By Samantha Gabriele
It has recently come to my attention that we suffered a great loss in television last year. And no, I’m not talking about the end of Breaking Bad or True Blood. We lost two of television’s greatest friends. In my opinion, two of the best female friendships to be put on television in the last decade are that of Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey (Grey’s Anatomy) and Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins (Parks and Recreation).
Sadly, these friendships exist only as fond memories now that the actresses playing Yang and Perkins have parted from their respective shows. In the wake of my grief over losing two amazing characters and actresses, I got to thinking about what we have on television now. Who would replace them? In their absence, who will be the new poster gals for friendship? Who is going to rip off their best friend’s wedding dress because they can’t breathe? Who is going to go to Galentine’s Day brunch? Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with an answer.
The sad truth is, there are just too few shows currently on air that involve female characters interacting with one another, let alone carrying on a friendship. So, my question is: Where have all the positive representations of female friendship in television gone?
Friendship is such an essential part of womanhood, especially female friendship. This is not to say that all women do or should have female friends, but those that do greatly treasure them and consider them essential aspects of their lives. But, it seems that television only understands female friendship as disjointed and rooted in jealousy and/or secret resentment (ahem, Glee). For many of us, this is obviously not how our friendships work.
The important thing to recognize here is that the way women are portrayed as friends is actually an indirect comment on women in general. Let’s take Girls. Here you have your run-of-the-mill show about four twenty-something white girls living in Brooklyn trying to make sense of the world. I personally enjoy that a majority of these characters are incredibly unlikable because they each represent privilege in their own way and it makes room for comedy, but these four girls’ friendships take a serious hit because of it. It can be argued that the show is just trying to portray real life and the ups and downs of friendship, but in the three seasons Girls has been on the air, I don’t think the four main characters have ever been on good terms with each other all at the same time.
It doesn’t even make sense that these people are friends. This is supposed to be a show about young women and their experiences, and apparently that means that women rarely experience functional friendships because they are too self-centered to care. The only good thing we get is the occasional heart-warming scene between Hannah and Jessa, which usually involves a bath. I mean Adam and Ray hung out with each other for like twenty minutes in one episode and they seemed like better friends than Marnie and Hannah ever were.
Actually, the negative representation of female friendship on television becomes more obvious when juxtaposed with men and male friendships. Male friendship on TV seems to always happen naturally. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, it’s convenient. Because guys don’t get emotional and just don’t care about the stuff girls do, right? For instance, let’s look at Red Band Society, one of my favorite new shows this year. The series is based in a hospital and focuses on six children who live there due to various diseases and conditions. Two of the six teenagers, one boy and one girl, are new to the hospital and introduced in the pilot episode. The new boy and one of the resident boys have a rough start getting along, but that lasts for about two minutes and they almost automatically become friends and by the end of the episode show incredible trust in each other.
The female characters on the other hand have a heightened rough start, which turns into genuine resentment and disdain that continues well into the second episode. It’s clear to me that the writers are working towards an “unlikely friendship” here, but obviously the girls have to go through the “catty phase” before they can become friends.
As viewers, we are constantly fed the idea that women are automatically intimidated by each other and have to be rivals before they can become friends because there are barriers that need to be broken down. Now this may be true in some cases, but we rarely see men having this issue — as if they aren’t competitive or territorial. Men get to have bromances and women get to have frenemies.
Another issue with the portrayal of female friendship on television is the inability to balance romance and friendship. For example, where did all of Mindy’s girlfriends go on The Mindy Project? I know it was announced last year that Anna Kemp’s character would be in less scenes, but the three women we had been introduced to as Mindy’s best friends are now completely absent from the show. And, their absence just so happens to coincide with the romantic arc of Mindy and Danny. I’m not saying this is a direct cause and effect, but television almost always makes it seem like women only hang out with their girlfriends when they’re single or their significant other is busy, freeing them for a fun girls’ night.
But, c'mon! Women can actually have friendships and a romantic relationship at the same time. Unfortunately, this is something we rarely see in television anymore. Romantic relationships do often require more time and commitment, especially when they are new, but women usually don’t just stop being friends with people when they enter a relationship. At least not for the long term. Basically, what I’m trying to say is, I miss Mindy Lahiri’s friends; they’re some of my favorite characters. Producers, please bring them back.
Okay, enough negative talk. Despite the small number of female characters that have actual, supportive friendships on TV, there are three in particular that I think are worth mentioning. They may not be Ann/Leslie or Meredith/Cristina level yet, but I think they’ll get there in time. *Crosses fingers*
1. Olivia and Abbey — Scandal
Now it can be argued that Olivia doesn’t really have a great relationship with anyone, but if I had to pick one person it would be Abbey (I know you’re probably saying “what about Huck?” but just think about that a little bit, and you’ll have your answer.) Olivia and Abbey have an unconditional friendship. Don’t we all cry a little bit in between sips of our wine every time they share an “over a cliff” moment? Abbey keeps Olivia grounded and reminds her why she’s in this business in the first place.
Unlike Harrison, Abbey doesn’t just do everything Liv says, no questions asked. She’s not afraid to call her out. She feels indebted to her because Olivia helped her out of her abusive marriage, but their friendship goes beyond that. Abbey is the one person who forces Olivia to earn being able to put the white hat on at the end day.
2. Max and Caroline — 2 Broke Girls
I love this friendship because we got to watch this friendship form, much like Leslie's and Ann's friendship. These two girls come from different backgrounds and have different outlooks on a lot of situations, but there is a support system here that is strong and incredibly special. Their best friend status has been upgraded to family through the years and that is the kind of relationship that made Sex and the City resonate with so many women. As the classic saying goes, sometimes our friends are the family we choose for ourselves.
3. Taystee and Poussey — Orange is the New Black
This is an excellent example of a friendship that’s awesome and quite complicated. For one, these women are in prison. Secondly, there is an unrequited love aspect to this relationship, which makes for moments of great tension and heartbreak, but these two characters have each other’s best interest at heart. The foundation that Taystee and Poussey’s friendship has was strong enough to bring them back after a brief falling out, and I feel confident saying that it was a beautiful and satisfying moment for everyone.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I know how television works. I know there has to be something to draw conflict from for story purposes, which is why a lot of the problems listed above exist. But, when you put all these shows together in the greater context of television in general, things aren’t looking so good for women. Outside the world of TV, we are constantly preaching the idea that women need to support each other and join forces to fight inequality.
So, why aren’t we demonstrating that idea more in our storytelling? Why aren't we being exposed to more shows that care about the power of the female friendship? TV that isn't afraid to let female friends have their ups and downs only to emerge as better, stronger friends? I’m not saying we need to romanticize things — Cristina and Meredith were far from perfect — but I think we could use some more positive to balance the negative.