The true loves of a woman’s life are her female friends. They might last a lifetime, or fizzle out after a few months. Female friendships are chemical reactions, between women filled to the brim with volatility and fuel, sending off sparks as they collide. Partners come and go, they say, but friendships last forever. Unless they don’t.
When we were young, friendships flared fast, two pigtails in the playground, giggling about the contents of our lunchboxes. It was easy and uncomplicated, fights passing as quick as our 5th re-watching of High School Musical. Given time to burn, these foetal connections go one of two ways.
One: burning out completely, until one day in your mid-twenties when you bump into them in the corner shop in your hometown when you’re visiting for your mum’s birthday, and you have a quick chat, awkwardly laughing as you both wonder how to fit two decades worth of divergence into a three minute conversation in front of the dairy fridge.
Two: smouldering strong and slow, through first kisses and first periods, A-Levels and video calls during Fresher’s Week. These are the lifelong friends, who have seen every facet of your personality, and still like you anyway. You’re each other’s person, like Christina and Meredith in Grey’s Anatomy, sticking together through thick and thin, through every other failed relationship and career. Despite flickers of rage and hurt, the flame never goes out. They are always there, a coal fire that burns for a lifetime.
Other friends don’t last the test of time. You start with laughter, burning bright and hot. You ignore the warning signs, the way they talk over you and only check in when they need something, the things they say when you’re not around. But eventually, the fire starts to go out. The things that they do that used to fill you with joy begin to rust, decaying, falling apart at the seams. Sometimes, they hurt you. Sometimes, you hurt them. It might end in an explosion, throats raw from screaming, mascara and tears streaming down two faces. Or, it might end in a cold war, with furtive glances, spreading rumours and boiling acid in your gullet. Both leave you raw, with a seam of scar tissue where your hand used to hold theirs on the way to get coffee. Both hurt more than you could have ever imagined.
Women are often said (especially by my own mother) to be more naturally ‘bitchy’ than men, and incapable of having female friends without falling out all the time or talking behind each other’s backs. This stereotype is perpetuated by countless films and TV shows; you don’t exactly have programs called The Real House-Husbands of Orange County (although I for one would definitely watch that). Female friendship is so often portrayed as fake or shallow, only there for the financial or social-hierarchical gain. Mean Girls, Bridesmaids, and Bride Wars are all movies centred around female friendships that, for the most part, are pretty unrealistic to the nuanced relationships that women actually share. Women in real life are much more complicated than Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson, pettily ruining each other’s lives just because they happen to have booked their weddings on the same day. The reality of female friendship can be explosive, of course, but it can also be all different kinds of fire, keeping us warm.
Films that get it right include Booksmart and Ladybird, which showcase the trials and tribulations that come with a tight-knit friendship and the effects that the two women and their decisions have on the other. There’s shared jokes and secret languages, but there’s also jealousy and resentment.
Sometimes we can move past envious feelings, but often friendships can end because of this jealousy. Envy might manifest when they get a promotion and you don’t, when they get engaged and you’re still single, when they seem to be living a life of domestic bliss with a wife and a dog and you’re still sleeping on a futon in your one-bed apartment. Women are pitted against each other all the time, as a result of society tying our inherent value to how ‘good’ we look and how successful we are compared to other women. We are taught, by growing up consuming media like Mean Girls, that we should constantly compare ourselves to other women, and if we aren’t doing as well as our sister or best friend then we should think of ourselves as a failure.
A study in DIW Berlin Discussion Paper No. 1638 has shown that women are less willing than men to compete against others, due to a lack of confidence that they will ‘win’. They are more likely to compete against standards set by themselves. This personal competition can be triggered by Imposter Syndrome and not feeling qualified for a job, or perhaps pressure to perform well in a male-dominated industry. For a lot of us, however, these standards are set by ourselves to be measured against the success of the women in our lives. We have to unlearn the idea that the success of our female friends is something to mourn if we don’t share in it. To be truly happy for our friends’ accomplishments is to free ourselves from the patriarchy’s Super Smash Brawl of woman vs woman. Maybe without the erosive influence of envy and self-hatred, more friendships will last the test of time, and we can pull each other up.
Our female friendships will shape the way we see the world and the way we see ourselves. A lifelong companion can show you how to love and be loved, and how to see yourself in the eyes of someone who values you. A horrible heartbreak from ending a friendship can also teach you what you need from the people close to you, and what you really don’t. It can teach you to value yourself and your needs, and to cut ties with toxic influences in your life. You can see into other people’s experiences, into their dreams and their troubles and their worries. You can live other lives vicariously, reading them like the pages of a book, experiencing the highs and lows.
In a world where women are told we aren’t good enough and that other women are out to get us, we must band together, nurturing our friendships, feeding them with firewood. To experience the laughter and the tears of sharing yourself with your friends isn’t just an honour, but also an act of defiance. Don’t let the flames go out.
By Jess Thomson
Main image by Jess Thomson