Over the last four weeks I participated in a Delve Literary Arts seminar on female friendships led by the wonderful, erudite, and insightful Hannah Kim (all of which is to say: I joined a fancy book club). We explored three texts: Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett; Sula, Toni Morrison; and The Door, Magda Szabo. In the course of a month, we discussed:
Female friendship, as written by women writers, through both a fiction and nonfiction lens. These friendships are complex and nuanced, sometimes ugly, sometimes enduring, and sometimes one of the most significant relationships of a lifetime. Through Toni Morrison’s beautiful and stirring Sula and Nel, Hungarian writer Szabo’s unlikely relationship between a woman and her housekeeper in The Door, and Ann Patchett’s exploration of her 20-year long friendship with writer Lucy Grealy, we will explore different paradigms of these relationships across time and culture.
This delve (ha) into female friendships comes at a point in my life where I am firmly re-examining all of my friendships. This is due in large part to how the pandemic has surfaced unfamiliar feelings of alone-ness and loneliness (which are separate and distinct, in my book) that I now have to confront, with no work or travel to distract me. It is certainly not least due to how the movement for Black lives has forced so many of my friends to wrestle with their privilege in very powerful, open, and vulnerable ways. In the process, we cried, stood in solidarity, and uplifted one another. I’m thankful for those friends, old and new, gender notwithstanding, who are willing to peel back the varnish to expose the truth–no matter how uncomfortable or difficult, and to do it together. Because above all else, as Josh once shared with me, friendships are relationships between two people. Romantic or not, it is a two-way street that requires seeing the other person–really seeing–regardless of the frequency of communication. So I’m endlessly thankful to those friends who extended their hands to me not only when things were good, but also, and especially, when the going got tough.
But I digress.
Fiction, my preferred genre of books, has the power to reflect the best and worst of humanity back to us. It’s like going into a house of mirrors. The reality that is presented may be magnified, warped, or discombobulated but it always holds a grain of truth, while simultaneously challenging us to think more critically about how our own worldview may already be, in fact, magnified, warped, or discombobulated.
For as long as I’ve been reading, I’ve really never come across any books focused solely on female friendships. Not just with female protagonists, the way Little Women or Middlemarch or The Awakening are, but specifically focused on the friendship that develops between two women. And frankly I’m not surprised. When the literary canon is defined by elitest, Western, white men, I have to believe that this is more by design than by choice. The social discourse that we still see today is that women’s issues are just that–women’s, and thus fringe, while men’s issues are mainstream. We have the NBA and then the WNBA. There are actors and then there are actresses. Congressmen and congresswomen. Literature and feminist literature.
This dichotomy is first, sexist, lol, but also incredibly dangerous. It not only calls into question what is ‘female’, but also carves out femaleness as a whole separate phenomenon. When something as all encompassing and nuanced as gender becomes a distinct sphere, it makes it so that women will only be given authority within that sphere. Like so:
Setting: A classroom.
Characters: Some white men in tweed.
Man 1: This is about women, and they are women, therefore this is the space where women can be experts and talk about their women’s issues. QED.
Man 2: But also lmao guys let’s remember–only This Space. Everything outside of that is by default male and thus not in the domain of the woman.
Man 1: Ur so right. Ok let’s preface everything related to women with ‘women’ so they’re reminded that they don’t belong in mainstream discourse.
Man 2: Nice.
So now, it doesn’t matter how much profound truth a woman might espouse; the very fact that she’s saying anything at all discounts her words.
I’ve written previously about the tendency to define masculinity against femininity. Boys are, while girls are not. Men exhibit traits, and the opposite of those traits become feminine. In this way, gender becomes a binary, when of course now we know better. But so long as women’s studies continues to be defined as such, we cannot upend the system. Mary Beard writes in Women and Power (bless her whole heart she really speaks a lot of truth in such a short manifesto) that you cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure itself. Just as we’re talking about rebuild, not reform, so we need to see how white supremacy and the patriarchy has shaped all of our institutions and organizations, and that systemic change does not begin and end with one social issue. If every part of our society is engineered through the patriarchy, almost every lens that we take to see the women will be warped–like a fun house mirror.
The topic we ended on today revolved around the question of whether these books featured female friendships, or friendships between females. And it got me thinking about what this nuanced and gendered distinction means for how I perceive the world on a wider scale. If the default of friendship connotes ‘male-ness’, then what about a friendship would make it female? Is it the people involved? Is it the topics discussed? And why not just make a female protagonist? Fucking, CTRL-F Lord of the Rings and replace Aragon with Eowyn or something, done. EZ.
I think it’s very much the case that men–and white men, especially–are afforded the privilege of being individuals no matter where they go in life and thus never have to try and contort themselves to how society might expect him to act. If a man travels, he sees the country as his for the taking. If he commits a crime, the media considers his potential. If he makes a mistake, his boss sees it as a learning opportunity. At no point are white men asked to be anything other than themselves. But women and especially BIPOC individuals are demanded to be chameleons– it is how we survive. I am not only constantly on guard but also thinking about how my words will be received, policing myself to hedge against male fragility so that I will be taken seriously. I toe the line between being direct and accommodating because if I am anything less than nice, I’ll be written off as a bitch. If I am not who you expect me to be, if I do not give you exactly what you ask for, if I do not fit into your worldview, I am irrelevant.
Because there is a clearly defined space for women to take up, we become, first, representatives of our gender, sex, or ethnicity, and then, over time, caricatures. As archetypes on screen or in print we prop up the protagonist with our gender and nothing else. The Bechdel Test is a classic example of how underdeveloped female characters tend to be when a plot is centered around a man–or men–and their foibles. In life, we cannot even rebuff a man’s advances without invoking a fake boyfriend, because a man will have more respect for a man he has not met than he has for the woman right in front of him.
We are, of course, whole human beings just like all the men in the world.
We are, however, not only socialized to think of ourselves as less, but also forced to internalize the fact that we do shoulder many emotional burdens so that other people can live their lives fully. We’re expected to nurture everything and everyone around us and gaslit when we demand even a speck of anything in return.
This is so ingrained even in me, the concept that women are supposed to be a certain way, that I thought very intensely about the likeability of these characters and questioned the putting of any of these protagonists on a pedestal. I questioned why these women were so messy. I wondered whether these friendships were realistic. I gave less agency to these women simply for being human when really all male authors elevate their protagonists to nothing short of god-like–even their flaws are part of the hero’s journey. To read Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey when it was published–the first English translation of the epic by a woman–was to completely reconceptualize my view of Odysseus as a hero. Greek gods were created to be deeply flawed and thus human, and Odysseus was no god, but even so. A hero to whom? And yet my own internalized shame of being a woman was never more on display than when I was thinking critically about female friendships in these three books.
After this last session I wrote to the ten other women who participated in the session: “maybe writing about female friendships is how these authors can give full agency to females, independent of social norms or their relationships with their husbands, etc. A singular female protagonist will move through the world in the way she is asked to.
Two female protagonists, however, interacting on the edge of that world, have the freedom to just be. As foils to each other, there is no room for the male gaze.
And in that way, the friendship is just a vessel for the author to portray women as whole humans.”
(Artwork by Carla Ellis)
Post title taken from an excerpt of Magda Szabo’s writings or maybe an interview but I can’t find it because she’s Hungarian and only a shocking 3% of books published in English worldwide is a translation. Western civ as a concept that is studied is truly problematic. But I think it fully encapsulates what it means to be a woman. We dole out honey cakes while defending our children and families with a fierceness only rivaled by Cerberus. We must be both if we want to survive, never one without the other, and yet we are still not enough.