Picture: Karolin Schnoor


What can female friendships teach the world?

Would the world be a better, fairer place if we valued the essential femaleness of women’s friendships more, wonders Niamh Mulvey 

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By Niamh Mulvey on

For a straight woman, I have always been really into girls.  Even when it was fashionable to pretend you preferred being friends with guys – I could never do that. No one would have believed me, I was way too obviously into the ladies. Loved talking to them, drinking with them, making bad life choices with them. Still do. 

But as a teenager, I thought this meant I was less,  somehow. At that time, all of the creative stuff around me seemed to be done by boys. I had an inkling that I might be creative too – that I might like to act or write or whatever – but I felt completely unable to pursue these things. The boys I hung around with back then were all creative types (I was never interested in jocks and they did not care for my Have-you-read-Jude-the-Obscure-vibe either). But the lusty young artistes in Catholic school uniforms that I hung around with – they formed bands, put on plays, made comics, wrote screenplays. 

While us girls, me included, spent most of our time… chatting. Hanging out with each other – and the boys, when they tolerated us. And so secretly, I thought that, actually, men must just be more creative than women. They were more talented, more focused, and – despite the fact I pretty much wiped the floor with them academically – probably smarter too. My exam results were just proof of my limited imagination: real creatives flunked their exams and wrote songs and had penises. A girl could be brainy, but it took a boy to be a genius.

With the benefit of beautiful, glittering hindsight – I can see all of this for what it was. The reason the guys were so much more confident in their pursuit of music or drama or art or whatever was because they had been taught, from the moment they saw a TV screen or listened to the radio, that this was their remit. Their business.

At the moment, we can rejoice in the success of TV shows like Girls, Broad City, Orange is the New Black, and the pop culture canonisation of Tiny Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and their funny, subtle, complex representations of women and women’s relationships with each other. We also have Taylor Swift and her whole BFF thing – I think it’s sort of cringe – but if Taylor is doing it, well then you know there is value (as in dollar value) in it. Female friendship is officially hot right now. Amy Schumer and Jennifer Lawrence are probably texting each other vagina jokes at this very moment. 

But, and I’m really happy to be corrected on this by any blokes out there (joking, STFU and listen for a minute), I’m not sure all that many boys watch Girls. If you look beyond the TV shows and the personalities I’ve just mentioned (and I do run out of examples pretty quickly), out there in mainstream culture, things are still looking pretty blokey. Mainstream movies, for example – the Oscar-winning, Cineplex-playing kind, as well as the super-hero, popcorn blokebusters: it’s still pretty much all dicks on the dancefloor. Can you imagine anything more futile than waving the Bechdel test at the list of 2014’s highest grossing movies? And when these big movies do make a concession to this “feminism” we hear so much about, they get a woman, stick her in some sexy tight clothing and have her behave like a man (i.e. shoot things and be in really boring chase scenes).  

The fact is our culture, as a whole, ignores those aspects of “femaleness”, or characteristics typically associated with women, that are, actually, extremely positive and interesting and good for the world

Everyone says we solve sexism by getting women to behave like men. Girls should all be coding, leading STEM industries, putting themselves forward for parliament and going to see Michael Bay movies.

But isn’t there anything positive or useful in the feeble old maths-eschewing, birthday-remembering, feelings-sharing femaleness that we are currently saddled with? Men do control the world, mostly, so they have to be doing something right. But they are also much more likely than women to die by suicide. Or to suffer from serious drug problems. Or to be homeless. Or in prison.  Or to shoot little kids at a school. Or spend all night on Mens Rights Reddit forums complaining that the lady in the petrol station won’t look them in the eye. They don’t have it all figured out. 

The fact is our culture, as a whole, ignores those aspects of “femaleness”, or characteristics typically associated with women, that are, actually, extremely positive and interesting and good for the world – and good for men. We denigrate these things, we trivialise, mock and scorn them, but most of all we ignore them. We teach girls that their friendships with other girls might be the most fun and interesting aspect of their lives, but in the worldview, these friendships are unimportant. What matters are the relationships between a) men and other men and then b) men and women. Femininity (unless it is sexiness) is equated with weakness; girls and boys learn this to the detriment of us all. 

What if we started to recognise the strength women derive from each other? What if the culture around us recognised the life-affirming sustenance in those relationships – complicated, messy, competitive, and difficult as they often are? What if, instead of trying to solve gender inequality by encouraging women to behave like men, we encouraged men to behave like women

You don’t change the behaviours of an entire culture overnight. You change it bit by bit, day by day, character by character, song by song, film by film, TV show by TV show. And we need to change it not just for us women but for the men too. One day we’ll live in a gloriously un-gendered world where boys paint each others nails and talk all night, girls run the country (while still painting each other’s nails), and all of this turgid heteronormativity seems as alien as the 1950s feel to us now. And then girls won’t think their brains are worthless, and boys won’t feel driven to do violence to themselves or others because of sadness in their minds. 

I could not be more delighted about the current unapologetic visibility of female creativity. I think teenage me would probably have walked a little taller and wrote a bit more terrible poetry had it been around in my day. But, you know, I mostly had a great teenage-hood. And I enjoy life, I enjoy life a lot, despite my gender being routinely trivialised, mocked and ignored. And this has everything to do with all of the time I spend having silly chats with other girls. 


Picture: Karolin Schnoor
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the benefits of friends

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