Monday, March 12, 2012

Can we stop pretending that women only have female friends?

30 Rock's Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy (courtesy of E! Online) and Up All Night's Chris, Reagan and Ava (courtesy
of Max Updates).

Katie Stroh at TVSquad recently published a piece about the lack of "genuine" female friendships on television. Stroh claims that, since Sex and the City and Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air, "there's an undeniably enormous gap between the number of shows with female characters whose lives revolve primarily around men and shows that work the other way around." The only representation of a female friendship that Stroh finds compelling is Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ann (Rashida Jones) on Parks and Recreation.

Stroh makes some interesting points. She notes that many female friendships on television are defined by "petty backstabbing and competitive cattiness," and also points out that, for all the talk of this season being the year of women on TV, many of the new, female-centric TV shows don't present a good portrait of women's friendships (although I would disagree with her claim about 2 Broke Girls, since the central female friendship is about the only thing it has going for it.) Stroh's argument, however, has two major problems.

The first is her over-reliance on the Bechdel Test. The test is an interesting metric, but its existence at this point is really about shock value. As TV Tropes points out, "A movie can easily pass the Bechdel Test and still be incredibly misogynistic. Conversely, it's also possible for a story to fail the test and still be strongly feminist in other ways." The problem here is that Stroh (and she's hardly alone in this), cites the Bechdel test like its the only metric available for determining feminism. Stroh describes the test as a method of measuring whether "female characters have lives and relationships that don't primarily deal with the men around them." In doing so, she not only leaves out a lot of relevant information about the Bechdel Test itself, but is also working off the assumption that women are only friends with other women.

That's the second problem with the piece, and it's arguably the bigger issue. Stroh never really acknowledges the fact that many women's close friends are primarily men, or a mix of men and women. Her argument about female friendships goes like this:
Turn on most quality (or less-than-quality, for that matter) prime-time drama or comedy, and from the way that women are generally portrayed, it would be easy to believe that the most important interpersonal connection a woman has in her life is to a man, usually in the form of a love interest, husband or partner.
In reality, a woman's romantic relationships with men can be fraught and inconstant, while her friendships with other women are often some of the most central bonds in her life. 
This isn't to say, of course, that every woman experiences her female friendships the same way, or even necessarily forms deep connections with other women. However, in my experience, women's friendships can be some the most abiding and intimate relationships they will ever forge.
There are a somewhat absurd number of things wrong with this line of thought, so I'll limit my critiques to Stroh's most egregious underlying assumptions.

The most glaring is her broad characterization of romantic relationships with men as "fraught and inconstant" and idealization of friendships with other women as "some of the most central bonds in her life." In my experience, friendships with other women can be every bit as fraught, inconstant, and downright unpleasant as romantic relationships with men. (As a side note, just men? Are romantic relationships with women always smooth sailing? I feel like many of my lesbian friends would disagree...) I can tell you that my most unpleasant break-ups have not been with boyfriends; they have been with female friends, and rather than being "abiding and intimate," they were awful, painful, drawn-out affairs that left me questioning my worth as a human being. I can also tell you that I am not alone in this.

Of course, I have some very close female friends with whom I have lovely relationships. But this brings me to Stroh's next problem, which is her complete elision of women's friendships with men. The author, oddly enough, never actually mentions the possibility that women can have friendships with men that are just as close, if not closer, than their bonds of sisterhood with other women. Maybe I'm abnormal, but I am friends with a lot of guys, and not just superficial, hang-out-and-have-a-beer friendships. My "abiding and intimate" relationships are about halfway split between men and women, and that's the way I like it.

Maybe this is one reason that some of my favorite TV friendships are between men and women. Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy, Penny Hartz and Max Blum, even Smash's Tom and Julia and Derek and Eileen. As much as I love Reagan and Ava's friendship on Up All Night - another fairly obvious example that Stroh ignores - my favorite interactions are when Ava, Reagan and Chris are all together. The three of them show a kind of ease with one another that signals a deep, long-lasting friendship that somehow manages to stay together despite Chris' Y-chromosome.

The third issue that I have with Stroh is her implicit criticism of women whose "most important interpersonal connection" is with "a man, usually in the form of a love interest, husband or partner." I may have missed something important here, but I feel like if you're married to someone that probably should be one of the most important relationships in your life. You know, what with the "'til death do us part" promise and all. If my friendships, male and female, are the Ava to my Reagan, my fiance is my Chris. There is nothing wrong with having one of the most important relationships in your life be with your partner, and there's also no reason that a romantic relationship has to detract from your pre-existing friendships. The fact that Stroh ignores the many different variations of female friendship indicates that her thoughts on gender roles might be just as backwards as those of the shows she's criticizing.

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