Female Friendships: Hitting All the Right Notes

Over Thanksgiving break last year, I went to see Pitch Perfect. The movie revolves around Beca, a college freshman who joins the campus all-female a cappella group. When I first saw the trailer for the movie, a woman next to us derisively said, “That’s a teenage movie.” I thought she was probably right, so when my sister initially suggested seeing it, I thought it would be kind of fun but I didn’t expect too much. That’s why I was so completely taken aback by my whole-hearted enjoyment of it. I was having such a good time that I was actually smiling throughout the entire movie.

This never happens to me, so of course I started wondering what was causing my delight. Although fun, the music and dancing were Aca-awesomenothing spectacular, the plot was highly predictable and the actors – while good – were not required by the script to turn in Oscar caliber performances. And then it hit me. Most of the movie was about the members of the all-female group. They were unique, diverse, confident, and (here is one of the most important points) they were interested in female friendship.  In fact, the vast majority of their conversations did not revolve around men but were instead about themselves and their goals! This is a much bigger deal than it might seem.

Although the status of women may be improving, many mainstream movies and television shows keep women characters on the backburner. Many of them exist solely for romantic purposes and are not fully developed characters in their own right. This has been so much the case that in 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel drew a strip called The Rule which described what is now called the Bechdel Test. In order to pass the test, the movie or television show has to follow three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it; (2) who talk to each other; (3) about something besides a man. It seems like such a simple test but you would be surprised how many television shows and movies fail it. Perfect Pitch wasn’t one of them and I absolutely loved that!

Not only was the movie focused on women but on a specific type of woman. Although all of the characters had their flaws, overall they were incredibly self-confident. They knew what they wanted to achieve, they owned their sexuality, and many of them were self-assured about their bodies. One character even nicknamed herself Fat Amy so that she would be in control of how people talked about her. Over the course of the movie, each of the main group members stopped being afraid and started embracing who she truly was. The mousy girl literally found her voice, the uptight one stopped repressing how she felt in order to please her father, the easygoing one accepted her limitations and found a new talent, and the main character started being open to intimate relationships again. Given how much popular culture encourages women to stay in our tightly constrained box of romantic relationships and supporting players, this was indeed a breath of fresh air and provided a great example for the rest of us.

And then there was the emphasis on female friendship. This too was wonderful but, unlike the self-confidence piece, this one is a bit trickier. The movie did show a broader range of women’s friendship dynamics, starting with them being initially insulting to each other and culminating in the typical catfight. However, from there Pitch Perfect did take a new turn as it allowed the catfight become a way for the women grow closer together. The group members took the unusual step of having each woman talk about herself, thereby allowing the others to understand the motivations for her behavior. By the end of the movie, they were much tighter and their newfound closeness was probably one of the reasons they won their competition (sorry if that was a spoiler but did you really think they wouldn’t win?).

Of course, fun movies like Pitch Perfect make it all look so easy but the truth is that the dynamics of women’s friendship are very complicated. For example, take another look at female interpersonal dynamics, this time from the ABC show Last Resort (a show that in no way passes the Bechdel Test). In the most recent episode, one woman gave another woman a hug and told her to be careful. The woman who was hugged responded by saying that she doesn’t have many female friends, mostly because she views them as competition to be burned. While I may hate hearing her say that, unfortunately for many women, this is true.

I have seen girls and women be unkind, derogatory, jealous and competitive towards other women. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard women say (with a certain kind of pride) that their friends are mostly men because women cannot be trusted. My response is generally that they just don’t know the right kind of women but I have to admit that there is a certain truth to their observation. So, what is going on with women? Why do we put friends on the backburner, view them with suspicion, and are competitive with them (usually for men)?

The answer is, of course, quite complex but it mostly has to do with internalized sexism. As you might imagine, the concept of internalized sexism is quite complicated but the short definition is that it is the involuntary belief by women of the sexist messages present in our society. Women then reinforce these beliefs by acting out stereotypes, doubting themselves and disliking other women (also known as horizontal hostility). It is important to understand that we all, regardless of our level of awareness, are affected by it and some more than others.

The way this often manifests itself with female friendships is that women often blame ourselves for our oppression instead of realizing that it is due to the unjust system in which we live. We constantly hear and see messages about the inadequacy of women in general and of female friendships in particular. That’s one reason why finding solid female friends in the mass media is so difficult. If you don’t believe me, just start listing the number of male buddy movies compared to the number of female buddy movies and you’ll see what I mean. Given how much garbage we get, is it any wonder that we frequently tend to side with the “male” point of view and devalue the “female” perspective – in ourselves, other women, and even in men. Even Pitch Perfect had a bit of that going on with female characters talking about having the male genitalia that is synonymous with being courageous and their general body image issues but, for the most part, it steered clear. How I wish that would be true in the real world!

The truth is, if women were to band together as cohesively as the young singers did the in movie, then our world would change. Women can be the best friends. They frequently are the ones who will listen, understand your perspective and provide unflinching support and encouragement. We all need that but especially those of us who are struggling to make it in a world which tells us more often what we can’t do than what we can. That is why Pitch Perfect hit all the right notes. It not only presented us with the depiction of confident women, it celebrated them. The movie not only showed female friendship but it did so in a positive way and made them the stars of their own story. Although Pitch Perfect could have ended the way a lot of movies do – with the credits rolling immediately following the romantic pairing getting together – but it didn’t. Instead, the ending made it crystal clear that this was the group’s story because the conclusion showed them recruiting for the new school year, preparing to continue on the group’s traditions of singing and friendship. And that was aca-awesome.

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