Happy International Women’s Day! I thought it would be festive to explore the presentation of women in film and television and, in particular, the depictions of their relationships with one another.
HBO’s “Girls” has been lauded for its supposed realism, particularly in regard to its authentic portrayal of the nature of female friendship. I would agree that during its excellent freshman season this praise was warranted. The girls in “Girls” exposed themselves to each other warts and all. They shaved their legs together, fell asleep in the same bed, listened to each other bemoan their relationships (or lack thereof) and yes, during arguments, used intimate details they knew about one another in order to wound their opponent as deeply as possible. The show nailed typically female passive-aggressive communication. It also basically destroyed any existing romantic notion of perfectly groomed girls having pillow fights at slumber parties and replaced it with a picture of physically and psychologically unkempt girls who wear their grubby underwear down to holes and console one other over their bouts of HPV and IBS and OCD. Indeed in an interview with Lena Dunham, Claire Danes stated:
‘Your depiction of women is unnervingly relatable. It’s so funny how you’ve worked in things like the way that we’re always asking everyone if they’re mad at us, and the fact that women cuddle with each other and we pee with each other.’
Lena Dunham has stated that ‘the great complicated romance in the show takes place in female friendship’. I love this idea in theory, and I think any attempt to destabilize the notion of the heterosexual union as the holy grail is admirable. After all, female friends support one another emotionally, hold each other’s hair back when they’re vomiting, grow apart and back together and apart again as interests change, and ultimately are likely to see themselves brutally, speedily and traumatically upended as the best friend and replaced as the shoulder to cry on in someone’s life by a boyfriend. It is indeed a complex and tumultuous relationship. See Noah Baumbach’s wonderful “Frances Ha” for a realistic and bittersweet portrayal of such a relationship. Former flatmates and BFFs Frances and Sophie find themselves becoming estranged for a variety of reasons, and their friendship and gradual mutual understanding is certainly portrayed as the central romance and narrative drive of the film.
Dunham similarly visualises “Girls” as ‘a hyper real-nature documentary exploring the phenomenon of friendship.’ What is problematic is that Dunham was either carried away by her desire to depict the negativity involved in some female friendship, or she has had a very narrow and limited personal experience with her own female friends. The girls in “Girls” are not friends. To use a stupid term: they are frenemies. These girls do not experience the mild natural jealousies and distance and competitiveness and conflict that can arise between long term friends – they just do not like each other. They don’t have one another’s back. They don’t make an effort to stay in touch. Dunham has disturbingly stated in reference to HBO’s “Sex and the City”:
‘I kind of…felt like it was aspirational about friendship. Like, I love the friendships that you see in Nancy Meyers’ movies, but for me, that kind of friendship is elusive. I feel like a lot of the female relationships I see on TV or in movies are in some way free of the kind of jealousy and anxiety and posturing that has been such a huge part of my female friendships.’
There are many things aspirational and idealistic about “Sex and the City”. Carrie’s ability to afford her flat and $40,000 worth of Manolo Blahnik shoes on a minute newspaper columnist’s salary is just one implausibility on a long list. Yet I see nothing unrealistic about the friendships portrayed. The women occasionally fight or disagree, but ultimately they enjoy spending time with one another and always support one another. I don’t think it’s naive to argue that there is nothing elusive or fantastical about that. While I don’t necessarily agree with the sentiment expressed in “Sex and the City” that maybe ‘our girlfriends are our soul mates, and guys are just people to have fun with’, I think the show’s celebration of female friendship is more admirable than the dose of supposed reality we are force-fed in the form of abrasive and catty women by Dunham. Complaints that the women in “Sex and the City” obsess about men, sex and little else are certainly valid. Yet the depiction of the supportive female support system at its core is undeniably feminist.
There aren’t actually many films or TV shows which focus largely upon women and their friendships and for that reason we should be grateful for both “Girls” and “Sex and the City”, regardless of their respective and admitted flaws. Other examples of female friendship centric films that spring to mind are “Beaches”, “Bridesmaids” and “Mystic Pizza”. All three of these movies display the pits and falls of female friendship while still demonstrating the inherent loyalty and emotional support at the core of these unions. All three, I feel, also offer far more realistic and satisfactory depictions of female friendship than the bleak picture painted by Dunham. “Now and Then”, dubbed a female “Stand By Me”, also explores the lifelong friendship between four girls who grow into four very different women. “Thelma and Louise”, a classic of this underrepresented sub-genre, validates female experience to the extreme.
Yet such films are few and far between. Most films and TV shows aimed at a female audience have a narrative driven by a pursuit for male love. I’m not a man-hater or a man-basher. I love romantic movies and novels, and a desire for romantic love is a massively significant part of life that I’m glad is reflected in fiction. Yet the deficiency in fiction reflecting female relationships, those of a positive or negative nature, is an issue that needs to be addressed. The box office success of “Bridesmaids” and the critical success of “Girls” has demonstrated that there is a receptive audience for female-driven narratives. Netflix will soon air the second season of “Orange Is the New Black”, a show which almost exclusively explores the disparate experiences of a diverse group of female inmates. Hopefully the big and small screen will at some point accurately reflect the multitude of relationships, both sexual and platonic, that women experience throughout all the stages of their lives.
So appreciate your female friends today and send them a card (or at least a snapchat).
‘It’s that thing when you’re with someone and you love them and they know it and they love you and you know it but it’s a party and you’re both talking to other people and you’re laughing and shining and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes. But not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely sexual, but because that is your person in this life and it’s funny and sad but only because this life will end and it’s this secret world that exists right there. In public. Unnoticed. That no one else knows about.It’s sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us but we don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s what I want out of a relationship. Or just life, I guess.’ – Frances Ha