Why Right Now is the Golden Era of Complex Female Friendships

 
photo by Chris Buck for The New Yorker

photo by Chris Buck for The New Yorker

Catch me at the right time of night, on the patio of a bar after I’ve had a couple, and you might witness the following scene:


A DUDE: Yeah, I guess Broad City is pretty funny. It’s like the chick version of Workaholics.

MY FOREHEAD VEIN THAT HAS SUDDENLY APPEARED: The fuck did you just say

A DUDE: *backs away, bug-eyed, before rejoining his friends and letting them know there’s a psycho lady on the patio*

 

When the show made its television debut in 2014, I fell hard and fast. A show created by and starring two hilarious young women? Produced by Amy Poehler? Populated with unfettered jokes that largely derive their power from upending gender expectations? Yes, yes, yes and yes. I don’t know if there’s a show that’s made me ugly-laugh harder than that show has, and here are a few choice moments as a reminder of why. But my aggressive love for that show is more than that: As I moved through the series, the underlying reason for my obsession began to make itself clearer and clearer: It’s a love story, and a damn romantic one at that. Abbi and Ilana are best friends, yes, but they love each other. They are in love with each other. And it’s the excessive, over-the-top nature of that love that distinguishes it from your run-of-the-mill buddy comedy. One of the long-running jokes of the show is how Ilana is endlessly nudging their relationship a hair past platonic; her view of Abbi as irresistibly sexy (she describes her as having the “ass of an angel” on numerous occasions and is constantly imagining scenarios in which they’re tangentially participating in sex acts) isn’t awkward but rather, an illustration of her unbound admiration for her BFF and the ways their affection defies what society has traditionally deemed socially acceptable (and Abbi gets that she's simultaneously serious and not, which is how it manages to subvert being discomfiting).

 

From the time we’re old enough to understand the basic concept of friendship, we’re inundated with portrayals of a best friend as the person you talk to about your search for “true love,” and by extension, every failed attempt to find “true love,” and then once you’ve found him or her, all the strife “true love” is causing you. As such, friendship, even in its more profound forms, has been reduced to a lesser state of importance and complexity in our society. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that this is a failure of imagination on the part of our culture. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve noticed that my closest female friendships are the rugged, persistent landscapes worthy of much closer examination than we’ve been instructed to give them. And with the recent spate of outstanding work on the screen and on the page dedicated to this very subject, it seems that we’re witnessing a significant shift.

courtesy of HBO

courtesy of HBO

Did you guess by now that I’m about to bring up Big Little Lies next? I binge watched it last weekend, and like many, I was skeptical of yet another story about the trials and tribulations of a bunch of wealthy white women. But count me as a member of Team It Justifies the Hype. In a setting that’s ripe to be boring as all get out (Monterey!) populated with characters that outwardly match those expectations, it dives deftly into the complexity of female friendship; you expect the show to be a trendy macrame plant holder, but it rapidly becomes a tangled clusterfuck and ultimately ends up as neither of those things. Their relationships with their male counterparts seem purposely reductive and two dimensional, the husbands existing on a sliding scale of menaces ranging from bumbling to monstrous. Where most female-friendship films and TV shows feel self-conscious in their depiction of “girl power,” aware that their audience is largely female and thus playing to longstanding tropes, Big Little Lies acknowledges its seeming frivolity and then sinks you with its dead seriousness.

 

In 2012, My Brilliant Friend, the first of four books that make up Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels, arrived in the U.S. The widespread obsession that built alongside the subsequent release of the other books is notable for several reasons: 1.) Together, the four books total more than 1,200 pages and have sold 5.5 million copies worldwide, and for a society that we’re told over and over again doesn’t like to read long things, much less long fiction, those are some crazy numbers. 2.) Those 1,200 pages cover the fraught friendship of two women from early childhood through their 60s. It’s propulsive at times, but slow-moving at others, dedicated above all else to the incredible nuance of the relationship between two brilliant, competitive young women whose love for one and other sometimes resembles hate. 3.) The novels have struck such a chord that HBO picked up the 8-episode first season of the Italian television show based on the books. It will air with subtitles in the U.S. and is expected to go into production this summer.

And the recent examples go on: There’s Issa and Molly on HBO’s Insecure, and Sophia and Annie on Netflix’s Girlboss. Lawrence and Shane, respectively, are charming and all, and I get why these ladies go for it, but the real love story is between the best friends. That scene between Sophia and Annie when they have their massive falling out over AOL Instant Messenger? Far and away the most devastating scene in the show. When Issa and Molly say some super mean shit to each other about their faults (and they both know they’re right)? Way more upsetting than what goes down with Lawrence. And while this is slightly different in the respect that it revolves around the love between two sisters, I can’t be the only one who sobbed so hard while watching Frozen on an airplane that a flight attendant had to come over and make sure everything was OK.


That these nuanced portrayals of female friendship and sisterhood have been emerging with more regularity in recent years is positively thrilling, and if their successes are any indication, there’s more on the way. Go hug your best friend and let’s keep it coming.

-Deena Drewis

 
TribeDeena Drewis