Female friendships are often portrayed as superficial or toxic. Karolina Kasparova argues that it is time to change this perception.
“Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half.”
Female friendships have come under a negative light through the ages, from those found in pop culture to classical literature. Aristophanes’ theory in Symposium (Plato’s famous dialogue on love) assumes that humans were formerly creatures of two halves, later divided by Zeus. There were three kinds: Aristophanes’ first refers to the man-woman with scorn, as there are many adulterers among them. The female-female type are women who “do not care for men but have female attachments”. In contrast, the male-male relationship is praised. Aristophanes does not talk only about romantic love, but also the real connection of souls, intimacy, and friendship that make these relationships special. These male double creatures were the most superior, as only their descendants deserved to become “our statesmen”.
Since then, much has been written about the solidity and exceptionality of male friendships. Popular culture provides us with many examples portraying such relationships as the strongest bonds to build stories upon: Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, Frodo and Sam, Hans Solo and Chewbacca, to name but a few. Unfortunately, pop culture does not provide such strong examples of female friendships, which may affect how girls and women perceive one another. We can look to the most popular literary works for children and teenagers: Harry Potter’s best friend is Ron, but Hermione, quite significantly, does not have such a strong and fulfilling friendship with another woman. Her main female relationships are with the annoying Lavander Brown and Parvati Patil, who constantly giggle about boys and show hostility towards a girl who values her intellectuality.
The idea that women’s friendships only evolve around men is both reflected and shaped by culture. Virginia Woolf complained about women being defined only by their relations to men in her famous essay A Room of One’s Own, noting that fictitious female relationships are “too simple”. Since 1929, this has not changed to the degree you might imagine – even nowadays, according to Vox, women on film have much less space for dialogue compared to their male counterparts. When they do speak to each other, it is mostly about men, as the famous Bechdel test determined. This surely had an influence on how both men and women think about female friendships. This creates the impression that having a relationship with a man stands at the centre of a woman’s life, as Woolf had already touched upon, whereas men can have philosophical or political conversations, or experience adventures in addition to a relationship with the opposite sex. Not only does such an attitude ignore all women who are not heterosexual, it also supports the idea that a female friendship is not a fully-fledged relationship, but rather some necessary accessory when things are going downhill with men.
Many women grow up thinking that female friendships are naturally and inevitably superficial and short-term.Women complaining about friends ‘ditching’ them for a boyfriend, who later come to accept it and decide to patiently wait for their friend to break up, is still a topic even discussed by the BBC. While this may happen for men too, it is usually framed as ‘the evil girlfriend luring the friend away’ trope, while in the woman’s case it is her own ‘natural’ decision. This definitely points to an imbalance in comparison to male friendships – according to a study published in 2017 by Men and Masculinities, young men get more emotional satisfaction out of ‘bromances’, friendships between men, than they do out of romantic relationships with women.
When I started high school, I was proud to feel some connection with Hermione Granger. I was good at mathematics and subconsciously believed that women were just not as smart as men – partly on the grounds that girls are generally discouraged from STEM subjects, and I used to consider taking and succeeding in them as the ultimate criterion of intelligence. I also cannot rule out the fact that I have been influenced by works such as Harry Potter, my former childhood obsession, or other films and TV shows in general, which portray women in a certain way.
Another big reason were the dynamics I had observed between adults in my family or among family friends. Whereas women – who even now do much more housework than their male counterparts – were often worrying about food or children, men were the ones assertively discussing politics or similar issues much more frequently. Because of my own internalised misogyny, friendships with men felt more valuable. Not because they were necessarily better, but because they made me feel better: “Women are stupid, but I am the exception” was a fallacy ‘proved’ by the fact that I wanted men to be friends with me. This seems foolish and arrogant when I reflect on it now, but many conversations with my female friends over the last few months have concerned that they shared a very similar feeling at some point.
Another factor poisoning female friendships is the idea of relentless competition. Zadie Smith depicts this aspect masterfully in her novel NW, referring to the relationship between two women who grew up in 1990s London. Smith does not blindly perpetuate these stereotypes, but rather reflects how they poison relationships between women: “You always wanted to make it clear that you weren’t like the rest of us.You’re still doing it…Even when we used to do those songs you’d be with me but also totally not with me. Showing off. False. Fake. Signalling to the boys in the audience, or whatever.” Natalie, the addressee of this monologue and a very successful career woman, always thought of herself, at least before university, as the quiet outcast girl, and these accusations made by her friend Layla truly surprised her despite being the most well-founded. Smith’s character faces both the aforementioned problems female friendships grapple with – the fact that Natalie’s friendship to Layla was less important to her than trying to impress the boys, and the belief that she was superior to other girls.
There is yet another issue complicating female friendship present in the piece, namely competition – the idea that women cannot be ‘real’ friends because they are always each other’s enemies. Whether they compete for relationships with men or a better career, this idea is often exploited in order to prevent women gaining better positions. We should not blame the so called ‘queen bees’ who were able to climb the career ladder and then refused to help or support other women because ‘they never had any help themselves so why should others have it’. What these women are doing might be sad or even morally reprehensible, but the fact remains that it is rational. A study published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2016 found that senior-level women who do want to help other female employees at work are likely to face more negative performance reviews than those who do not. Female employees thus often do not receive any kind of support, while men are much more likely to have people who champion them at work, because senior-level men statistically prefer them to women as well. This proves that analysing female friendships is not just a personal psychological issue, but that it can have a huge impact on other areas of women’s rights.
In spite of all these odds, there are of course many women who form true friendships. I would be unable to form such friendships myself if I had not met other women who showed me that they truly valued my presence, my advice, and my company. In questioning my previous thoughts, I decided to work on these relationships with the same energy as I give to others of such importance. I am not saying that the issue of equal rights for women will be solved just by women sticking together.
We still need better, less superficial representations of female friendships in both popular and ‘high-brow’ culture, and if one woman is willing to show others that she values their opinion, trusts them at work and is willing to provide support, the desired knock on effect of mutual trust may form, and some balance may be restored. This is already happening to a certain extent and, unlike issues such as discrimination of women at work, cannot be achieved by enforcing any policies. It needs to happen in everyday life situations, by making positive behaviours and attitudes between women the norm. With this, women are finally starting to look for and embrace their other female halves.
This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.