Feminism 101: Female Friendship Myths

So. There are a lot of pernicious myths about friendships with and between women. (Requisite Caveat: That is not to say there are no damaging myths about friendships with and between men; I'm just not talking about those today.) These myths take many shapes and forms with specific details—same-sex friendship among women are inexorably plagued by jealousy and competition; same-sex friendship among women always involve hurtful gossip; opposite-sex friendship between men and women is never real, because there is always sexual tension (note the assumed heteronormativity of the "When Harry Met Sally" myth); opposite-sex friendship can't last long-term, because women and men are intrinsically too different, etc.—they always boil down to these two lessons:

1. Women can't be friends with women.

2. Women can't be friends with men.

In pop culture, these lessons are drilled into girls' heads in myriad ways: Stories of (straight) female friendship are driven by conflicts specific to (straight) womanhood—jealousy over the same man, unnavigable divides caused by divergent choices about career/marriage/motherhood, acrimonious resentments about choosing the same wedding day or venue or dress—and stories of (straight) opposite-sex friendships are framed as foreplay to a grand romance, whether the inevitable couple realizes soulmatery was in front of them all along (!) or whether the (straight) female character is a token among men (Leia, Eowyn, Sue Storm) who is eventually rewarded for her strength and bravery with the romantic affections of a (male) hero.

There is a lot for which to rightfully criticize Sex and the City, but it was remarkably transgressive in its ability to represent lasting (straight) female friendships among women who make different personal choices without ever condescending to make them bicker over a man, or irreparably ruin their relationships with one another in a fit of destructive jealousy, or viciously compete for the attainment of some arbitrary level of success. They each had their own objectives, pursued their own resources and romances. That is a rare thing on the pop culture landscape.

Rare, because we wouldn't want girls to get it into their silly little heads that they can have successful friendships with other girls. Or friendships with boys, for that matter.

What we really want is for female-people to retain a profound sense of insecurity in all their friendships at all times, so that they might never be confident and self-determined.

A world full of confident and self-determined women, bolstered by the security and esteem that solid and lasting friendships with people who share their gender and people who don't, would be a very scary thing—what with the likelihood of such a world being an inhospitable environment for a Patriarchy and all.

Thus does the Patriarchy endeavor to entrench at every opportunity the idea that female friendships damaged by gossip or competition or jealousy or betrayal were ruined because that's how female friendships are. Never mind that male friendships are destroyed over the same things. Never mind these are human failures, not female ones.

So divorced are we from the idea that these are the pitfalls of human friendships across every spectrum that even in feminist/womanist spaces, discussions of female friendships will frequently yield comments like, "Well, I have a hard time being friends with women because so many women are gossipy, competitive, jealous bitches."

No. So many people are like that.

That this woman can't successfully be friends with that woman does not mean women can't be friends. It means that those two women can't be friends.

And avoiding women to spend time exclusively in the company of men (who may be free of the stereotypes of relationship-destroying gossip, competitiveness, and jealousy, but aren't any more likely to be individually free of those flaws as are women) is no kind of solution—particularly when the sorts of men who court the friendship of women-hating women require a terrible bargain as the cost of their companionship.

Which may be one of many reasons that some friendships between women and men fall apart.

That this woman and that man can't maintain a friendship does not mean women and men can't be friends. It means that that woman and man can't be friends.

Among my friends are straight, gay, bi- and asexual cis and trans women and men of different colors. Some of these friendships are more than 20 years old. What makes them last is the willingness to see each other as individuals: When I am being an asshole, my behavior is not written off by my friends as the inevitable behavior that ought to be expected from any woman. It is addressed as assholery that is uniquely Melissa McEwan's, and thus has Melissa McEwan the ability to change.

Myths about female friendship exist so that we never have a reason to communicate: There is no point challenging someone's action if you believe it be the natural consequence of their intractable characteristics.

Thus is the most insidious female friendship myth of all that old familiar bit of ugliness that treats "women" as a word for a monolith with a predictable set of behaviors, thoughts, and emotions—and denies actual women their individualism, their humanity.

The truth is that excellent friendships are hard to come by and require effort to nurture and maintain. Most of the people any one individual meets won't be worth that effort, simply by virtue of the enigmatic combination of straightforward compatibility and mysterious chemistry. Some friendships will be finite, combusting spectacularly in a short space of time or fizzling almost imperceptibly into nothingness over time, and some will last a lifetime. Some friendships will be intimate and intense; some will be casual and easy; some will come and go, and come and go, a favorite song on a bad radio signal. Some will become romances; some will come from romances. The best of them will make you a better person. These are the boring realities of one of the most exhilarating and consternating parts of human connection.

Being a woman doesn't have a whole lot to do with it. It's what kind of woman one is that matters.

That is an inconvenient thought for an institutional oppression predicated on denying individualism and humanity.

Which makes just being friends with a(nother) woman a radical act.

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