Several new books and films explore the complex relationships between women. Lucy Scholes explains why an issue once sidelined has come into the mainstream.

Emmeline and Cecilia, the protagonists of Elizabeth Bowen’s 1932 novel To the North happily share a house in London until Emmeline’s world is torn apart – when Cecilia announces she’s engaged to be married. “Timber by timber, Oudenarde Road fell to bits,” Emmeline thinks. “She saw the door open on emptiness: blanched walls as though after a fire. Houses shared with women are built on sand. She thought: ‘My home, my home.’”

Forty years on and across the Atlantic, Susan, the hero of Claudia Weill’s 1978 film Girlfriends finds herself standing on the same shifting sands in New York when her best friend and roommate Anne makes a similar announcement. Even for those who haven’t seen this relatively obscure film, the scenario will resonate with anyone who watched Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012), which is also about a woman caught off balance when she’s deserted by her best friend. Although both are very much strong individuals – the aspiring photographer Susan in Girlfriends, and the aspiring dancer Frances in Frances Ha – integral to these women’s identities is their relationship with their best friend and roommate. “We’re the same person, with different hair,” Frances says of her bosom buddy Sophie at the beginning of the film.

Cry Woolf?

What Frances Ha and Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture (2010) and her hit TV series Girls have in common are their zeitgeisty portrayals of what it’s like to be a young woman struggling to balance career, love life and friendships. The term ‘bromance’ has infiltrated popular culture in recent years, but despite the success of the likes of Dunham and Baumbach’s works, there’s yet to be a neat female-to-female equivalent, perhaps precisely because of the complexity involved in female friendships. They can be as formative and significant as romantic relationships: as mutually dependent, as supportive, but also as traumatic and toxic when they go wrong. As Virginia Woolf noted in her essay A Room of One’s Own, capturing these intricacies has traditionally presented a problem: “All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted.” Woolf would surely be pleased by the plethora of complex female friendship-focused narratives that exist today.

The most recent addition to the ever-growing female friendship canon is Emily Gould’s first novel, Friendship, the story of two 30-year-old best friends, Bev Tunney and Amy Schein, and their attempts to maintain their relationship as each of them is buffeted by life in New York. Amy – something of Gould’s alter ego – is struggling to pick up the pieces after an early career that brought her success and near-fame ended rather unceremoniously, while Bev is dealing with the fallout of an unplanned and unsupported pregnancy. Despite their closeness, they soon find their differing life choices put a strain on their friendship; growing up, they learn, sometimes means growing apart.

Friendship is Gould’s first novel but she’s made a career out of writing on a variety of popular blogs, the first of which led to a job at the New York-based gossip site Gawker as well as a collection of essays-cum-mini memoirs And the Heart Says Whatever (2009). The New York Times, re-visiting Gould on the eve of the publication of Friendship, pointed out, “a case could be made that Ms. Gould’s warts-and-all brand of self-exposure anticipated a wave of confessional writing that paved the way for Girls”.

These more realistic antidotes to the materialistic, unfeasibly expensive, sartorially obsessed Sex and the City of late 1990s/early 2000s, might also be considered the fictional incarnations of the fourth wave feminism advocated by the likes of Caitlin Moran, the British newspaper columnist, who, since the publication of her book How to Be a Woman, has become something of a poster child for the cause, along with Dunham. “Do you believe that women should be paid the same for doing the same jobs?” the writer and actress asked in an interview last year, railing against women who claim not to be feminists. “Do you believe that women should be allowed to leave the house? Do you think that women and men both deserve equal rights? Great, then you’re a feminist.”

A woman’s world

So does the current popularity of female friendship-focused culture simply follow the fairly rich, although often overlooked, tradition of female friendships in literature and film? Or, does it specifically reflect this new wave of feminism? Carol Dyhouse, in her study Girl Trouble: Panic and Protest in the History of Young Women, says this feminism, and Moran’s book in particular,  is characterised by “common sense”; for example, about how we reconcile our career ambitions with having a family without, as Amy puts it in Friendship, “fetishizing… children and domesticity and making it seem like they are the goals of women’s lives, the only legitimate goals women’s lives can have”?

In Friendship the relationship between the two central characters allows for the working through of conflicting ideas about how best to be a modern woman. How, for example, does a woman like Amy who feels so strongly about the shackles of motherhood, learn to respect and appreciate the choice Bev makes without looking down on her?

The fact that Girlfriends, despite being nearly 40 years old, sets up a similar scenario between its two central characters reminds us that these problems aren’t as new as we might think. The film was recently screened at the British Film Institute in London to packed audiences who wanted to see ‘the original Frances Ha/Girls’. Similarly, Rona Jaffe’s novel of career girls in 1950s New York, The Best of Everything, originally published in 1958, was republished and found a newly appreciative audience three years ago after the character Don Draper was seen reading it in Mad Men. There is clearly a huge appetite for these stories right now: issues that were once sidelined have now become mainstream.

Look between the cracks, and there’s a healthy tradition of female friendship narratives that crosses literary genres: from Edna O’Brien’s take on two best friends “brazening the big city”, this time Dublin, in The Country Girls (1960); through Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963), a tale of friendships born during the protagonists’ time at Vassar (incidentally, Frances and Sophie’s alma mater in Frances Ha); Shirley Conran’s ‘bonkbuster’ Lace (1982),  more a story of the lasting power of female friendships than anything else; and most recently, British novelist Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel Animals (2014), the story of the close relationship between two female friends in Manchester as they hurtle around the city’s bars, clubs and drug dens.

Although in many ways examples like Girlfriends and The Best of Everything are very much products of the period they were filmed or written in, there’s something refreshingly contemporary in their focus on female friendships. These examples, from Bowen through to Gould, show that female friendships play just as significant roles in women’s lives today as they always have, it’s just taken a while for them to be seen and taken seriously, and this new-found emphasis is filtering down through all genres of film, literature and TV. Take the TV show Grey’s Anatomy for example; the friendship between the lead character Meredith Grey and her best friend and fellow surgeon Christina Yang – each other’s “person”, a phrase echoed by Frances and Sophie in Frances Ha – has always been just as important, and thus made for as addictive viewing, as the on-off romance between Meredith and the brain surgeon Derek Shepherd, not to mention Christina’s romantic entanglements. And about time too, for as Woolf shrewdly summarised it, the depiction of a woman seen only in relation to men, “how small a part of a woman’s life is that”.

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