Sisters Before Misters: The Value of Female Friendship
Zoya Haroon | On 09, Jul 2013
Growing up, I was always surrounded by female cousins. I have a brother, but he’s six years younger than me, whereas my cousins are around my age. We went through adolescence together; we joked about our appearances and settled into our bodies together. We dealt with religious guilt and family conflict together. Even now as young adults, spread out all over the country, we turn to each other.
I’ve come to really appreciate that female-only space. Since I go to a co-ed college, I have close male friends, and I interact every day with men who are around my age. But even after coming to college and forming significant friendships with men, many of my closest friends are female. I have a tight-knit group of girlfriends at home, I have several very close girlfriends at school—last year, I lived in a triple with two roommates that we dubbed the ‘Womb’—and I have my cousins as well. The women that I’ve surrounded myself with are some of the most important influences in my life.
Of course, I believe that men and women can be friends. I’m not saying that there are fundamental differences that prevent men and women from becoming close friends—I don’t believe that sexual tension or anything like that prevents men and women from close and lasting friendship. This article doesn’t deal with that. Instead, I want to write about a trend I’ve been seeing lately: young women angling to dismiss other women and trying to establish close friendships almost exclusively with men.
Our culture celebrates masculine friendship. Being ‘bros’ is the ultimate form of friendship. People associate friendships between men with loyalty, trust, and laid-back camaraderie. On the other hand, female friendships have the reputation of being dramatic and difficult to manage. Although there have been movies, shows, and books celebrating female friendships—Bridesmaids, Sex and the City, etc.—the celebration of masculine friendship is far more prevalent. And even in contemporary renditions of female friendship in movies and literature, female relationships are rendered in the context of men—or marriage, or babies, or fashion, or other things considered feminine and/or frivolous.
For example, the Bechdel Test discerns whether or not a work of fiction satisfies feminist critics by requiring a work of fiction to a) have two women in it b) have those women speak to one another c) have those women speak to one another about something other than a man. As of July 2013, only 53% percent of movies passed the Bechdel Test. In the media, men are presented as individuals, while women are always known in the context of their gender—or rather, gendered expectations of femininity.
So it’s easy to see why some young women want to be “one of the guys.” Girls who form close friendships with guys are known as “chill girls.” These girls are low maintenance; they aren’t like other girls. They aren’t catty or shallow—they claim to be above the petty conflicts—jealousy, backstabbing—that we as a culture associate with femininity and female friendship. I’ve heard so many young women say that girls are too dramatic, too competitive and too bitchy.
But having both close male and female friends, I’ve seen that both men and women love to gossip. Both men and women fight with their friends, and both men and women relax and joke with their friends. Both men and women can be competitive and jealous. And both men and women can have long and rewarding friendships, both with each other and within their own gender. All relationships take effort.
So when a young woman disregards feminine friendship, it is not because there is something inherent about womankind that makes it impossible for her to befriend any women. It is rather an imbibed message, a status symbol: men are cooler, more interesting, more intelligent. Their friendships are more “real.” She is trying to bypass the stereotypes associated with modern femininity. In a sense, she is trying to transcend her lower status as a woman—automatically bitchy and petty—and achieve a higher status: one of the guys.
This is a really dangerous mindset. When young women absorb the images of women they see in the media and begin to undermine the value and power of femininity, they are absorbing a dangerous sense of contempt for other women—and also for themselves. And, as I’ve mentioned before, these young women disregard the significance and complexity of a feminine space. Because in my female friendships I’ve discovered something really refreshing: a lack of expectations, a very liberating sense of acceptance.
As I’ve said several times before, I’m all for connecting with guys on a platonic level. I think it’s important and healthy to break down gendered barriers and stereotypes. Men and women can definitely be friends. But oftentimes when men and women become friends they bring gendered expectations to the table. In my experience, young women don’t make sex jokes when men are present, while young men talk loudly about politics. Most importantly, women speak less when men are around.
Of course, this doesn’t apply to all male-female friendships, but it’s definitely the trend. When men and women are together, they tend to fall into a preconceived script as to how they should behave.
Having a female-only space changes that. I’ve always been shy, and my voice doesn’t carry. Even as an outspoken feminist, I find myself falling silent when my male friends are speaking. I internally tell myself that I don’t know what they are talking about, that I’ll trip over my words or say the wrong thing. I realize that I’m not speaking very much and I hate it, but I do it anyways. There’s a part of me that’s somehow intimidated and believes I should stay silent. And because of this, while it’s very important to make co-ed spaces like this more accessible to women, I also believe that it’s really important to have a female-only space in your life.
With my female friends, I talk loudly and freely. We ask each other questions and collaborate on answers. No topic is too lewd or uncomfortable: my friends and I have talked about everything from yeast infections to Kim Kardashian’s sex tape to what we’re wearing later tonight to masturbation. Young women often experience a sense of disconnect with femininity, particularly during adolescence: you don’t feel comfortable in your body or your sexuality. Having other women to laugh with, to worry with, and to talk with really helps reconcile that disconnect.
Even if you have a significant other, that all-female space is really refreshing. You can vent, cry, and laugh freely with other women. It’s a unique space—a place where the performance of modern femininity ends and women explore themselves and what it means to be female with no affectations or pressure. An all-female friendship space is a place of love and support. There’s so much pressure on hooking up and pairing off in our society. It’s nice to have a significant other, but that shouldn’t lessen the value of having several—or even just one—good female friend.
Just being perceived as a woman in today’s world comes with a loaded set of expectations (which are often conflicting). Every woman should be able to experience a space where these expectations are gone. A lot of the time, this space comes in the form of an all-female friend group. Women’s friendships are life affirming, enjoyable, and important. They shouldn’t be belittled or overlooked. With my girlfriends, I’m not the representation of femininity I sometimes still feel like I have to be: I can just be a person.
Written by Zoya Haroon
Header image courtesy of: Brienne Walsh