The title of this post is also the title of the talk that I gave at the PagesUnbound event: “Girl Crush: Conversations About Female Friendship.” (There will now be a reading series, and you should like them on Facebook so that you don’t miss out next time!) I promised pals who weren’t in Toronto or who couldn’t get tickets before they sold out, that I would post my talk for them to read. But first some words about how awesome it was to be a part of this event.
First of all, it was super awesome to be in a room filled with women/womyn who had come with their lady pals on a date to hear five women talk about the trials and tribulations of friendship, but also to celebrate it. I was surprised that all of the speakers agreed on one thing (and we totally didn’t coordinate our talks beforehand): friendships can be messy, they can be complicated, and they’re not always pretty. So instead of viewing the not-so-great times as a sign of failure, we can read these moments as just part of the fluidity of friendship (and here I’m borrowing the term “friendship fluidity” from Natalie, my BFF and fellow speaker at Girl Crush). Friendships might take different forms and shapes at particular moments in your life. And yes, that might be a scary feeling — but that fear comes out of this narrative that friendship is a stable category. Sometimes you grow with one another, and sometimes you grow apart, and sometimes you come back together, and sometimes you don’t.
I was talking with a friend last night about how we don’t yet have a language for mourning friendships. We can cry when a romantic relationship ends, but we don’t give ourselves that same room when a friendship is no longer working out. I hope that as friendship continues to take the spotlight in pop culture, as well as academia, we might be able to shift how we think about it as somehow always stable and also ungrievable.
Hideous Friendships; Or a Girl’s Relationship with Her Bestie
Okay, so you might have guessed, based on my bio, that there’s a link between this talk and my dissertation work: the hideosity of adolescence and hideous friendships. And you would be right. What I’m going to do is draw upon some of the work in my dissertation chapter on ambivalence and female besties, but I want to do so by turning to some cultural objects that I didn’t have space to talk about the chapter: namely Lena Dunham’s television show Girls, as well as the Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels that everyone including my self has been reading as of late. In the chapter I explore how ambivalence is not antithetical to friendship: with love comes hate, with awe comes disgust. If I were to sum up that chapter in one sentence, it would be: ambivalence can foster intimacy rather than destroy it. So part of what I want to talk about is ambivalence. But first I should probably explain how I use the word “hideous” in my dissertation and why I see ambivalence as one element of what makes an object, person, or relationship, hideous.
So some questions and then some answers – I hope: what is this hideousness or hideosity that I speak of? What makes a friendship – particularly that between besties – hideous? What would it mean for a friendship between girls to be hideous? And could a hideous friendship produce intimacy? That is probably the most you’ve ever heard the word hideous used in the span of thirty seconds. You might be asking yourself: why the word hideous? Why don’t I just say ugly or monstrous or some other similar term? Well, if you’ll permit me to nerd out for a moment, I’ll offer my explanation by way of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED defines “hideous” as that which is “frightful […] horribly ugly or unpleasing, repulsive, revolting” to the senses, as well that which is “tremendously or monstrously large.” So what is hideous is not just ugly, but its excessively, tremendously, or monstrously large. The hideosity of adolescence, then, denotes all of the “excessive” aspects of adolescence, from the physical changes the body undergoes (pimples, menstruation, and budding breasts) to the emotional and psychological changes (mood swings, loneliness, self-consciousness, and need for validation). Teen girls don’t have just have feelings; they have ALL THE FEELINGS. So to recap: hideousness marks that which is ugly, frightful, repulsive, and that which is “too much.”
