Sisterhood Feels Good: Why I’m Into the Current Obsession With Female Friendship

You know your best friend — the idea of her was probably introduced to you in primary school. She’s the girl you sit next to on the bus on school trips and whose nails you paint at sleepovers. She’s the girl who you’re positive will be the maid of honour at your wedding (which you’re also positive will be to Michael Owen the football player, who is apparently very good at sports and who you think is just dreamy). She’s someone you think you will love forever.

As you grow older you begin to realise that this rarely works out. You might have a string of best friends, no best friend at all, or, quite tragically (as was my case) become a serial second-best friend for a number of years — always the bridesmaid, never the maid of honour, so to speak.

But still, the idea of the best friend, whether singular or plural, never quite goes away. It’s pored over in literature and film; even music, that medium so famously preoccupied with romantic love, has a corner reserved for it.

Take 2015’s (misleadingly-titled) “Boy Problems” by Carly Rae Jepsen. Ostensibly a song about a woman breaking up with her boyfriend, the breakup the song laments isn’t with the boy of the title, but the singer’s best friend.

What’s worse, losing a lover or losing your best friend?” Jepsen asks. “What’s worse is when you discover you’re not good for each other/ She’s been giving, you’ve been taking, taking, taking.

Of course, romantic and platonic love songs, stories, and movies all attest to the same thing: that loving another person is hard. It’s dramatic, it’s difficult, and the person you think will be by your side on your wedding day may turn out not to be the right one for you. So it goes.

The difference is that friendship has rarely been afforded the space for exploration that romantic love has, especially between women.

Virginia Woolf lamented this in A Room Of One’s Own in 1929, writing that relationships between women were invariably painted too simplistically for her liking — as simply matters of competition, or jealousy.

“So much has been left out, unattempted,” she wrote. “[A]lmost without exception [women] are shown in their relation to men.”

Up until a few years ago, I would have said that this was still the case. However, something has happened over the last few years — beginning (by my estimations) around the time that “Boy Problems” was released.

Let’s cut back to 2015. The “Boy Problems” video, directed by photographer Petra Collins, sees Jepsen & co dancing in a 1980s-styled, candy-coloured dreamworld pulled straight from the pages of a lockable diary.

Collins’s close friend Tavi Gevinson features, as well as others of their friends; for instance, best friends and plus-size Instagram influencers Minahil Mahmood and Dounia Tazi.

For those familiar with these women’s platforms at the time, the video offered a knowing wink: what you were seeing was not just a stylised video of women having fun (although of course it was that too), but real friends hanging out having a good time. It was girly, and poppy, and cool in the way you imagine sleepovers will be before you’ve ever been to one.

It was also very much of its moment. 2015 was the year that Julianne Moore used her acceptance speech at the Critics’ Choice Awards to shout out the other women in her category and regret her lack of opportunities to work with them. It was also the golden period post-1989 and pre-Kimye fiasco when Taylor Swift and her #girlsquad were at the height of their powers.

Fast-forward a few years and a lot has changed. Swift has been felled and risen again with a new image; Obama has been replaced by Trump; the UK’s long-standing relationship with the EU has been replaced by total chaos.

But, as a culture, we’re still riding high on this girl power message.

Obviously, being an avid reader and aspiring writer, I see this the most clearly in books.

Perhaps the most famous example, at least in the UK, is Dolly Alderton’s memoir, Everything I Know About Love, published in 2018. Although initially planned to be a saga of dating in her twenties, Alderton’s book quickly becomes an ode to her long-standing relationships with the women in her life, particularly her childhood best friend Farly.

To say the book has done well would be an understatement. Empirically-speaking, it was a Sunday Times top 10 bestseller. Anecdotally speaking, it feels like every twenty-something woman I know has read it, and the feeling around it is almost evangelical. At my last count, at least five different people have read my copy, and I even suggested it for my uni girl friends’ book club late last year. We joked repeatedly throughout the weekend that our most-used phrase was “It’s just like Dolly says in the book…” and all wrote messages in the front of one copy to post to our friend who couldn’t make it — as though it were one long, ventriloquised love letter.

Evidently, there’s something about Everything I Know About Love that just resonates with women my age — perhaps simply that it reflects our changing reality in a way we haven’t seen before.

The fact is, we’re settling down later than we used to. Instead of husbands being our main company throughout our twenties (a ghastly prospect if ever there was one), we’re now building meaningful relationships with each other. The tenderness with which Alderton relays this experience is infectious, and it’s no wonder that the book has been such a hit: we’re hungry for these stories because we haven’t seen many of them before.

We’re certainly getting more of them now. Daisy Buchanan, who I first came across through her hilarious roundups of Made in Chelsea episodes, has penned a memoir called The Sisterhood: A Love Letter to the Women Who Have Shaped Me, to name just one similar title.

But it’s not just memoirs — and it’s not just tender evocations of female camaraderie, either. Some of my favourite novels that I’ve read in the last few years have dealt with the difficulty of maintaining close friendships with women, partly because of the cultural narratives we grow up within pit us against one another.

In fact, this sense of embattlement within female friendships is a common theme in many of these stories.

Take Lila and Lenu in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels: the friction between the two women from an early age is charged with jealousies both petty and serious, over not just love and material wealth but intelligence and talent, which of them has more, and which of them has the opportunity to explore it.

Many of these stories approach female friendships as mirrors that we hold up to ourselves, standards we set and, ultimately, never quite meet. Take Paulina and Fran, in which the author Rachel B. Glaser paints title characters whose self-obsession translates into an obsession with each other: with the ways in which they mirror each other, or wish they did.

These kinds of fictional relationships, as one might expect, are frequently toxic: the competitive spirit between the unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time and her childhood friend Tracey causes the latter to vindictively participate in the breakdown of her career. Reva’s desperation in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation prompts disgust from the unnamed narrator, but it is her longing for acceptance that acts as a foil to the narrator’s misanthropy throughout the novel, and it is Reva’s image that we are left with at its close.

Although these kinds of stories may seem to play into exactly what Woolf was lamenting almost a century ago — that women in fiction are too frequently locked in competition with each other, at the expense of any other relationship — I think they actually demonstrate how enriched our interpretations of women’s friendships have become.

Sisterhood, female friendship, girl power — it may, at times, or perhaps all the time, be a fight. But these stories show that, just like great romantic love, these relationships can be the fight of our lives, and their success across art forms is testament to the fact that we — or at least the women that I know — are ready for a ringside seat.

No other love is like the love of a teenage girl, all passion and fire and endless devotion — at least for a week.

Emma Straub, “My Rayannes

If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.

The Spice Girls, “Wannabe”


Originally published at writtenontheflyleaves.wordpress.com on March 21, 2019.