Valuing women by valuing their friendships

My close friend and roommate, CK, just left on Monday to move back to Europe for the foreseeable future. She and I met several years ago during grad school and have lived together on and off ever since. When people ask about her, my go-to response consists of me horribly singing the title lyric of Patrick Swayze’s ballad “She’s Like the Wind.” One, it’s a fantastic song that should never be forgotten. And two, I feel like it accurately describes her affinity for living out of a suitcase, joining me for months at a time wherever I happen to be living, and then departing to places unknown whenever her visa expires or the weather gets too cold for her liking. So I suppose she’s more like a tropical breeze.

For our last weekend together, we went downtown to the African American History and Culture Museum and snarkily commented on how different the atmosphere and descriptions were compared to the almost nostalgic tone of some of the historical landmarks and museums we’d visited on our road trip down south a few weeks earlier. We tried a couple new restaurants (okay, they were actually bakeries) and ate ridiculous amounts of unhealthy food that I’m probably still digesting. After the requisite trip to Sephora, we headed home to watch Netflix like usual. There was the ever-present cloud of her imminent departure, but we didn’t address it except to commiserate about how much of a pain it is to pack. This farewell was becoming routine and it wouldn’t do for either of us to make a production out of it. I woke her for a quick hug goodbye before leaving for work on Monday and told her I’d see her again soon, whatever that means this time around.

As a hard-core introvert, I never thought I’d enjoy voluntarily having a roommate besides my cat. Over the past few days though, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what CK’s friendship has meant to me and reflecting on women’s friendships in general. This contemplation is due in no small part to the Parks and Recreation mini-marathon I indulged in while nursing sniffles and a sore throat the other night. New goal: To be as caring and dedicated a friend as Leslie Knope. 

Unconditional love, support, and compliments drive Ann and Leslie's friendship.

Unconditional love, support, and compliments drive Ann and Leslie’s friendship.

While the Bechdel Test is meant to provide an indication of women’s (lack of) representation in film, a similar lens can be used to look at television, which is also pretty terrible at gender equality both in front of and behind the camera. Diversity in race and sexuality are predictably weak as well. I’m sure it comes as precisely zero surprise to those reading this blog that women’s representation in media is lacking. Certainly it’s not as though I’ve never realized how much women characters are outnumbered by men, how restricted they are by gender stereotypes, or how often they’re oversexualized. But lately I’ve been thinking more about the last criterion of the Bechdel test, which states that the two women featured must discuss something besides a man. That so many depictions of women can fall short on this point has driven home for me just how male-centered even our conceptualizations of women’s relationships can be.

Given how few women characters even speak onscreen, it’s unfortunate when their inclusion is because they’re “One of the Guys.” We all know her, even perhaps have been her. The woman who brags that most or all of her friends are men. The girl who’s “not like other girls,” who are, presumably, superficial and dramatic and catty and a host of other awful things that make men’s friendship superior to women’s. (For the record, it’s not that mixed-gender friendships are bad in and of themselves, but again it’s the fact that friendships with men are desired over friendships with women that is quite troubling.)

Brainstorming how many friendships among women I’ve seen portrayed on television yields a disappointingly short list. However, taking that last criterion into consideration and really reflecting upon these depictions, I absolutely understand the criticism that a fair percentage of those relationships only exist because soliloquies aren’t widely accepted on television as a means of conveying information. In terms of entertaining television, having the protagonist hash out her relationship problems over coffee with a supportive and sassy friend is preferable to having her relay those same thoughts to her dog. The effect, though, is essentially the same. Women’s friendships are often presented as tangential interactions of narrative convenience instead of developed and invested in as much as romantic and/or sexual relationships. So when I think of how many well-developed friendships among women I’ve seen represented, well that’s an even shorter list.

Growing up watching Buffy and Willow helped me understand that friendships deserve as much energy and care as other important relationships.

Growing up watching Buffy and Willow helped me understand that friendships deserve as much energy and care as other important relationships.

Leslie and Ann (you beautiful tropical fish) are my current favorite pop culture friendship, although Buffy and Willow will always have a place in my heart. Both pairs spend ample time sharing their feelings about the men in their lives, yes, but considerable attention is also given to their other interests, ambitions, and concerns. Most importantly, the women are explicit in valuing each other as individuals and valuing their friendships as integral to their lives. In pop culture and in real life, I feel like the dominant narratives about intimate friendships among women ignore or undermine how truly beautiful and fulfilling they can be. Instead of appreciating platonic love and mutual respect, I think there’s a tendency to take the “cat fights” from reality shows and apply them to sororities. Or to see a group of inseparable BFFs at the mall and recall the backstabbing from Mean Girls. Or to interpret emotional intimacy or even physical affection among friends as always somehow sexual, as if all women’s friendships follow the same script as Coed Cuties 34. For further evidence of society’s sexual preoccupation, see the lesbian-baiting directed at women who are perceived as being “too close.” Someone even once told me that on multiple occasions some mutual friends had debated whether or not CK and I were actually engaged in a secret sexual relationship. It’s not to say that sexual attraction or romantic love never grow out of platonic same-gender relationships, obviously, but it is troubling when sex is used as a measure of the significance of a relationship between two people.

Meredith Grey to Christina Yang: “You’re my person.” My love of good TV is rivaled only by my love of bad TV.

Meredith Grey to Christina Yang: “You’re my person.” My love of good TV is rivaled only by my love of bad TV.

More than anything, I want to celebrate the power of women’s friendships, and their importance to me both personally and as a feminist. My relationships with other women are a source of strength and a point of pride. When I have a passionate disagreement with my best friend, it’s likely due to a difference in political opinions rather than a drunken shouting match. And when I feel some competitiveness taking hold between me and my other best friend, it’s not because women are always secretly plotting against one another—it’s because I take board games way too seriously. Appreciating women as full and complex human beings means recognizing the value in their relationships with each other and not just with men, in the media and in our daily lives. So don’t forget to show some love to the women you’ve laughed, cried, and grown alongside. Even if that includes fictional characters.


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