There’s “Girlfriends,” the early aughts TV show. Then there’s Claudia Weil’s film Girl Friends.

Le Amiche, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, was released in 1955. An Unmarried Woman was released in 1978, the same year as Girl Friends. It is hard to say what these narratives are not. Together, on a quotidian level, they are mostly everything. This is because, in these instances, the intimacy that takes place around women on screen is composed. As much as they are comedic and dramatic complexities, these stories and images are also tableaus. Women, arranged beside each other, are talking.

Recently, as I’ve read more writing addressing it, I’ve wondered what the point is of defending gossip, and, as an extension, the “clique.” Alana Massey’s piece, “The Clique Imaginary” seeks to legitimize the clique structure and woman’s decision to be part of one. In the Feministing piece, “Gossip as an Act of Resistance,” columnist Reina Gattuso takes two positions on gossip: it can be a radical form of communication between marginalized people, but it can also, in turn, marginalize in allowing for the public condemnation of those who don’t align with social norms. On one hand, to position gossip as inherently female  (Massey centers female identity in her conception of the clique; Reina initially implies but ultimately avoids this) would exclude the pair of men that stood behind me on the subway and discussed a female acquaintance’s depression as a curious occurrence but also a mild bummer. On the other, to position gossip as good or bad, radical or regressive—ignores the ways in which it operates not only morally and politically, but as an intimacy, and like all intimacies—or embodied, interactive modes of existence—gossip can be as shameful as it is redemptive…and that is the point. There’s no need to defend it. Men talk shit. Women “gossip,” which sounds nicer. It’s elegant frivolity. It’s snobbery. It’s cruel, flippant, nosy, concerned, non-confrontational, but interested. It’s as much ideas as it is events, but it’s not noble or worthy. Gaggles of girlfriends, yipping and yapping, worrying too much about themselves and each other, is good and fine. Ok, whatever. Really, I’m interested not in the cliques, but in the arrangements—how women look and sound and act when they talk about men or themselves, their children and each other, about their careers, their depression, racism, and toast. I’m interested in how women complete tasks, how they make toast. I’m also interested in how men figure into these arrangements, and how they don’t.

I love these films because they are interested in women, and not in a justification of women as human beings. For example, sometimes, after Beyoncé or Rihanna performs or Ava DuVernay books a new project or Simone Biles wins a medal, someone will write something on the Internet like, “black women are worthy; black women are amazing and special” and, despite the validity and, some would argue, necessity of these emphatic, sentimental proclamations, I’ll be uninterested. Instead, I’ll be watching Beyoncé or Simone or Ava’s film or Rihanna’s dancing while binge eating barbecue chips on my white duvet, two days overdue for a shower, not special or amazing. Maybe later, I’ll lie prostrate on my stained duvet in reverence or disappointment. You see? Womanhood, black or otherwise, is not in need of justification; the work is in need of attention.

Tracy Ellis Ross became apparent to me on “Girlfriends,” where she, wide-eyed and frantic, was looping her body around her sisters (in the black sense). Her character, Joan, liked to defend herself, but was constantly thwarted in these efforts. She wore silky neutrals the tone of her skin, and mishandled interpersonal affairs. She condescended to her friends but also couldn’t keep away from them. These friends—Maya, Lynn, and Toni—were alternately petty, selfish, irresponsible, loyal, vulnerable, ignorant, and funny. They defended themselves and called each other out. Usually, at the end of each episode, their evenly moisturized skin gleaming in their large apartments, they would sit on a couch or line their bodies up against a kitchen counter and reconcile, and show love.

In Le Amiche, the girlfriends wonder how they might show love at any given point to any person in front of them. A few of them are very bad at it. A few manage to show love to the (same) wrong person. In a scene at the meanest friend, Momina’s, apartment, the five friends follow each other in and out of adjacent rooms. Antonioni’s camera sweeps around them with agility and purpose as they talk amongst each other and about each other. There’s a curtain that Momina raises and then, before encouraging the affair the suicidal Rosetta has started with the artist Nene’s fiancé, lowers. Clelia, a career woman and new addition to the group, concerns herself with Rosetta’s recovery while Mariella, beautiful and tactless, flits about in happy confusion. The film is a windmill of actions (Momina’s, Mariella’s), a tunnel of motivations (Nene’s, Clelia’s), and a triptych of personal outcomes (Rosetta’s, Nene’s, and Clelia’s). Love is rarely shown, but oft hypothesized.

Perhaps because An Unmarried Woman and Girl Friends are of the very same time, they deal in similar terms, and their arrangements, if not their executions, are kindred. You might say that An Unmarried Woman is about divorce, and how a woman redefines herself after it, especially in the wake of the 1970s sexual revolution. But for me, the film is about how a wife re-emerges as a girl friend—about the pain of the transition, and injustice in the distinction. When Erica, once happily married, is suddenly left by her husband, she falls down a chute of confusion and self-pity. It’s her friends, Sue, Elaine, and Jeanette, as well as her daughter, Patti, and her therapist, Tanya, who position themselves around her, and make her aware of their own fears, traumas, and confusions. Later, she meets an intelligent, unusual artist, and becomes his girlfriend. In Girl Friends, Susan, who takes bar mitzvah photos for a living, goes from girl friend to, for just a moment, mistress, and then, more enduringly, to girlfriend. In the meantime, her best friend has zipped from girl friend to girlfriend to wife to mother. Susan and Anne are also both artists, struggling to emerge as an art photographer and fiction writer, respectively. Their arrangements—Susan’s precarious and Anne’s permanent—pull them away from each other before bringing them back together. Near the end of both films, the heroines have to decide if they want to move in with their new boyfriends. (For Erica that’s Alan Bates and for Susan that’s a young Christopher Guest. In this casting, the implication seems to be at once, “How could you say no?!” and “Of course you say no!”). In each film, the women consider the decision with their friends, worrying that incorporating a man not only into their days but their nights—all their moments, big and small—might curtail the lives they’ve enjoyed not as girlfriends, but girl friends.

Each of these films (and one television show) tells me something that I’ve feared and known (and readers of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels will relate): Breaking these arrangements of girl friends is a little death.  I don’t want the movie to end. I don’t want to kill these women by memorializing them as special or amazing, powerful and smart. I want to watch the ways in which they are silly and sad and terrible and funny and intelligent, at once, together and apart. I want to watch them gossip and judge them for it and be interested in the gossip. I want to see them move through the world, not because they are exceptional, but because they negotiate the ways in which they are not.


Header image from centrictv.com

Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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