Female Friendship in the Movies, for Better and for Worse
MOTIF(F): Tropes in film we can't get enough of
Welcome to MOTIF(F), a weekly unpacking of a film trope we love. This week, we ask: who says women can't be friends?
For most of my life, everything I knew about Thelma & Louise I learned from “Marge on the Lam,” one of the best episodes of The Simpsons ever.
Fed up with Homer, his thoughtlessness and their Saturday night routine of a little show called Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Marge forms a fast friendship with her leather jacket-wearing divorcée neighbour Ruth Powers. The two soon find themselves on an adventure ending in a car chase that sends them nearly over a chasm — but unlike the film they were spoofing, Marge and Ruth return to their normal lives, all crises averted.
Watching The Simpsons at age eight, this was an excellent primer for the original film. Especially since as I got older, sentiments like “sticking together is what good waffles do” became a mandate for female friendship — a fact of life the movies still seem confused about. There’s a common misconception that women can’t be friends. Films pit women against each other as rivals for a man, a job or even just existence (see: The Hunger Games). Thelma and Louise proved that two women against the odds could be unbeatable.
Since its release 25 years ago, we’ve started to expect that female characters like Thelma and Louise should be the norm (you know, interesting, strong, flawed and human). Screenwriter Callie Khouri and director Ridley Scott worked together to create a reality in which two women operated entirely on their own terms. Which is especially powerful when you think about how much of their actions were in response to the misogyny that is still rampant in our culture now. First, we meet Thelma (played by Geena Davis) when she’s in a different place — specifically, married to a man she needs permission from before heading out on her adventure (and fortunately leaves behind). Then, we watch as Louise (a powerful Susan Sarandon) scares off a drunken predator who tries to sexually assault her friend. (“In the future,” Louise reminds him. “When a woman’s crying like that, she’s not having any fun.”) A huge scene in itself, but bigger when you realize that with every event, both the characters and their friendship becomes stronger.
Louise champions Thelma’s fling with JD (a very young Brad Pitt!) and Thelma supports Louise’s choice not to marry her longterm boyfriend. Thelma loses their money, Louise gets over it, then eventually comes clean about her past. Finally, when coming face to face with the truck driver who has spent most of the film lewdly gesturing at them, both women confront him as equals and blow up his transport. This is before driving over the Grand Canyon to escape the police and who they once were. Thelma’s last words, “Let’s not get caught, let’s keep going” embody the best qualities of female friendship: that it isn’t linear, that it never ends, and when everything else goes to shit, it’s enough to sustain you.
Which is why it’s disappointing that Hollywood’s legacy of anchoring female leads to a man’s narrative continues to thrive, as does the general disdain for telling women’s stories. We’ve all heard more than enough about the impossibility of real female friendship and I believe it was pop culture birthed that unfortunate myth. The backlash against the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot signals a deep-seated fear in women banding together to fight the enemy. (Which, in that specific case, will be CGI ghosts.)
But it’s not all a garbage fire: since Thelma & Louise debuted in 1991, we’ve seen female friendships in movies challenge tropes and evolve. So with all this in mind, here’s how female friendship is commonly portrayed across genre lines in film. Hold onto those waffles — we may be in for a bumpy ride.
1. THE SPORTS MOVIE: THINK LIKE A TEAM
Aside from how much I happen to cry at the end, there are few technical differences between the likes of A League of Their Own and The Mighty Ducks. Both are movies about teams forced to unite in the hopes of achieving a goal, all while being cheered against.
But where The Mighty Ducks and all other male-led sports movies paint the team in question as an underdog, women in sports films already are. (Because they’re women, duh.) So instead of fighting to work with each other, we see them focus on the greater good (winning), and squash any subsequent beefs in the process. In League, Kit and Dottie’s sister drama comes second to the Rockford Peaches gunning for the World Series. In Bring It On, Big Red’s stolen routines see the Clovers and Toros practice to excess with mutual respect (and minimal team in-fighting). Whip It saw its roller derby heroes help Bliss find herself, but not before delivering a few harsh truths that reminded her she was part of a team, Blue Crush provided us all a lesson in not letting a dude impact your goals and Pitch Perfect turned a capella singing into the goddamn NBA finals.
Sports movies are close to perfect in painting female friendships as what they are: friendships. Not hotbeds of drama, cattiness or male-oriented unions of convenience. Sports movies structure friendship as family because if you’re going to go up against something bigger than yourself, that’s what you’ve got to be.
2. ON THE ROAD: HIGHWAY REALIZATIONS
If you hail from a suburb, odds are you also grew up driving around, having in-car revelations, usually set to whatever CD you burned that week, while driving past your crush’s house. And such is the same for female friendships on the road.
