The Great Friendship Debate

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?

10 Comments

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10 responses to “The Great Friendship Debate

  1. I hadn’t read either piece, but I am fascinated by this debate. I am personally suspicious of women who don’t have any long-term, deep friendships with other women. I’ve met a few people like this and honestly I wonder what is up – women whose best friend revolves every year or two, women who have only new friends to invite to an event like a major birthday or christening, or women who don’t have close friends from their younger years (college?). I don’t think one needs an intimate GROUP of friends and agree that there is some pressure to the BFF culture, but I do feel like most women that I am close to have invested in at least a couple of close friendships for years and years. xox

    • upwardbound

      I find your blog post so interesting as this topic is very interesting to me as a person recovering from depression and trying to build friendships. I wanted to reply to Lindsey because as a 32 who feels like I am going on 16, trying to find myself after a decade long bout of depression. Through my counseling / recovery I found I choose friendships that were not the best for me. So now I am starting over, with no friends from high school or college. Despite that I know I am a great friend who lost her way and am on my way to finding my way back

  2. There are definitely women out there who don’t have true friends, and they’re no less real than others. Some people don’t have time for friends, or truly don’t feel like they need or want them.

    I feel like the group of friends that cares about what you’re up to everyday, as Warner notes, kind of fades as you get older and into different stages of life. I had those friends in high school, college, and in my early 20’s. But now that people are busy with boyfriends/husbands, wedding planning, babies, job hunting, home buying, etc., I don’t really expect anyone to care about my day in, day out stuff. Though it would be nice…

    That said, I really appreciate Warner’s point of view, especially the idea that she’s not instilling it in her daughters that they NEED to have a BFF in order to reach their potential.

  3. I haven’t read either piece — but I’m (apparently) comfortable weighing in anyway. I think it’s all personal choice. I have friends but not a BFF, and I tend to agree with Warner about the BFF culture we’re imposing on our daughters (and ourselves). I often feel somewhat “less of a woman” (sad but true) because I don’t have ultra close girlfriends–something I’ve felt like I SHOULD — and want to — have, based on TV, media, & things like Barkhorn’s article. But I also spend most of my time (after work) with my husband, we do everything together (not in a creepy way, haha) and I am quite introverted.. and I wonder if that has made a difference? Still I feel somewhat deficient somehow…. Which brings me to the rather-absurd comment that especially women who read (and maybe write?) books have close friendships. For one thing, reading is very solitary…. how do we make friends if we’re very busy reading and writing alone a lot? The two can be mutually exclusive. That said, in my current WIP (in edits) the main character originally had no best friend — but in edits I am building one in for her. Not because of Barkhorn’s article but because she’ll, and I’ll, need someone to tell things to. This is a great post, by the way. Thought provoking! (p.s. and truth be told, if I had it exactly as I wanted it, I’m with you and want that close circle of BFFs w/ necklaces!)

  4. Dee

    I think the idea that to have a “true” best friend requires that you speak every day about the details of your life is so high school. I have true friends, but at 48, I no longer feel the need to validate what I do daily with them. We talk regularly, get together when we can, and know that we have each other’s back. That’s what I think of as a true best friend, a relationship that’s strong enough to be maintained without excessive attention. Think regular exercise for your overall well-being, rather than training for the Olympics..

  5. I just started reading your blog and I love it because it’s so very relatable. I am in my first year of living on the East coast after living my entire life on the West coast. It’s the hubby, myself and that quest to find friends. As for this post, whomever it was that wrote that the concept of a BFF is too commercialized obviously was lacking a BFF. At the age of 25, I was looking at BFF necklaces just the other day, it’s not about commerialism at all….I mean haven’t those necklaces and this concept of a BFF been around forever?! Sure, shows like Sex and the City I think play it up the importance more, but I think every girl needs someone to turn to other than her husband or boyfriend to gossip and do fun girly stuff that someone else truly enjoys doing.

  6. Erica

    I can see both sides of this argument. On the one hand, I think friendships are important (of course! or else I wouldn’t be reading) and that women who make a habit of neglecting their friendships – even in favor of important things like career, marriage, children, etc. – are missing something valuable. But I also think there’s a huge cultural investment in a sort of cookie-cutter female friendship that isn’t realistic for everyone. We see it all the time on TV and in the movies: daily phone calls with the BFF-since-childhood; the four women having brunch every Sunday or drinks every Thursday, all equally close and totally inseparable.

    I’m sure these friendships are great, but they aren’t the reality of everyone, and thinking there’s only one way for female friendships to look is destructive. Some friendships are close in ways that aren’t as obvious, or intermittent or complicated. Some people’s lives evolve out of sync with their friends’ lives. And as for groups, although they’re on every television show ever, that doesn’t make them realistic, especially for people who aren’t in college and who don’t necessarily want to travel in packs – it just means the TV writers wanted a small cast and snappy multi-person conversation.

  7. Pingback: Thoughts on reading and friendship | Bibliophilia

  8. Matt

    Were women fulfilled by sisters when families were bigger? The BFF movement seems to be a natural response to smaller families. For example, my mother was an only child. I bet she had cravings like today’s modern woman. Likewise, my sister had no sister. In the 21st century you have to go outside your immediate family — my sister has no cousins either, as my father was also an only child.

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