Genuine friendships between girls are radically underrepresented in pop culture. Only a handful of such relationships are depicted, which means that when they are, they really tend to stand out, and they seem almost freakish at times, because they defy everything people think they know about women and girls and how they relate to each other. It’s one reason to get excited about pop culture that is exploring the complex relationships women can build in an environment where those relationships are real, and not founded on ulterior motives.
All too often in pop culture, women aren’t really friends. Their relationships with each other are nasty and savage, filled with jealousy and machinations as each woman tries to get ahead. It depicts a girl-eat-girl world, one where being a woman means you can’t trust other women, because they will try to take things away from you, and they will stop at nothing to do it. Consumers of pop culture start internalising these messages; that other girls will steal your boyfriends, or sabotage you when you’re trying to do something, or will tattle on you if you come to them for help and disclose confidential information. The takeaway is that girls can’t be friends, because they will inevitably destroy each other.
There are a lot of assumptions embedded in this depiction of women’s relationships in pop culture. One, of course, is that friendships are inherently less valuable than romantic relationships, and thus will always take a backseat to them. In this setting, of course friends would ride over each other to get what they want, because they have their eyes on the prize. That prize is a boyfriend (we live in heteroland, remember?), not a friend, and that boyfriend will always trump anything a friend could bring to the table.
Friends are the training wheels, there to be used when convenient and thrown away when you’re done and can ride on your own. Sure, you can lean on a friend when you’re in need, but don’t lean too hard, and don’t read too much into it, because you’ll both eventually build your own relationships and you will forget about the friendship and what it may have meant to you. And never, ever forget that your ‘friend’ could turn on you at any moment, because that’s what girls do. Since they’re all backstabbing, cheating liars with no compassion.
There’s also, of course, the belief that women are inherently untrustworthy. Depictions of female friendships in pop culture rely on this as a form of cultural shorthand; they don’t need to spell out the fact that ladies can’t be trusted to have each other’s backs, because everyone knows this is the case. They don’t need to explain why a girl might steal another girl’s boyfriend or cheat on a test or sabotage a project, because that, again, is what girls do. Don’t trust them any further than you can throw them, because putting faith in women will set you up for eventual failure.
Rich relationships between women and girls who actually enjoy a genuine emotional connection are extremely rare in pop culture. Such relationships don’t have to be all sunshine and rainbows; a good friendship is often tested by hardships which can include interpersonal problems as well as outside pressures. That’s how you tell if a friend is for real, or is a shadow, something else entirely. All too often in pop culture, such tests are used to reiterate the idea that women can’t be friends with each other because they’re too catty and self-centred to invest any time or energy in other people, rather than to demonstrate that, yes, women can be friends.
And those friendships can be about something other than waiting for a romantic relationship. They can involve a tight connection based on mutual love and affection, one where both parties are getting something out of the relationship, but that’s not what they are in it for. These are friendships where people discuss something other than their longing for romantic partners, where they do things together as a pair that aren’t about going out and trolling for guys. They are friendships where people are focused on each other, not the next best thing outside the relationship.
There seems to be a deep fear of depicting honest relationships between women in pop culture, and one of the few places you’ll find them is in women-helmed projects, where people have an opportunity to depict their own experiences and create characters who represent them and their own lives. Such projects are often written off as ‘for women’ and thus not of general interest, or importance. In a world where women are devalued and considered less interesting than men, any sort of attempt to explore the complexity of female friendships is almost doomed from the start, especially when such projects don’t involve women attacking each other to get ahead in the world.
It’s a bitter message to be sending to young women and girls, who rarely get to see healthy relationships between women modeled in pop culture, and take away some very sad ideas about how women relate to each other. When your understanding of such friendships comes from media that constantly warns you about the perils of women friends, you enter such relationships with extreme distrust, and have trouble believing that anyone could really be your friend; she must have an agenda, she must be planning to use you, she will turn on you eventually, because that is what girls do.
So maybe it would be better for you to take the offensive, rather than being the one who will be the inevitable victim. And thus, the cycle is perpetuated, as girls are told they can’t be friends with girls, and enter precisely the exploitative and sometimes abusive ‘friendships’ they believe are inevitable.