Ruminations on fictional female friendships

Throughout my life, I have had a lot of wonderful friendships with other females. Many of these have been very long-lasting; most of the women I spend time with on a regular basis now I have known since high school. I think very often about how fortunate I am to have a multitude of smart, funny, caring, supportive women in my life, who know me so well. So, I’m lucky—but am I abnormal? Is it odd for a woman to have so many other women for real, true, important friends? I don’t think so. But pop culture really does.

I’ve had several conversations with a new friend in my life—Shannon Bowen, one of the Downton Gabby Society Ladies—about the severe lack of accurate depictions of female friendship on screen. Shannon is a writer who believes in producing the product she’d like to see, therefore constructively addressing the problem at hand. (I really hope that a couple years from now you all will be able to see the film version of the comedy script she’s co-written with a female friendship at its core; it’s great stuff.) What she’s trying to do is something we desperately need as a culture right now. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about film and other kinds of literature is because I know that we can draw a direct link between the ideas we are exposed to and the perceptions we have in reality. For that reason, we desperately need more depictions of women that are not about their relationships with men.

I have raged recently in other spaces about the current happenings in government, where certain people feel that they have the right to regulate women’s bodies, to the point of not feeling like women even need to be included in the conversation about it. There are many factors that go into this thinking, from conservative religious views (separation of church and state be damned) to calculated political moves. Perhaps most alarmingly, there are also some far-right female politicians in the mix. I believe that pop culture contributes mightily to the landscape wherein it’s still possible for these politicians, male and female alike, to see women as people who should not have the same voice as men. Whatever the stated or implied thought process for supporting legislation that endangers women’s health, the belief that women should be controlled in a different way than men are is part of it. Meanwhile, the majority of female characters exist only in order to serve a function in a relationship with a male character—his girlfriend; his mother; his sister; his friend who’s always at the ready to discuss his problems. This is if we’re lucky; a lot of films don’t bother too much with female characters at all. It’s why the Bechdel Test, in its simplicity, is so enlightening about the pervasive pattern. Individual films can fail the Bechdel Test and still be great; when almost all the great films are failing the Bechdel Test, that’s when we need to sound the alarm.

People need to be exposed to depictions of women that are about the parts of our lives that have nothing to do with men. This is key to moving our culture toward one where everyone will view women as individuals who have just as much agency and deserve just as much respect as men do, and not see us simply as components in the lives of men. The simplest way to start this, it seems to me, is with better depictions of female friendships. If women’s friendships were portrayed on screen with the same frequency and variety that men’s friendships are, I truly believe it would help in changing the status quo. And of course, it’s important that these are in projects aimed toward both men and women as an audience—in a post-Bridesmaids world, I know we can do it.

In that spirit, here are just a few of my favorite female friendships of film and TV.

Angela Chase and Rayanne Graff, My So-Called Life

As the story of the beginning of a high school friendship, and a friendship wherein it’ll take a little while for either party to understand why she needs the other one so much, nothing beats Angela and Rayanne. In the same series, the equally impressive but not as generally heralded relationship between Angela and Sharon Cherski—friends who have grown apart, though Sharon can’t grasp why—provides nuanced context for Angela’s new relationships.

Monica Gellar, Rachel Green, and Phoebe Buffay, Friends

In its heyday, Friends was a really good comedy. I’ve been re-watching some of it lately in late night reruns, and I’m still impressed by the complex relationships between the characters. The great part about the female friendships on the show is that the conflicts that come up between the women are rarely about such contrived situations as liking the same man (with a big exception for the bizarre episode where Rachel and Monica fight over Jean-Claude Van Damme…). They talk about men, certainly, but usually in the context of helping one another sort through bad situations. And they also help each other often with career problems and family issues. It’s almost like they all have full, multi-faceted lives! Wow!

Sally and Marie, When Harry Met Sally…

It occurs to me that When Harry Met Sally… probably doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. Well, it’s a romantic comedy, so we’ll forgive it that. But even if what Sally and Marie discuss is mostly Harry, Jess, and other romantic prospects, the comfortable, long-standing, caring vibe of their friendship always comes through. It reminds me of certain friendships I have, where every embarrassing detail of life can be shared with no judgment.

Thelma and Louise, Thelma & Louise

This one just has to be a given. Wrapped up in a nifty action adventure, we get the story of two women who would support each other through anything, and their individual and collective realizations that putting up with the status quo is bullshit.