This is because cars trap you. Thelma and Louise can’t stop theirs from driving off a cliff, Romy and Michele have to get to their reunion, Sally kills Gillian’s boyfriend in one in Practical Magic. And it’s within that close space of confinement that harsh truths tend to surface. (Yes, even in Shonda Rhimes’ Crossroads.) Romy and Michele air out their grievances in their rented convertible before finding themselves stuck inside it for another few hours. They’re where a friend in Dazed and Confused tells Simone and Darla that Jodi thinks they’re bitches and sluts. They’re where Helen confesses to Annie in Bridesmaids that her stepchildren hate her and people only like her for her ability to plan a party, and that she’s sorry for being so mean. Road trips are ground zero for “I’m just being honest.” And while I’d like to condemn this trope and say moments like these are rare amongst good friends, I also remember that almost every coming-of-age argument I’ve had was started amidst a long drive. And also, that as a grown-ass woman, I will pick up my friends and drive us around so we can real talk without fear of running into anybody.
3. COMING-OF-AGE: THE INEVITABLE FALL-OUT
The thing about growing as a person is that it is hard and terrible. Now and Then nails this as Roberta freaks out, realizing years after the fact how her mom’s death traumatized her. Amy Heckerling’s Clueless gets it when Cher comes home after failing her driver’s test and fights with Tai. (She says the cruellest thing any person can say to another: “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.”) Bridesmaids sees Annie physically destroy Lillian’s shower by way of a comically oversized cookie. And Legally Blonde has Vivien deliver a painful “You almost had me fooled” retort to Elle after Elle is harassed by their professor, nearly inspiring her to leave Harvard Law.
Are these growing pains always part of how female friendships operate? Here’s where it gets tricky: growing up always breeds conflict, but it’s not necessarily always this dramatic. Though drama isn’t exclusive to coming-of-age films about women — we see it just as much in movies like Stand By Me, The Sandlot and even Richie Rich (seriously). But the ante seems upped when it’s a confrontation between two female characters. In real life, coming-of-age conflicts can take years to resolve themselves. In most mainstream comedies, they are easily tied up by the conclusion of the film, especially since all of the communication ends up in the scene where everyone apologizes and articulates what their issue was in the first place.
4. MEN ARE TRASH: ALL FOR ONE
Behold! Teamwork! There’s one issue that women of all kinds can band together over: getting revenge when a man is garbage. Here are two common plot devices for this trope:
a) A woman is happily married and finds out her husband is cheating on her. Then, another woman shows up to confirm that she is also being cheated on — by the same man! (Sometimes, there is a third woman but she is played by Kate Upton.) For a brief moment in time these two women hate each other because they are rivals, but then realize that is pointless. They team up to bring the man in question down in a series of outrageous pranks, with any/all corresponding conflicts caused by said male when he inevitably tells one of the women that he loves him. (As seen in The Other Woman and John Tucker Must Die.) He is then killed. (Or like, told to leave. Whatever.)
b) Women who have been jilted by their husbands and/or boyfriends form The First Wives Club and it a wonderful movie, starring Bette Midler, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn.
In this treatment, female friendship works the same way it does in sports movies. There is a bigger goal. It is an important goal. And at some point, a woman’s personal agenda may get in the way (read: “What if he really loves me?”) But all this tends to be squashed by something more dire: destroying the life of a terrible person. Even in The Heat, Ashburn and Mullins must overcome their personal differences to get the bad guy because it’s their job.
But here’s the thing (she began controversially): this genre is also a buzzkill. Men shouldn’t be the only reason female characters opt to form a sisterhood, especially since joining forces to bring down a man still fails the Bechdel Test (and is also boring). We may hunker down to watch the likes of Cameron Diaz, Kate Upton and Leslie Mann rally to break the spirit of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, but we’re left knowing almost nothing about the characters individually. It’s onscreen friendship in aspartame form; a poor imitation of the real deal (that may or may not kill you, depending on which study you’re reading). It’s a trope that buys into the idea that the common denominator among strong women is a man who never deserved them in the first place.
And that’s bleak. Especially if you just wanted to mentally check out and watch Something Borrowed and admire the durability of Ginnifer Goodwin’s wig. But I tell you because I care: Men Are Trash™ movies are built exclusively on the foundation of heteronormativity mixed with the notion that women cannot communicate unless there’s a man to destroy. Which perpetuates the idea that women delight in bringing down men and adds fuel to the anti-feminist fire and empowers the MRAs and... well, type that sentiment on Twitter and see what happens.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, especially since it’s entertaining watch Sophia Bush and Brittany Snow take on Jesse Metcalfe in his bootcut jeans. If we started focusing on female friendships outside the dating realm, or enlisted female directors to tell these stories instead of men, we could get the best of both worlds: a revenge movie about three-dimensional women who respect each other as people, and still work together to solve a common problem. (Jesse Metcalfe’s jeans.)
5. SUPERNATURAL: FOR BETTER OR WORSE
Covens are powerful, and magic can bind you to a friend forever. Or, it can tear you apart and leave you in a house literally crawling with snakes. (Either/or.)
In The Craft, Sarah Bailey finds her people in the form of Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle, a group of gothy girls who practice witchcraft. Unfortunately, Nancy is a psychopath and when she sees Sarah’s supernatural abilities, she uses her own to undermine her rival while destroying the lives of everyone around them. As a result, Sarah and Nancy fall out and essentially duel, leading Nancy to a mental institution and Sarah to reconcile that she’s a witch (like her mum). But in this circumstance, it’s not about the friendship between Sarah and Nancy — it’s about the other followers in the clique, Bonnie and Rochelle, who side with which witch they deem more powerful. Which makes The Craft less a movie about how magic can lead you to friendship, but how that female friendship is fickle. Most importantly, this is the opposite of 1998’s Practical Magic.
