Yesterday, a reader emailed me a really interesting blog post from the New York Times Motherlode blog. (Thanks, Leah, for passing it along!) The piece, entitled “The Myth of ‘Real’ Female Friendships” is a response to a critique of the new novel The Marriage Plot in a recent issue of The Atlantic. (You follow?)
Between the two articles, there are a number of interesting arguments worth noting here.
Let’s start with the original Atlantic article. The author, Eleanor Barkhorn, argues that the one major problem with the book (which I haven’t read so I can’t weigh in) is that main character has no close friends. This absence makes the character unrealistic, Barkhorn claims. “Real women have true friends,” she writes. “Not friends they secretly hate, not friends they are in constant competition with, but friends they care about and can talk to and who understand them.” Barkhorn says that this protagonist, especially, should have friends because “women who love books…are especially prone to close friendships with women because there is an obvious subject to talk about: books.”
Barkhorn goes on to explain that plenty of novelists miss this vital aspect of female characters’ lives. She references The Bechdel Test, which “suggests that for a story to be even a somewhat realistic portrayal of women, it must have ‘at least two female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man.'”
Judith Warner’s response in The New York Times basically says that the assumption that all women have a close group of friends is, well, bogus. Her problem, she says “is with the idea, which I find pretty widespread, that there’s one real or typical or ‘normal’ way to experience good, positive and sustaining female friendship.” Warner has friends, she says, but they aren’t interested in knowing what she’s up to every day, or always having long, deep, conversations. “Are we less real women for this? Are we less ‘real’ friends?” she asks.
Both writers have good points. Female characters who are supposed to be fully formed seem less real to me when they don’t have a single close friend or confidant. I even wrote a post about this a while back—though the post is about Twilight’s Bella Swan, who is hardly the most fleshed out character in literary history. Or realistic. Given the fact that, you know, she birthed a vampire.
In real life, it seems to me that most women have at least someone they can confide in–a faraway friend, a sister, a BFF.
That said, the idea that women who like books are more likely to have friends is ludicrous. Sure, we readers can talk about books. But can’t women who like cooking talk about recipes? And women who love quilting talk about quilts? The idea that the love of reading makes you more prone to—or deserving of—friends is, dare I say, totally elitist.
And yes, I believe, like Warner, that all friendships are valid. Female friends are important because they help women feel emotionally fulfilled. If your friendships aren’t especially deep and don’t involve frequent interaction, and that works for you, great. If you are getting what you need out of your existing relationships, then your friendships do the trick.
At the end of her post, Warner writes of her unease with the American emphasis on female friendship. “As the mother of two girls (ages 11 and 14), I have long been concerned about the new BFF culture for girls — I think it’s not just cheaply commercial (those necklaces!) but also kind of oppressive. There’s something compulsory-feeling to me, too, about the notion that a woman can realize her full human potential only if she’s plugged in, all the time, to her friends. It’s not an idea I want my own girls to feel pressed to accept.”
Clearly, I’m a proponent of, and participant in, the BFF culture. I long for those necklaces! I spout research week after week about why we need BFFs. But if shows like Sex and the City didn’t dangle friendships in front of me like a carrot, would I have still felt as friendless when I arrived in Chicago? I’m not sure. I think so, but I probably wouldn’t have longed for Sunday brunch buddies as much. Carrie and the girls had what I wanted.
So, in sum, my take: All friendships are valid, yes (point Warner), but if I had my way, I’d always want what Barkhorn speaks of—a group of intimate friends to confide it.
Which side of the debate do you fall on?