A Love Letter to My Lady Friends, Or A (Semi) Defense of “Sex and the City”

Let me just say, I’m not a huge “Sex and the City” fan. Sure, I probably watched every episode of all six seasons during several hour-long marathons in high school. And, despite how awful the trailer looks (Abu Dhabi, for real?), I’m sure I will end up seeing the movie sequel. But the many criticisms the show has received over the years—about pretty much everything? I agree. And I’m not particularly interested in discussing for the millionth time how feminist or not feminist enough or downright anti-feminist SATC is.

But I’ve got to say I had some problems with this Broadsheet article by Elissa Strauss about what she sees as the female “friendship fairytale” in the SATC franchise. Strauss argues that the most unrealistic aspect of the ridiculously unrealistic show is the idea of friends as “soul mates.” She writes, “For me, these unimpeachable, everlasting friendships have become just another implausible expectation, and one that I can’t live up to.”

I haven’t seen much response to the piece in the feminist blogosphere apart from a few lady Twitters saying, “Yes! Agreed!” and others countering “No! I’ve got a posse!” Of course, it’s easy for a conversation about something as personal as friendships to become unproductively individual, and I realize that my reaction to Strauss’ article risks amounting to nothing more than an ego-centric claim: “But I do feel like my lady friends are soul mates.” But where I do agree with Strauss is on the point that there could be more thoughtful, public dialogue about friendships.

However, in characterizing the “unimpeachable, everlasting” friendships of SATC, I think Strauss is conflating two possible ways they are “idealized.” Her main argument seems to be that these bonds are unrealistic because they are unaffected by external pressures and realities; they are “seemingly impenetrable to real-life factors like work, family, time, money, partners or the lack thereof.” Yet, she also implies the friendships themselves are too perfect—too uncomplicated by the resentments, jealousies, and disappointments of real human relationships.

I’ll grant the former, but I’m not so sure about the latter. I think, in fact, the best thing about the show is that it takes female friendship seriously enough not to flatten it into something that is so sugary and easy it rings completely false. Though we never doubt the SATC ladies will be there for each other in the end, they have their fair share of problems, tears, and anger. In a show that is painfully superficial in almost every way, the friendships are one of the few things that actually aren’t all that superficial. Which is not to say that the SATC women themselves aren’t superficial. They are. And insufferably narcissistic too. And it’s not to say that I don’t see any problems with the way the SATC friendships are portrayed. For one, it would be nice if these successful career women spent their brunch dates talking less about men and sex (though who doesn’t love those conversations too?) and more about their jobs, ambitions, politics, maybe even feminism. That would be cool—and also more true to life, in my experience. But even if we sometimes hate them, they do seem to love each other—in a real, un-idealized way.

And despite Strauss’ references to the gals of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “Lipstick Jungle” (which I watched for a season, with my lady friends in fact, but I think we might have been the only ones tuning in), I guess I don’t think we’ve come so far from a history of women’s friendships being ignored or disparaged that I’m willing to start complaining about going too far in the opposite direction. The dominant cultural messages girls and women still get—particularly from sitcoms and romantic comedies—tell us to hate each other, to compete for male attention, to bring each other down, to shame other women for being sluts, etc, etc. We still expect women’s friendships to take a backseat to romantic relationships; the “catfight” is still the comedic sketch of choice for women; and it still provokes feminist love letters when TV shows star adult women characters with lady friends they seem to really care about.

I’m a bit more sympathetic to Strauss’ other point—that in the real-world it’s hard to maintain long-term friendships (let alone with the same tight-knit group of women) as geography, jobs, new interests, partners, kids tend to get in the way. Certainly, my posse in college wasn’t made up of the same ladies as my posse in high school. And now that I’m an adult in NYC, key members of my brunch crew are detained by little hiccups like the fact that they live in Portland, OR and Washington, DC. Which really sucks and is only partly ameliorated by the wonderful, new friendships that inevitably begin. And perhaps when my friends and I start settling down with serious partners and maybe having babies, I might have a similarly jaded view of the everlasting bond of female friendship.

