The power of women’s friendships: Do people really still devalue it?

This weekend, it seemed all of my lady friends on Facebook were linking to this piece by Emily Rapp. It’s a lovingly-rendered tribute to the older mentors who’ve shaped her and the current friends who’ve saved her–and a beautiful articulation of the power of female friendship.

Recently I overheard a man say at a yoga class, “Yeah, well, you get two women together and it’s like bitch central.” I could have told him he only needed one, in fact, and that would be me, but it also made me realize how much people diminish and poo-poo the real power and strength of female friendship, especially between women, which is either supposed to descend into some kind of male lesbian love scene porn fantasy or be dismissed as meaningless or be re-written as a story of competition. Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, “bonus” relationships to the truly important ones. Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children.

It’s a great piece and you should read all of it. But I’m also curious: Do people really dismiss women’s friendships these days? Is that seriously still a thing? I wrote a couple years ago, in a partial defense of Sex and The City, that we still live in a “culture that prioritizes romantic love and familial ties over friendship” and that women are still taught to “to hate each other, to compete for male attention, to bring each other down.”

I still think that’s largely true, of course. But I guess I’m more optimistic than ever that people my age–women and men–are succeeding in imagining and living out alternatives. If there’s one thing I took away from Niobe Way’s excellent book on boys’ friendships, it’s that it’s easy to overlook the ways that people resist their culture’s expectations. I really believe that my generation will defeat couple-talism, learn to value guys’ friendships, prove that men and women can be friends, and build such strong lady friendships that they will literally change the world.

Granted, pop culture–which always tends to be a little behind the times–seems to be a mixed bag these days when it comes to female friendship. We’ve got Liz Lemon, who is a cool, smart lady who has somehow managed to go far in life without making friends with a single other woman. But up next on NBC, Leslie Knope gives us some of the best portrayals of lady friendship I’ve seen on TV in awhile. Bridesmaids offered a refreshing take–but ultimately couldn’t break out of the marriage-centric mode to be particularly radical.

But whether or not sit-coms and rom-coms are delivering accurate portrayals on screen, women are building and working hard to maintain these important relationships–even in the face of cultural structures that make it difficult. Because clearly it’s worth it.

Maya and Martha
Me and my best friend Martha

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10 Comments

  1. Posted January 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    The end of her article is what really hits home for me. We’ve prioritized romantic love to such a ridiculous degree, it devalues the very deep — and yes, loving — platonic lifelong friendships that people can form (with women, or men, for that matter).

  2. Posted January 26, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I’d be interested to hear if people feel that way, because in my experience the opposite is true: it seems the older I get, the greater the social pressure there is to limit my friendships to women only (though gay male friends are also acceptable). For most of our lives but definitely after college, society expects men and women to segregate socially, meeting up only for romantic reasons. It seems to me that female-female friendships thrive in this set-up and it’s cross-gender friendships that have all the cards stacked against them.

    If female friendships are devalued and cross-gender friendships are taboo, then is society really saying women can’t have any friends at all?

    • Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. I think there are a lot of damaging societal expectations around cross-gender friendships too. (Not to mention friendships between men.) Melissa McEwan made a similar point in this post I really love. She says the two main myths of female friendship are:

      1. Women can’t be friends with women.

      2. Women can’t be friends with men.

      • Posted January 27, 2012 at 8:00 am | Permalink

        This seems like one of those situations where gender roles are harmful to women, and to men, just in different ways. According to the corresponding set of stereotypes:

        1. Men can be friends with other men, but they are really only activity partners, engaging in parallel consumption patterns (Go Jets!). If you share anything more meaningful than watching sports or playing video games, it becomes a “bromance,” which is, like, also not really acceptable.

        2. Men can’t be friends with women (unless you’re caught in the friend zone. Nooooo!)

  3. Posted January 26, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I would offer that this could be linked back to the Gabby Giffords farewell from a few days ago.

    http://feministing.com/2012/01/25/what-we-missed-574/

    For those who didn’t watch, the first part of the video is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaking passionately about her friendship with Gabby Giffords. It’s a pretty great example (and pretty rarely found openly talked about on the floor of the House) of this.

  4. Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    The moral support a woman gets from a female friend is generally inferior to that which she gets from a significant other (at least if it’s a guy, which is all I can speak to). I’ve never understood making romantic love, which is often fleeting and unstable, the center of your social universe. As people pair off and have children in nuclear family households, and work 40 hours per week, those platonic female friendships get put on the back burner. They become the thing you have to rearrange your schedule and make time for, when I find they are the one thing that keeps me sane in the labyrinth of love and careers. Women are designed for this. To deny it is unhealthy, to belittle it is ignorant.

    • Posted January 27, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      Women aren’t “designed” to do a damn thing except what they decide is best for themselves.

      Do you also assume that everyone who finds a significant other marches right into the nuclear family model and that they all have kids? GMAFB

    • Posted January 27, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      In addition to your vain hope that no one would refute you if you suggested doing so was “ignorant”, I’ll suggest it is ignorant to put so much faith in some vague “design” that conveniently happens to ape a large bulk of mainstream western social structures.

  5. Posted January 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    While I enjoyed the sentiment and passion of the original post, I also found the gender norming alarming. Both the idea that women as a gender are more inclined to this type of relationship and also that women’s relationships should be celebrated when they exist without of anger, jealousy, disappointment, etc. I think it reinforces the idea that women shouldn’t voice concerns with one another because it means the friendship isn’t actually strong. More about that in my own blog post/semi-response… http://www.jananmsw.com/2012/01/making-meaning-from-making-mistakes.html
    Thanks for posting this.

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