Lindsay Weir and Kim Kelly, Freaks and Geeks

The “two women hate each other before outside circumstances make them friends” trope is problematic (is it just me, or are friendships usually formed when two people meet and like each other?), but one of the exceptions to the rule comes with Lindsay and Kim on Freaks and Geeks. Kim resents Lindsay’s intrusion into her group after Lindsay befriends Kim’s boyfriend, Daniel. The animosity isn’t really about Daniel, though—it’s about Kim’s inability to relate to someone she believes has a much easier life than hers. In the amazing fourth episode of the series, “Kim Kelly Is My Friend,” Kim brings Lindsay home just to show off to her kind-of-awful family that she can make a “normal” friend. The chaos that ensues starts the two girls on a path to a real friendship, where Kim eventually becomes Lindsay’s biggest cheerleader as Lindsay struggles to reconcile her own wants with what her parents want for her. Truly great writing, and amazing characters.

Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane, Daria

Daria and Jane care about a lot of things that typical teenage characters don’t usually get to care about. They talk about how messed up the world is more than they talk about boys (though they do get the boy talk in there), and their senses of humor are sarcastic and snide. The conflicts they face in their friendship often arise because they are still feeling out their own opinions and convictions, and it’s tough to maneuver when those don’t match up. These characters have depth, and we understand why they would be friends.

There are obviously more great examples besides these. Please share your favorites in the comments! My small sample seems to indicate that TV does a better job than movies; am I wrong? Most of what popped into my head was fairly new; what about more examples from before the ’90s? I want to hear your thoughts!


9 Responses to “Ruminations on fictional female friendships”

  1. 1 Rebecca February 22, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Buffy and Willow. All of A League of Their Own. Cher and Dionne.

    But surely there are some from not-the-nineties?

    Oh! Um, it’s actually adorable: Calendar Girls.

    • 2 Brandi Sperry February 22, 2012 at 2:02 pm

      I knew someone would say Buffy and Willow right away! :) A great example of a friendship weathering a lot of different kinds of storms.

      I also thought about talking about Cher and Dionne. By the end of the film, we can throw Tai in there as well. Oh, Clueless. So good.

  2. 3 El February 22, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    I also vote for Buffy and Willow… and for Xander, who’s kind of like a half girlfriend.

    It’s ridiculous that it should be so hard to think of these. How much media have I consumed in my lifetime?

    I think if you include “friendships between sisters” you’ll find a lot more to choose from. That’s not the same thing, though, is it?…

    • 4 Brandi Sperry February 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      Oh for sure, there are more if you include sisters. And while many of those sisterly relationships are great, it’s also sort of part of the problem…male writers write a lot of male friendships, then when a female character needs someone to talk to, they throw in a sister. Because why would two women support each other if they weren’t related? That’s crazy!

  3. 5 Emily February 22, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    This is a fantastic topic, Brandi. It’s sad that several movies and TV shows didn’t automatically come to mind. For me personally, when I was a youngster (and had stronger opinions, and was probably a better feminist than I am now), I believed that the key to greater equality was normal, completely mundane friendships and interactions between men and women. Female-female relationships seemed like such a no brainer. But you’re totally right; while it’s great that women can hang with the boys, if their lives are not treated with the attention and curiosity, or even acknowledgement that there are indeed other elements to their lives than what’s shown on screen, as those of males, then we’re missing a huge opportunity.

  4. 6 Shannon February 22, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    You did forget my favorite one ever: Annie and Becky in SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE! I love their banter, and their deep love for each other without judgment. Plus they love to just sit around, watch old movies, and eat popcorn. Strangely, the simple moments between two female friends never make it to the screen.

  5. 7 Jen February 22, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    Their friendship isn’t really developed in the film, but there’s a brief scene early in Singles when Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) is going on to her friend Ruth (Devon Raymond) about marrying some jerk so he can get citizenship. Ruth asks, “If you were married, would we still go out dancing?” It cuts to them dancing to Pearl Jam at what I think is the Crocodile. “WE WILL ALWAYS GO OUT DANCING!” Linda screams to Ruth. I know it’s in the context of their romantic relationships and all, but over many years of watching the film, the concept of “no matter what, we will always go out dancing” has stuck with me.

    And hurrah for Buffy and Willow and Daria and Jane and Cher and Dionne and Sally and Marie and Doris and Mae.

  6. 8 Malia February 23, 2012 at 11:30 am

    I know it’s been a while since this show was on, but Xena and Gabrielle would’ve died for each other. In fact, I think they did. They beat up a lot of men together too. Awesome female friendship.

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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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