I can’t be the only one who didn’t want Annie and Helen to make friends at the end of Bridesmaids. Not only because their wild attempts to sabotage each other’s good standing with mutual BFF Lillian were hilarious (drunk Annie trying to sneak into first class on their flight remains a personal highlight and a continually relatable meme). It’s also because their two characters served as a rare, welcome reminder that female leads don’t have to be best friends for a story about women to work.
Narratives that showcase the reality of womanhood in a complete, multifaceted way are wonderful. But they remain rare. Sure, we’ve seen a broader spectrum of female characters on screen recently; however, the way we’re positioned in relation to other women tends to be pretty formulaic.
We’re definitely not here for the way we’re pitted against each other as competition (yes, often for the attention of men). But on the other side of the Hollywood lady coin is our apparent fixation on a core group of female friends, and the bullshit myth that affection between women magically materialises the moment you throw a few of us in a room. We know that great friendships (should they materialise at all, for that matter) take time, effort, and aren't as superficial as they often seem on screen. So no, it isn't the most helpful stereotype for female ensemble films to rely on either.
It's one of the many reasons I'm thankful for Widows. 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen's new film was co-written with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn and is based on a British TV series from the 1980s. The film follows a group of women in Chicago who, under the leadership of Viola Davis' character, Veronica, attempt an epic robbery to recover the money that their late husbands owed some very bad guys. Beyond the fact that three of their partners were secretly involved in criminal activity which ultimately left them in debt when they died on a job, Veronica, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) have nothing in common except for grief and a need to survive.
Instead of forcing these women into one of those "unlikely friendship" storylines, they're allowed to operate together on a purely functional level. They're presented not as enemies, nor the BFFs whose circle you're desperate to jump into. Instead we understand them as allies, a crucial but underplayed middle ground in the vast arena of authentic female dynamics.
We’re given a brief snapshot of Veronica and her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) before his last exploit and their love for one another is heart-achingly clear. They're well off, live in a lavish apartment and seem intrinsically connected to one another. But outside of their relationship, we quickly learn that Veronica isn’t one to let her guard down with other people. After Harry’s death, her affection is saved only for her dog, Olivia, and we’ll be damned for assuming that the women with whom she’s thrust into cahoots are there to fulfil any companionship she may be missing.
Veronica recruits fellow widows Linda (who discovered her husband had been gambling away the money for the rent on her clothing store) and Alice (whose husband used to relentlessly abuse her) for practical reasons only – they’re also under threat from the men their husbands stole from and are drowning in financial difficulty. Belle (babysitter to Linda’s kids) only comes on board when the person they had hoped to use as a getaway driver is no longer available and, much like the others, she could really do with the cash.
As soon as we meet these women we know that Widows is no Ocean’s 8-style caper; a jolly robbery of an outlandish $30 million for shits, giggles and an easier life. Veronica’s team are after a relatively modest $3 million to fulfil an obligation they didn’t ask for and, incidentally, with that comes the type of agency that men are afforded whenever they star in one of these big budget action films – an initial indifference towards one another and a learned selfishness, without which the entire operation would be jeopardised.
Interestingly, the film focuses on their difficulties gelling with each other rather than using their incompatibility as a neatly packaged teaching point on how you can find friends anywhere. Respect for one another isn't immediate and each of these women is quick to throw judgement and aggression towards the others. Veronica and Alice actively grate against one another, eventually coming to blows after their differences – race, class, wealth – supersede the automatic empathy that's normally attached to female characters. Veronica and Belle, a black woman who is way down the social scale, also struggle to identify with one another; their disparity is evident the moment they're put in a room together.
While female friendship will forever be one of the strongest, most crucial bonds a woman will have throughout her life, it's neither a given nor implied with every circumstance in which women are forced into a shared scenario. Would it have been nice if the leading ladies of Widows all got along and ended the film sipping cocktails in a bar and laughing about the trauma that brought them together? Maybe. But it wouldn't have been a realistic depiction of what that level of closeness among women looks like in real life. It's wonderfully varied, it's hard-earned and it's incredibly special. However there's so much to be said for the function, strength and respect that comes from female allies – the space between enemies and inseparability – and as the space in which so many of our relationships operate, shouldn't we be seeing it depicted more on screen, too?
Widows is in cinemas now.