Except, I plan to work pretty hard to make sure that’s not the case. Because while cross-country moves and evolving interests might be inevitable, I think many of the forces that make holding on to friendships difficult are not. And among the most insidious is a lack of imagination. Imagination to envision and create alternatives to a culture that prioritizes romantic love and familial ties over friendship. (A culture supported, incidentally, by SATC, which—for all its talk of lady friend soul mates—is ultimately about the relentless pursuit of Mr. Right.) Call me the idealistic 24-year-old that I am, but when it comes to friendship, I’d like to see more idealism rather than less.

What do you think? How have your lady friendships influenced you and your feminism? What makes maintaining friendships difficult and how do you do it?

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9 Comments

  1. genericjanedoe
    Posted April 21, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I agree with you…I think the friendships portrayed in SATC are one of the only things that feels real to me. My experience with SATC is VERY similar to yours…just watching marathons with friends here and there. I’m not totally familiar with every aspect of the show. But I did feel, very certainly that the relationship between each of the characters was interesting and different, just like our friendships between women in real life.
    I find this to be pretty refreshing in a world that tries to put women against each other. We’re supposed to be catty and criticizing and compete for something (usually a guy.)
    I do find that partners and geography make friendships harder…but I’ve always found a way to hold on to the ones that matter the most. In high school I had a core of 3 best friends. We were “the four.” We now all live in different states, two of us are married, two are in grad school…but I still find a way to keep up with them and we’re working hard to keep our pact to all be in the same place at the same time once a year to catch up. It’s a commitment I made, and I take it pretty seriously.
    As for how my friendships have influenced my feminism…I would definitely say I’m the feminist of that group. While they all identify as feminists to some degree or another, I’m the one who lives and breathes it and always steers our discussions toward gender relations in their particular fields…And even though we’re an eclectic bunch (a writer/professor, a stock broker’s assistant, a med school student, and me, a feminist nonprofit worker) gender issues are a common factor.
    As for the more recent friends I have, feminism is at the core of them. Because I work in feminist nonprofits, I’ve been priviledged to find like minded friends. Since feminism has been a common factor for us, it’s what we start many deep converstions about.
    Thanks for sharing and letting me take a moment to reflect on my female soul mates…Not an unrealistic ideal in my opinion at all :)

  2. paperispatient
    Posted April 21, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    I wrote a paper on SATC and queerness last quarter, and some of the articles I read for it suggested that you can look at the women’s friendships as one queer aspect of the show. That really is the central relationship – men come and go and come back again, but their friendship is the one constant. They also talk about one another like they’re family, which this one article I read suggested poses a challenge to the heteronormative nuclear family ideal. I think there are lots of problematic aspects of the show and lots of valid critiques to be made, but I also think it deserves some credit for keeping female friendship an integral part of the show.