But hideousness is also the site of ambivalence. We can and often do feel both attraction and repulsion in relation to the object of desire. To borrow the words of the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, what we’ve learnt from Freud is that “we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate we love, wherever we love we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us we always believe they can satisfy us.” In Freud’s view, “ambivalence is the way we recognise that someone or something has become significant to us […] wherever there is an object of desire there must be ambivalence” (“Against” n.p.). If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m pretty on board with Freud’s argument. But I want to ask what if ambivalence wasn’t just something that we need to accept? What might mean if ambivalence could produce greater intimacy with those we love? What makes a female friendship hideous is that in these relationships we often see a blurring of oppositions (fear and desire, terror and awe, hatred and love). For many, there is something unconventional at best and monstrous at worst in the presence of the excessive and often contradictory feelings that come up in our intimate relations with others. I would like to ask whether we must we read these hideous intimacies, with all of their ambivalences, as doomed to fail? And a related question, which I’ll return to throughout this talk: why do we have such a hard time making space for representations of female friendship that are messy, imperfect, and often leave us feeling ambivalent?
Okay! Now that all of those questions and terms are floating around in the ether, I’ll try to ground them in a couple of examples.
Lena Dunham has explained how she was frustrated by the flawless representations of female friendship on television: “One of the things that’s frustrated me about female friendship on television in the past is we see a lot of depictions that suggest once you are BFFs, you are always BFFs. But it’s one of the most tough, volatile relationships you’ve ever had.” We see this volatility come to life throughout Girls, but particularly in Season Three’s “Beach House” episode, when the girls’ weekend vacation to the titular beach house falls apart. Deciding that the four girls (Hannah, Jessa, Marnie, and Shoshana) need to reconnect, Marnie plans a weekend getaway at a family friend’s beach house. But things quickly go awry when Hannah runs into her ex-boyfriend Elijah and invites him and his friends back to the beach house to hang out. Essentially Marnie loses her shit because she’s planned this adorable French meal for four that now has to be shared by eight. At one point in the episode she laments: “I thought that this would be a good opportunity to have fun together and prove to everyone via Instagram that we can still have fun as a group.”
In the penultimate scene of the episode, things get real when Shoshanna calls the girls out on some of their behaviors, at one moment telling Hannah that, “I wanted to fall asleep in my own vomit all day listening to you talk about how you bruise more easily than other people.” Shoshanna, I would argue, is not the first or only person to feel like vomiting and to perhaps even take pleasure in that vomit, in the face of a friend. The next morning there are no grand reconciliations and apologies. Rather, as the four girls sit hung over, waiting for their bus to take them back to the city, they slowly join together in a dance routine that they learned from Elijah and co. the night before.
I assigned this episode to the class I’m currently taking called “Girls and Sex in the 21st Century” – yes, it is the best course ever. Each week a student or a group of students picks the readings and leads the discussion. Quite selfishly, as I knew I would be giving this talk, I made everyone watch this episode so that I could hear their reactions. I can sum them up as follows: “these are not healthy relationships and we need women to be in healthy relationships if we want feminism to succeed.” On the one hand I agree with this sentiment: solidarity is something we should all be working towards. And I get why people might be upset by representations of female friendship that don’t feel very feminist. But this makes me wonder: are fraught and messy relationships between women antithetical to feminism? The answer, for me anyways, is no – and there are many reasons for this. I’ll share the first now and save the last for later.
The first is that I believe what Dunham captures in this episode and throughout Girls is that sometimes there is nothing more complicated than a girl’s relationship with her bestie. Sometimes you love them, sometimes you hate them, sometimes you can not tell one feeling from the other, and sometimes sleeping in your own vomit is more pleasurable than hearing them talk about their bruises. With kindness and love comes envy, jealously, and other “ugly feelings,” to borrow Sianne Ngai’s phrase (2007). In a world rife with ambivalent friendships, not to mention the dreaded frenemy, it would appear that Aristotle’s famous statement, “O my friends, there is no friend,” rings true. But given all that Girls has shown us, not to mention countless other films that document the ups and downs of female friendship, from the 90s cult classic Clueless to the more recent Frances Ha (2014), I would like to rephrase Aristotle’s statement – “O my friends, there is no friend” – as follows: “O my friends, there is no friendship that is not ambivalent.”