One of my favourite movies in the world, Practical Magic revolves around two sisters who end up conjuring an evil spirit. After years spent being judged by the women in their community, Sally and Gillian ask the women around them to help banish it. And boy, do they ever: women in PTA garb flock to the house, hold hands and help to break the curse the family had been living under since the 1600s. Everybody’s friends, everybody’s close and everybody celebrates what makes Gillian and Sally so special. It is a film that unlike The Craft (released two years before) can show how magic is about sisterhood and unification. This time, it’s a lasting bond.
6. THE BLACK COMEDY: NOT YOUR FRIENDS
Three years before Thelma & Louise, Heathers set the stage for the frenemy discussion, particularly as Veronica teams up with her boyfriend to ultimately kill the cool kids. Which doesn’t exactly come out of nowhere: the Heathers are mean to Veronica. They control her, manipulate her and expect her to dein to the same social hierarchy they’ve grown accustomed to. And yet, she sticks around, willingly. To quote Winona, “Well it’s just like — they’re people I work with, and our job is being popular and shit.”
This is reminiscent of Tina Fey’s excellent screenplay for Mean Girls, in which new student Cady begins to enjoy her place amongst The Plastics, despite her penchant for sabotaging them. And while the end of these movies sees our awful clique rescind their throne, grow up and begin functioning like actual people, you can’t help but draw (PG) parallels to Jawbreaker, where the prom queen is killed by her friends by being gagged by just that. Which also reminds me of Drop Dead Gorgeous, a film in which a beauty competition leaves its young women injured, homeless and eventually dead — all at the hands of a particularly sadistic pageant competitor.
These women? They’re no one’s friends.
7. LIFE’S A MESS: UNITED THROUGH HARDSHIPS
You don’t have to be bright and shiny to breed friendship. In Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette, four women celebrate the impending marriage of their overweight friend Becky (who they affectionately name “Pig Face”), but not before they each come clean with their dirty laundry and inability to function. Which is exactly what makes their friendship stronger: amid admissions of addiction, unhappiness, eating disorders and general misery, they pause long enough to talk these things through and stop treating their pitfalls like punchlines. This narrative unfolding is similar to Girl, Interrupted, in which Susanna begins seeing her fellow patients like people after breaking away from Lisa, citing them as her friends and admiring the traits she overlooked upon first arriving to the mental ward.
8. AND IN CONCLUSION: THE FUTURE OF FEMALE FRIENDSHIP ONSCREEN AND OFF
While Thelma and Louise set a high bar for seeing two women explore the complexities of female friendship, we haven’t seen a movie exactly like it since. But here’s the thing: that dynamic can’t be replicated. Nor would we want it to be. Thelma & Louise was unique in the way it saw two women command their own narratives and prioritize a friendship exclusive to them. And since then, we’ve seen a slew of films do justice to the idea of female BFFs, but in ways that also serve the genre, the era and what audiences seem to want.
The issue for me isn’t the content revolving around female friendship, it’s that so few movies truly exist about it. And the movies we do have are very white, very heteronormative and usually, very upper class. Movies like The Help feature more than one type of female friendship (we see the frenemies in the bourgeois and the inequal-but-“equal” dynamics between white and black characters), but the story is whitewashed, failing to take into account the realities of life in Mississippi for people of colour and doing a disservice to those characters (and those who lived through it) by wrapping their narratives up in a neat little package. Movies like Save the Last Dance show us how Chenille helped Sarah fit in better with her predominantly black neighbourhood, but we don’t see the friendship from Chenille’s perspective — nor any of Chenille’s other friends (aside from Nikki, with whom Sarah falls out with, over a guy). And even 10 Things I Hate About You sees Chastity dump Bianca as a friend so she can hang with Joey Donner. (Which came out of nowhere and still confuses me to my very core.)
But there’s still time to turn this ship around. Especially by enlisting more female filmmakers to make more movies, and then by allowing those women to tell their own stories. Which seems scary, sure (especially when you think about the backlash Lena Dunham has gotten for Girls) — until you realize that TV is already doing a wonderful job of this.
Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, Gilmore Girls (who’s stoked for that reboot?), Broad City, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Grey’s Anatomy and Jessica Jones are a handful of titles that have breathed new light into female friendships in 2016. We watch as characters work together, share their feelings, argue, grow and call on each other for everything from emotional support to bringing down sociopathic villains played by David Tennant. And we get to because for the most part, female showrunners decided to write them, that’s it.
Which was all Callie Khouri did when creating Thelma & Louise. Female friendships weren’t new in 1991 when two badass broads took off for the roadtrip of a lifetime. And they’re not new now. So while we may cite our cinematic heroines as special — and they were — it’s no anomaly. Women become buds all the time in everyday life, it’s just up to us to bring them to the big screen. So Ghostbusters backlash be damned: let’s see more female friendships on film.