There are not a lot of really good depictions of female friendship out there in the world, particularly not of the friendship of women as adults. The friendships in a lot of literary works between women were traditionally relationships between sisters, or relationships in which there was a power inbalance, where the friendship was constructed in a way which reflected the exercise of power, as in Emma for example. In television and film there tends not to be a huge focus on the friendships of adult women, unless they are constructed around rivalries, particularly over men. Geena Davis has been quoted in the Australian media in the last couple of days talking about women in film, and noting that there is only one female role for every three male roles. With these kinds of numbers, it is perhaps unsurprising that male friendships get a great deal more airing than female friendships, and women are usually most seen relating to men, rather than other women. There are also not the kinds of genres which highlight female friendships in the way that war films, sporting films and the whole genre of cop buddy movies do. Of course, there are exceptions, and films like Steel Magnolias or the two films which Davis herself starred in Thelma and Louise and A League of their Own.
On television as well, female friendships are rarely real friendships and are more about short term alliances or conversely rivalries. Women are most often pitted against each other as rivals for male affection rather than supporters 0f each other. One interesting exception was the way that The Young and the Restless depicted the relationship between Nikki Newman and Katherine Chancellor – one always had the sense that this was a real friendship, even though it did involve two characters of very different ages. What about Sex in the City you might say. Well, and I will note that I was an intermittent watcher of the series and haven’t seen the film, I always felt that it was a show about the individual lives of 4 really quite different (white, privileged) women and that the friendship was primarily a narrative device to link these atomised stories together.
These kinds of depictions (or lack thereof) of women’s relationships no doubt are part of the creation of the pervasive idea that women don’t tend to support each other, particularly in the workplace, and through their constant reinforcement, support the notion that we should view other women as rivals, rather than helpers. And I hate those notions.
So this brings me to Grey’s Anatomy. Ever since I happened to start watching it, I felt engaged and drawn to it, beyond my ever-present academic interest in the soap opera form. I think that it is quite well written and it uses characters who are not single dimensional stereotypes (except perhaps for Izzie, but nothing is perfect). However, it struck me recently as I watched Christina sitting on the couch by Meredith’s hospital bed sobbing, is that the thing I love about it most is the depiction of the friendship between these two. it is the kind of relationship I can identify with: a friendship between two women with similar goals and who are similar in many ways, but who are also distinct and individual characters. These two are ambitious women who want to succeed in their fields, and they support each other even while they are rivals. what it shows is that competition does not negate friendship, that rivalry between women does not have to be unfriendly or bitchy – just as rivalry between men has often been depicted. And I totally get the way they understand each other and rely on each other. Seeing them “dance it out” or Christina ending up in Derek and Meredith’s bed with them; friends confiding in each other in a way they can’t to lovers or other friends: these things are at the heart of real female friendship. I also like the fact that they are “dark and twisty” and that this darkness and twistyness does not stop their lives, but it colours it. And the reason I like Derek (because mostly I can’t see what Meredith sees in him) is that he is depicted as (eventually) understanding the role of this friendship and its importance. So what we see is not that female friendship is a replacement of sexual relationships, but a full and equal adjunct. A woman can and should have both in her life as both will help her and sustain her and, most likely, the female friendship will endure longer and be more important and effective than (most) of the sexual relationships. It is interesting that, in looking for photos, I found this Facebook group which is essentially a celebration of this friendship. It is a rare thing to find on television, and worth celebrating.
Also, why I love Grey’s Anatomy: Arizona is awesome.