  3. Elizabeth B.
    Posted April 21, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    I think female friendships are something that our culture likes to mock, critique, or analyze to an extent that isn’t done to male friendships. Like you said, our patriarchal society likes to encourage competition among women, not bonding. Female bonding = dangerous!!! And people just can’t seem to wrap their minds around women caring for each other, taking interests in each other, being happy for each other, and genuinely wanting the best for each other. They have to come up with some other explanation other than that women can just be close friends (think Oprah and Gayle King and the constant insistence in the media that they MUST be lesbian lovers! Stedman’s just a cover-up).
    In my life, I have never had a SATC posse where we were ALL “best friends.” I kinda grew up with the idea that you had ONE best friend, that’s who you told all your secrets to, and then you had these other friends who might get one or two of your secrets, but not near the closeness of the one best friend. My best friend and I have been “best friends” since we were 11 (now 23). It is a relationship that means everything to me. However, I will say that for me personally, I have always been awkward around women.
    I have never been a “girlfriend” girl. I had the one best friend, and then the rest of my friends were guys. I used to say in high school (before I was the wise feminist that I am today:) ) that guys just made better friends, girls were too bitchy, they couldn’t be trusted. And to a certain extent (let’s all be honest here), that was completely true in high school–and still is for some women. Then I became a feminist, I got more in depth in my knowledge of feminist theory and I realized the problem of female bonding within patriarchy. So the lack of girlfriends became a sort of “chicken and egg” thing for me. Did I not have girlfriends because girls really were competitive and bitchy, or were girls competitive and bitchy because they live in a culture that encourages that? I go with the latter: the social construction of female relationships.
    I was never able to be a “girlfriend” until I was a feminist. I didn’t think women cared about me. I would tell myself: She doesn’t want to hear about my job, or my boyfriend, or the fight I just had to with my mom, or just talk. I didn’t think I could ever really be open with women. As I got older and as I learned more and more about feminism, I was able to open myself up to women.
    For example: A couple weeks ago I wrapped up three performances of The Vagina Monologues at my campus. There were 7 of us on cast, and we all got to be really close. Getting together and participating in something that was so woman-centered, so open and accepting, was a great environment for female bonding. Those women rocked; I got close to them, and I’m having dinner with one of them tonight! Woohoo female friendships!

  4. katemoore
    Posted April 21, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    No, I pretty much agree with the article. I don’t have close female friends, let alone a posse, and it’s pretty much been this way for all my life. I’ve watched as people I’d have liked to be friends with dropped me for cliques. Every single time.
    So yeah, fuck TV depictions of female friendships. Maybe if people weren’t so focused on clumping up into their exclusive cliques, people might actually see me as worth talking to.

  5. natone
    Posted April 21, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry, the emphasis on women friends bothers me. I have many friends and some happen to be male. I like to be with people I have a lot in common with and I don’t want to isolate my friends based on them being men or women.
    What bothers me about the show is this emphasis on “girl” friends. I like my male friends! I even like when my boyfriend is around because I picked him and we have the same values. Everyone gets along! I don’t get it! I think it’s a problem when women can’t have any faith in men because they can start to generalize and say “men suck” and all this type of jazz, and it will cause them to avoid male friendships and having boyfriends, too. Then they end up dating pigs because they think “they are all pigs” and it gets pretty dangerous.
    I’ve actually noticed a problem in the traditional segment of my neighborhood where women have NO male friends. This made it seem like women having friendships with men are dangerous because “their boyfriends may not like it”. So, the women-bonding crisis doesn’t seem to apply to suburban Toronto, and maybe I just can’t see the point of view.
    I believe friendships are so crucial, but I think I’m a good enough judge of the people in my life to surround myself with only the best of folks. I don’t think there are any dangers surrounding female bonding, but I don’t want to alienate my male friends who totally support me and who I never have to censor myself around.
    And I have straight male friends too! (not like the show)
    I think it’s more important for women to be able to maintain their friendships with whomever they please and confide in those they trust, whether woman or man.

  6. Lucycake
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    great post! i get so riled up about all the stupid parts about Sex in the City — the mindless banter, Carrie’s awful writing, and that new movie looks ridic! But i totally overlook how they’re still friends (except when samantha and miranda were mad at each other –AWKWARD!) this makes me appreciate my best gal (and guy) friends all the more. thanks.

  7. FYouMudFlaps
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Ok what exactly is wrong with Abu Dhabi? I’m visiting UAE when I graduate and can’t wait, it’s a spectacular and beautiful country.

  8. Michelle J
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I liked watching SATC, I think mostly because I enjoyed the close female relationships. I’m almost a little envious- I love my girl friends but I have always felt closer to my male friends, so none of that bonding-over-breakfast-with-the-girls for me.

  9. Maya
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Sure, I agree friendships with men are great too! In fact, I could probably write another thousand words about how important my guy friends are to me. I think it’s possible to celebrate female friendship (and some of the things that are, in my opinion at least, special about it) without alienating male friends. There’s enough love to go around!

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