Girl friends on film: the rare case of lifelike female friendships on the big screen

While male ‘buddy’ movies are a genre to themselves, films about women’s relationships are remarkable for their scarcity – to say nothing of those that dare to depict the bonds of female kinship in the round.

Hannah McGill

Originally published as Sister Acts in our March 2018 issue 

Me Without You (2001)

Me Without You (2001)

According to the frequent testimony of former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – and the many others, from Taylor Swift to Sarah Palin, who have lifted her words – “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” 

Regardless of your feelings on the consignment of other women to eternal damnation, the sentiment is striking, suggesting as it does that comradeship between women is not a matter for personal discernment, nor even a feminist principle, but a cross-cultural moral imperative. The layered implications are: that men will disproportionately not support women, leaving a deficit to be corrected; that the life experience of women is so distinct from that of men as to require the sharing of specific, uniquely female wisdom; and that nefarious, self-serving reasons exist for women to duck these responsibilities.

While the idea that females are beholden to back other females has proved politically awkward – “I did not mean to argue that women should support a particular candidate based solely on gender,” Albright wrote in 2016, after drawing heat for using her slogan at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally – it is enthusiastically replicated across popular culture. The idea that female friendship has quasi-mystical powers, and can equal, replace or supersede romantic relationships, is a preoccupation of recent television shows pitched at women: the hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy (2005-) foregrounded the inviolable bond between its lead female characters; the female quartet in Sex and the City (1998-2004) repeatedly promised to be one another’s “soulmates”, men be damned; and one of the chief challenges for Lena Dunham’s much discussed Girls (2012-17) was how to pull off being at the same time positive about female friendship and smarter than the associated soppy clichés.

Girls (2012-2017)

Girls (2012-2017)

Television shows aimed directly at young girls, meanwhile, such as My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (2010-) and WellieWishers (2016-), venerate the friend group above the family as a source of all motivation and self-esteem. Lego named its new girls’ range, launched in 2012, Lego Friends. Social media fallings-out between prominent women often feature back-and-forth accusations of insufficient supportiveness: “It’s unlike you to pit women against each other,” Taylor Swift scolded rapper Nicki Minaj in 2015.

And then we have the movies… where male friendship has its own genre (the ‘buddy’ movie), but even to see one woman interacting with another is a rare enough occurrence that the Bechdel Test has sprung up to monitor it. As emphasised by Alison Bechdel’s insightful formula (a film passes the test if it has at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man), cinema has historically had a particular weakness for the female character who manifests solo, without context or baggage.

The Road to Singapore (1940)

The Road to Singapore (1940)

This is often down to the fact that her sole function is to provide love interest for a male hero. It can also illustrate what a 1991 essay by Katha Pollitt called “the Smurfette principle” – whereby a group of male buddies makes space for one female member: Dorothy Lamour in Road to Singapore (1940) and its sequels; Black Widow in the Avengers franchise; Jessie in Toy Story 2 (1999) and Toy Story 3 (2010) – or position a woman between two men as buffer or disputed sexual prize, as in Jules et Jim (1962), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and the Harry Potter franchise. Related in a chicken-and-egg kind of way is cinema’s tendency to crush on women who are too eccentric, too cynical or too sexually competitive to have friends of any gender, from the shady dames of film noir to the ‘manic pixie dream girls’ notorious for providing sad young indie movie men with reasons for living.

Films that centralise friendship between women and girls are thus always doing something slightly radical, whatever their other themes and content. They repudiate the message that women are adjuncts to men; they emphasise the fact that women and girls still exist when there are no men or boys in the room. Small matters, perhaps, to those who contend that filmmaking ought to be judged on questions of quality, and not on the constituencies represented or excluded; or that ‘market forces’ simply prefer male-centred stories and there’s nothing we can do about that.

Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997)

Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997)

Less small, however, if one gives even the most cursory attention to the number-crunching research presented by the likes of the University of Southern California and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which has consistently found that female characters appear less, have less agency and – even in films with female protagonists – just speak less overall. Does this matter? Well, only if any part of you suspects that your daughter’s experiences of work, politics, art, sexual pleasure and – yes – friendship might have the same social value, relatability and capacity to entertain as your son’s.

The idea, meanwhile, that meaningful human experience transcends gender is perhaps easier to swallow if you are of the gender that has been in a historical position to present its concerns and priorities as universal. The budding female film buff who seeks within the canon of most-admired films a cinematic version of the intense female friendships so rigorously explored in young adult fiction, or who simply wants the movies she loves to reflect some aspects of her own emotional life, might find loners, sexpots, Smurfettes and ‘buffer’ girls among the classics, but not a lot of female bonding.

Now and Then (1995)

Now and Then (1995)

Perhaps that’s why certain movies with lightweight, negative or non-existent critical reputations – like Beaches (1988), Now and Then (1995) and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997) – retain special significance for some female viewers. It’s interesting to note the language of extant online reviews for these films. Roger Ebert, tackling Now and Then, wrote, “What distinguished Stand by Me was the psychological soundness of the story: we could believe it and care about it. Now and Then is made of artificial bits and pieces.” Empire magazine, giving Romy and Michele… two stars, calls it “nice wallpaper to have in your living room for 90 minutes, but not much else”.

