorial with Sam (Emily Hamilton), his love interest, having finally received money for his writing – implying that they could now leave share-housing behind, and get a proper place for two. Despite share-housing creating all the entertainment, it’s depicted as completely undesirable; the pleasure as a viewer comes from incredulous disgust, like in a horror movie. 

A more complex depiction of share-housing appears in Frances Ha (2012), which uses Frances’s (Greta Gerwig) ever-changing address as chapter titles, similar to in Felafel. Initially, Frances lives with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) in blissful, couple-like intimacy. When Frances’s boyfriend suggests they move in together, she turns him down because she wants to keep living with Sophie – rejecting the normative expectation that living with a partner is the best option. Consequently, when Sophie tells Frances she wants to move out to live with other friends, who have a better house, Frances feels betrayed. As well as emphasising the grief of damaged friendship, the film demonstrates the delicacy of housing situations when you’re a young renter. This theme continues when Frances moves into a share-house with two male friends, creating a cosy home of friendship and routine. But when Frances can’t afford the rent increases, her wealthier housemates don’t understand, leading to her exit – a sharp truth that fun can’t overcome financial practicalities. Frances’s housing situation deteriorates rapidly, but after the film’s climax, she starts listening to people’s advice and eventually achieves financial stability, signified domestically by securing her own apartment. For someone who previously worried that her messy finances made her “not even a full person yet”, the triumph is palpable. But by emphasising that Frances lives alone – with the closing shot of her name, only, in the mailbox label – there’s an implication that she’s ‘grown up’ beyond share-housing, and that having her own place is what symbolises becoming a “full person.”

Frances (Greta Gerwig) temporarily moves in with Benji (Michael Zegan) and Lev (Adam Driver) until she can no longer afford to after her best friend moves out of their shared apartment in Frances Ha. IFC Films.

Frances Ha seems to emphasise that share-housing is best when you have a deep relationship with your housemates, but also that deep relationships don’t guarantee security. Frances is happiest living with Sophie, but it’s Sophie who introduces insecurity to their household by choosing to move out. At the movie’s end, the only person Frances has to rely on is herself. This individualism is cynical, although realistic if your friends are as flaky as Sophie. But the idea that it’s friendship that makes the share-house magical – indeed, an option equal to or better than living with a romantic partner – is echoed in other recent narratives about young people in share-houses. 

In Animals (2019), best friends Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) live together in a huge, ramshackle Dublin house that’s the perfect base for their nights of wild adventure and days of hungover intimacy. After Laura falls in love with Jim (Fra Fee), he asks her to move in, but she’s reluctant to leave her home with Tyler – even after they get engaged. Tyler, too, doesn’t want Laura to move out, afraid that living apart will signal the demise of their co-dependent friendship. Ultimately, Laura separates from Jim but doesn’t continue cohabitation with Tyler, either. As Laura sees it, she’s torn between dull married life on one hand and self-destruction on the other, and so, as in Frances Ha, growing up means living alone. 

Like Felafel and Frances Ha, Animals too draws attention to financial struggles (Felafel does this in a darkly exaggerated way, with hired thugs collecting rent), which are often faced by share-house tenants in real life.[3] Tyler has to constantly remind Laura about paying rent and makes the point that she’d be financially inconvenienced if Laura moved out. As in Frances Ha, a time-jump at the end of the film shows our previously-broke heroine in a nice solo apartment, although it’s unclear how Laura could afford this. A different sort of financial situation is found in Please Like Me (2013-2016), which centres on Josh (Josh Thomas) and a collection of friends who share-house in Melbourne. In ‘Sausage Sizzle’ (S2, E5), it’s revealed that the house is owned by Josh’s father, and Josh doesn’t even pay rent. Josh’s situation, while a contrast to the share-housing depictions in other media, reflects the reality that housing unaffordability isn’t a uniform struggle for all young people, but rather the ones who can’t rely on the privilege of family wealth.[4]

Asking a friend to move in with you is a serious commitment in Broad City. CBS.

In Broad City (2014-2019), financial struggles and friendship are also central to share-housing, drawing a contrast between both great and terrible share-housing situations. Protagonists and best friends Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) both live with flatmates, and although they both suffer the results of poor housing quality (rats, roaches, blocked toilets), Ilana lives with her friend Jaimé (Arturo Castro), which turns even the worst experiences into funny misadventures. Abbi, meanwhile, shares with a flatmate who is never there and the flatmate’s disgusting, ever-present boyfriend. Throughout the show, Abbi and Ilana grapple with what it means to be adults and what they ‘should’ be doing. Towards the end of the series, we see (comedically) how share-housing with a friend can be a serious choice. After Jaimé moves out, Ilana decides to ask Abbi to move in and, in ‘Sleep No More’ (S5, E8), literally approaches it like a marriage proposal. She gets down on one knee and nervously delivers a speech concluded with “will you be my roommate?” and presents Abbi with a ring-box with the apartment keys inside. When Abbi says no, revealing that she’s moving interstate, Ilana is devastated, sparking an emotional conversation about their relationship. Ilana’s ‘proposal’ might be funny, but, as with many moments on Broad City, just because it’s funny doesn’t mean it’s not making a point: Why shouldn’t living with a dear friend be seen as a serious commitment with emotional stakes? As in Animals and Frances Ha, the norm that living with a partner is inherently more grown-up or better than living with a friend is questioned, shining a light on alternative ways of doing adulthood. However, it is notable that these three narratives end with the protagonists living alone, something that is linked implicitly to their age: “I’m 30,” Abbi tells Ilana as the reason she can’t stay in New York with her; “You’re 32!” Laura’s sister yells when Laura and Tyler turn up drunk at a family event; “I’m 27,” Frances says defensively, when told she seems old. In this focus on age, there’s an anxiety about not growing up ‘right’ or doing it too late – and while there’s plenty of other factors at play in these narratives, housing situations form an interesting backdrop to these concerns. 

Ultimately, no one media depiction of share-housing will be ‘complete’, because share-housing experiences are as diverse as the people living within them. In this selection of media, share-housing is depicted as variously horrible and joyous, unstable and cosy. What’s clear is that a lot depends on financial security and the level of friendship between housemates – just as in real life. There is, however, still a persistent idea that share-housing represents youthful hijinks that have to stop after a certain age. Perhaps it’s actually sitcoms, where characters share-house long into adulthood, that provide a more optimistic picture of share-housing – even if it’s for plot convenience. While I don’t think housing policymakers take their cues from TV shows, I do think, as housing scholar Sophia Maalsen argues,[5] that taking share-housing seriously is necessary in a world where it’s becoming more common through both choice and constraint. More people are going to grow up and stay in share-housing – and perhaps new stories will reflect that.

Endnotes:
[1]  There’s a vast body of research on ‘generation rent’, i.e. the concept of young people today renting long-term because buying a home isn’t possible. For a good summary of the situation across multiple countries, see scholar Richard Ronald’s article
[2]  The title of the 1994 book by John Birmingham and its film adaptation have become short-hand for ‘absolutely disastrous share-housing’ in everything from housing advice to academic work.
[3]  See for example Katrina Raynor and Laura Panza’s report on share-housing in Victoria, Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.
[4]  See for example scholar Kim McKee’s article.
[5] Sophia Maalsen (2020) “‘Generation Share’: digitalized geographies of shared housing”, Social & Cultural Geography, 21:1, 105-113, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2018.1466355


Zoë Almeida Goodall is a housing researcher and sometimes film critic. She is currently undertaking a PhD on share-housing and Australian housing policy, supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.