We can see this ambivalence take shape in Elena Ferrante’s much loved (as they should be) Neapolitan novels. In these four novels, totaling some 1700 pages (I’m now 200ish pages away from finishing the saga and as I say that I wonder whether or not it was a great idea for me to base an argument on a set of books that I haven’t completely finished reading… but I’m going to go for it). In the novels we watch Elena and Lila’s friendship grow and change as they mature from children to adults. Just to give some backstory (and I hope to avoid any spoilers) Elena has always felt jealous of Lila, who she realizes is more brilliant that she is. But Lila just so happens to make some very poor life decisions, like getting married to a pretty awful dude when she’s 16. Elena on the other hand, succeeds in all of the ways that Lila should have: Elena graduates high school and goes to university. She marries into a prominent family and gets out of the impoverished Naples where she and Lila have grown up. She becomes a fairly famous writer.
In the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena describes her vexed feelings towards her best friend Lila: “From the chaotic feeling I had inside, the desire that Lila would get sick and die was re-emerging. Not out of hatred, I loved her more and more, I wouldn’t have been capable of hurting her. But I couldn’t bear the emptiness of her evasion” (339). This is just one of many quotations that I could have pulled describing the tension between these two best friends, a tension that goes back to the days of their adolescence. While many would read these lines as a sign of a toxic friendship, I’m more inclined to agree with Molly Fischer, who wrote in her essay on the series for the New Yorker that “the angst isn’t a sign of pathology, nor does it ultimately threaten their bond. The immutable fact of their friendship accommodates conflict that could fracture a marriage or estrange a parent. Their rivalry magnetizes them: each is the one the other trusts, and so fears. Lila and Elena make each other vividly miserable.”
And yet this is not the story of friendship that mainstream pop psychology books on the dreaded frenemy would have you believe. Elena and Lila are best friends, and yet, according to psychologist Karen Fingerman’s description of the frenemy, they are anything but. For Fingerman, the frenemy is “a friend who drives you nuts … You love them, you don’t want to lose them, but they’re really a pain.” And it is exactly this kind of friendship – filled with mixed emotions – that researchers are saying is bad for your health: from causing high blood pressure to increasing one’s risk for depression. In addition to the dangers listed above, psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad warns us that once you develop ambivalent feelings for a person, “future interactions with that person may be judged through that lens.” So in other words: ambivalence = bad, no good, danger.
Now I’m no researcher ,so perhaps the assertion that I’m going to make is a rather bold one; perhaps you should take it with a grain of salt. But I want to push back against these studies that use binaries of healthy and unhealthy to talk about friendships. Because really, as I’ve taken us through some examples from literature and pop culture, what I’ve hoped to show is just how easy it is to feel ambivalent about our friends. We feel so attached to the idea of “likeability” that we lose sight of the ways in which we often love that which isn’t likeable.
I’d like to end my talk by returning to a question that I posed earlier: are fraught and messy relationships between women antithetical to feminism? I’d like to answer this question by turning to a beautiful quote from Sara Ahmed that sums up the kinds of relationships that these texts present us with, and, I believe, a model for ethical relations with the other. In her book Willful Subjects, Ahmed writes: “Rather than the experience of bumping into each other being a sign of the failure of the relationship, or even the failure of someone in a relationship to be responsive, it can be understood as a form of relationship in which bodies have not simply adjusted to each other. When bumping is understood as a form of relationship, it is no longer experienced as that which must be overcome […] Rather than equality being about smoothing a relation perhaps equality is a bumpy ride” (51). What we see in Girls and Ferrante’s novels is people bumping into one another, sometimes because the characters have failed to understand the other and their needs. But such bumping, which I’ve read here as being located in ambivalence, in the hideousness of female friendship, such bumping I’d like to think, signifies an attempt, a desire to see the other, to respond to their needs; or maybe we bump into one another because we want the other, our friend, to see us, but we don’t know how to do that. We might not always get it right, but I sure hope that we keep trying.
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This post was written by Margeaux