For comparison, those looking up Empire’s take on men-behaving-badly comedy The Hangover (2009) find four stars and the assurance that the film is “every bit as endearing as it is profanely funny”. Artificial, insubstantial, only good for looking at… you don’t have to be paranoid, or even to think that Now and Then is a better film than Stand by Me (1986), to detect something gendered in the tenor of the criticism.

The Girls (1968)

The Girls (1968)

It’s no wonder, really, that the cinema business has under-represented interaction between female characters, given that it under-represents female makers. Are private moments experienced between women likely to be paramount in the minds of male creators and decision makers? Could they be expected to represent them well? A cynic might point to the ways in which childbirth, maternity and women’s sexual lives have been treated on the mainstream movie screen. Logically, then, as female filmmakers attain greater power and prominence, narratives dealing with quotidian elements of women’s experience will multiply.

In the meantime, films that do give narrative space to female intimacy often foreground or comment upon their own singularity or subversiveness in doing so. The Women (1939) made a publicity coup out of the fact that no male performer, not even a male animal, crosses its screen. The actresses of Mai Zetterling’s The Girls (1968) mirror cinema’s habitual exclusion of female experience when they fail to interest their audience in discussion of the play they’re performing, Aristophanes’s Lysistrata.

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) showcases a tirade by on-stage dancer Judy O’Brien that doubles as a criticism of male filmgoers who don’t regard the starlets they gawp at as real people: “Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won’t let you… We’d laugh right back at the lot of you, only we’re paid to let you sit there and roll your eyes and make your screamingly clever remarks.” And Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) goes further still, gleefully spoofing numerous forms of idealisation, objectification and infantilisation.

Margaret Atwood, in her 1988 novel Cat’s Eye, has her protagonist Elaine watch a film directed by an ex-lover of hers which centres on “two women with nebulous personalities and cloudy hair” who “wandered through fields with the wind blowing their thin dresses against their thighs, and gazed inscrutably”. One eats a butterfly, the other cuts herself with razorblades. Repulsion (1965) and Persona (1966) spring to mind; but whatever specific films Atwood was drawing on, it’s not hard to recognise the arthouse mystification of femininity to which she alludes, nor Daisies as its silly, spirited obverse.

Daisies (1966)

Daisies (1966)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), with its sugar daddies, its greedy women and its dressing-up games, can be viewed as Daisies’ direct antecedent: it too positions its women as clever and dirty, not pure or mysterious; gives them strength specifically through the fact that they prioritise one another over sexual conquests; and plays on the idea that the absorption of stereotypes about women weakens men. The last thing the male characters expect is for Lorelei and Dorothy to team up and outsmart them, because women who look like them are expected to be both disloyal to one another, and unintelligent. “I can be smart when it’s important,” Lorelei notes, “but most men don’t like it.”

Solidarity is not, of course, the sole facet of female friendship. Indeed, a primary theme of Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (a book never adapted for film or television) is the lifelong impact of the brutal girl-on-girl bullying that Elaine experiences in childhood. Back to Madeleine Albright, who, in common with Atwood and many other women in the public eye, is frequently called upon to clarify the details of her feminism. “I’m not a person who thinks the world would be entirely different if it was run by women,” Albright said in 2006. “If you think that, you’ve forgotten what high school was like.”

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Here we find an outcrop of the eggshells upon which modern feminists are now frequently required to tread. Can one address the negative side of female intimacy – the competition, the betrayals, the fallings-out that occur between women – without being taken to task for perpetuating negative stereotypes?

Girls creator Lena Dunham has been attacked for – well, everything, but notably for foregrounding the fragility of the friendships in the series. “I have come to realise how exhausting and narcissistic and ultimately boring this whole dynamic is,” one main character, Shoshanna, announced in the penultimate episode. “Is the overarching lesson of… this groundbreaking and ostensibly feminist show that women’s friendships are difficult, or even toxic?” fretted the Guardian in response.

2 Friends (1986)

2 Friends (1986)

For women to whom a significant component of equality is the recognition that they embody the full spectrum of human traits, not just the sugar-and-spice ones, the onscreen depiction of ‘toxic’ friendships can be as significant and affecting as the celebration of healthy ones. Jane Campion’s 2 Friends (1986) seems to acknowledge the social pressure for women’s relationships to be untroubled havens, by working backwards from the fractured present of Louise and Kelly’s friendships to the ‘happy ending’ of its innocent early days.

Sandra Goldbacher’s Me Without You (2001) is equally unsparing in its account of female friendship as mutually assured destruction: in Holly and Marina it gives us two people who love one another, yet are each possessed of enough knowledge of the other’s weaknesses and foibles that they hold the power to turn on her at any time.

Poison Ivy (1992)

Poison Ivy (1992)

In Poison Ivy (1992), the power has murderous potential, while the emotional ambivalence extends even beyond death. At the close of the film – conceived by its studio New Line, according to then head of production Sara Risher, as a “a teenage Fatal Attraction” – one half of a wrecked partnership continues to grieve for her destructive BFF.

“I still think about her – I guess still love her,” says Sylvie of the girl who has seduced, obsessed, challenged and unbalanced her. Whether either Sylvie or Ivy can expect a spot in Albright’s “special place in hell” depends on how we tease out the moral intricacies of a bond that can neither be simply decried as ‘toxic’, nor sentimentalised as the unstinting symbiosis of ‘soulmates’.

 

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