by Sunetra Senior

The story of Noamh Baumbach’s 2012 film ‘Frances Ha’ focuses on the drifting friendship between two women in their late twenties. There is a particularly poignant scene where Frances (Greta Gerwig) awakes to find that her best friend, Sophie, (Mickey Sumner) has left without saying goodbye after spending the night sleeping over when they haven’t seen each other in a long time. As Sophie’s car pulls away, Frances runs after her screaming her name.  This boldly illustrates the highly sentimental nature of many women’s friendships and the pain that inevitably results because, we as a society, do not respect it. Indeed, through all the big life changes Frances explicitly undergoes — moving between different apartments, facing financial troubles, and trying to launch a tentative dancing career —what remains as palpably constant are the unrequited affections for her ever elusive friend.

Unfortunately, this is very much reflective of what happens in ordinary life.

Feminist works such as Orbach and Eichenbaum’s ‘Bitter Sweet’ and Offil and Schappel’s ‘The Friend That Got Away’ have documented a plethora of cases where women have felt heartache from being underappreciated and abandoned by those who they thought were their closest and dearest. I have also experienced this first-hand and heard from other female friends that such rifts with friends feels like a stab to a vital organ; even worse a sensation, sometimes, than going through an official break up. This is especially upsetting because it is the product of a draining – and actively obstructive – co-dependence that need not be this be way. In a previous article, ‘Botched Bodies’, I talked about the many unfair societal stresses placed on women — the pressure to look immaculate, to be both caring and in control, and to radiate a shining and attractive personality — as tools of an ongoing, operational patriarchal system. Addressing the phenomenon of bereavement and melancholy in female friendships, would not only be one less of these burden, but could actually combat the source.

rifts with friends feels like a stab to a vital organ; even worse a sensation, sometimes, than going through an official break up

The famous feminist Lucy Irigarary has observed that woman ‘does not constitute herself as one’ — or as whole — in an ideology that distributes social power predominantly to men. While the top jobs and handling of money are still in the hands of males, the subjective agency of woman continues to be undermined: we do not need to be aiding our own oppression. A significant factor in the tension placed on the women’s friendship in ‘Frances Ha’ is the third-party presence of Sophie’s reputable career and boyfriend which she keeps running back to. This illustrates the way that women are still heavily inclined to use each other as repositories for discussing and step-stoning between masculine signifiers of authority — men and monetary stability — instead of seeing each other as end points in themselves and individuals in their own rights.

( Hope Gangloff 'Clothes Swap, Brooklyn' 2008 via nymag, 'I'm Having a Friendship Affair' )

( Hope Gangloff ‘Clothes Swap, Brooklyn’ 2008 via nymag, ‘I’m Having a Friendship Affair’ )

When we do this, we are aiding the dated sexist assumption that we are subservient, second-class citizens who are undeserving of our own autonomy. No wonder then that the bonds forged in this set up feel so volatile and the comfort a friend gives never completely satisfies. In the sleep over scene in ‘Francis Ha’, Sophie spends the whole night confiding her miseries about engaged life before she tentatively says ‘I love you’. As the woman seeking emotional refuge she is only applying a temporary plaster to the social pain, and Frances as the woman listening ends up standing in as one-dimensional utility. The result: frustration and persisting emptiness for both the confidantes involved.

But wait — what of sisterhood? Doesn’t that have a value here?  The nuanced answer to this question is important: it is the nitty gritty of the issue and paves the way to the solution. The truth, at this point in history, is both yes and no. It is interesting that ‘Frances Ha’ is shot in a nostalgic black and white reflecting both protagonist Frances’ deep yearning for her best friend and a subversive sigh to a bizarre backward mood of austerity in a past time. Essentially, while we do still have a way to go — as mentioned above through the fact of gendered economic disparity — our social and financial positions have also advanced.

But wait — what of sisterhood? Doesn’t that have a value here?

The failure to negotiate this ambiguity in our pro-patriarchy, brainwashing community is what causes the uncertainty in interpersonal female friendships. We are living in a limbo cultural space where the solidarity-based feminism of the past — the very movement that got us here — has actually changed the goal posts so we find ourselves with a moderate amount of political freedom, which though does not signal the end, has also moved on from the beginning.  It’s the reason why we can move away from each other, that our schedules often clash and we feel strangely guilty and envious in equal measure depending on which one of us got the promotion. This means modifying the way we look at sisterhood and support each other.

(Jo Spence/Rosy Martin, Mother as Factory Worker, 1984-88 via VersoBooks)

As a 50s housewife you might have gone round your friend Thelma’s house for tea, mutually supported each other through the boredom and/or oppression of housework, and gone to meetings where you got your right to be in a professional environment heard. Today we need more. We need to consciously register and continually grow our progress as women. Instead of reverting to behaviours of extreme reliance we need to:

  1. Have more active, self-contained experiences with each other i.e. creating colourful and immersive memories that are removed from the continuum of the wider world — not just seeing each other when you’re hurting; having more quotidian meetings (it is quite possible to go for casual, relaxed meetings without having to share one or more charged emotional secrets).
  2. Be conscious about the way we communicate with each other. As well as refraining from using your friend as an emotional dumping ground — only when you can help it of course — practice being able to congratulate and get on by yourself. Needing to run every little detail of your life and your successes by your friend is the other side of the coin in needing constant support and validation. It is quite possible to have a strong relationship without this. In fact you’ll find each other in much better form without this self-doubting factor. There is a whole world of colourful observations and discussion outside of this.

In short, we can never separate the personal from the political, and developed legislative rights are an accomplishment to celebrate and build on — not be bashful about. When you show this in female dynamics, confidence is grown healthily between the both of you equipping you in contemporary society. Instead of regressively creating ground to get hurt and unduly exploited by each other and ultimately getting more cheated by life, you build a sturdier, long-lasting bond which effectively holds you through respective challenges.

it is quite possible to go for casual, relaxed meetings without having to share one or more charged emotional secrets

The best of my friendships and times with friends have been free of male-orientated perception and rich in present-time vitality. By behaving more freely around each other, we stop affirming the dominant view that we are incapable.  Instead of propagating the feeling that we are weaker deep down, we begin to dissolve it; edify each other as permanent places instead of flimsy, pop-up outfits. We are at a point where we can see the possibility of experiencing ourselves as ‘whole’ on the horizon. It is better to stride proudly — not succumb to tradition’s bait of developing a hypochondriac limp.

 Featured image: Hope Gangloff ‘Clothes Swap, Brooklyn’ 2008 via nymag, ‘I’m Having a Friendship Affair’ Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner © ‘Frances Ha’; IFC Films / Youtube trailer still


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