Are we finally trading mean girls for sisterhood? Female friendships have traditionally been depicted onscreen with a rigid hierarchy, but plenty of stories today about female friends today are moving beyond “rivalry” arcs, and toward centering equal, sisterly bonds. We’re seeing more stories bout friendships that aren’t disrupted by women having to strive in a cut-throat social pecking order or to snap the right job or man, but are instead about how females can support each other and connect through shared experiences.
Are we finally trading mean girls for sisterhood?
Female friendships have traditionally been depicted onscreen with a rigid hierarchy, whether it’s the queen bee ruling over her drones, or the heroine protagonist with her less important sidekick. But plenty of stories today about female friends today are moving beyond “rivalry” arcs, and toward centering equal, sisterly bonds. Recent representations of friendships between young women have started to look more like what we’re used to seeing in stories about older women – friendships that aren’t disrupted by women having to strive in a cut-throat social pecking order or to snap the right job or man, but are instead about how females can support each other and connect through shared experiences. These portrayals also have more in common with the male friendships we saw featured in the peak bromance era of the 2000s, which got to feel more balanced, flexible and fun. Here’s our take on how the new generation of female BFFs onscreen are finally dispensing with so many bad cliches and showcasing how having a true friend makes everything in life better.
“Yeah she might be a dick, but she’s my dick!”
- Derry Girls
CHAPTER ONE: MOVING AWAY FROM RIVALRY
Stories of female friendship in the 2000s and early 2010s were often bound up in stories of rivalry. 2004’s Mean Girls shined a light on the tactics of female relational aggression
Even in Bridesmaids, a film that broke the mold of studio comedies with its predominantly female cast and central focus on female friendship instead of romance, the main conflict is the fierce rivalry between Helen and Annie. Because the female interactions in so many films are defined by competition, the scripts sometimes inadvertently wind up representing the romantic arc as the most stable and grounding force in the womens’ lives. In Bring It On, while the film is ostensibly about the rivalry and friendships among the cheerleaders, it’s Cliff and Torrance’s romance that seems to act as the emotional heart of the movie. Similarly in Pitch Perfect, it’s Beca and Jesse’s romance that subtly carries us through – in fact, when she finally gets the girls in the a cappella group to come together and embrace each other to win nationals, they perform a medley built around Jesse’s favorite song.
Films like Carrie, Heathers, and Mean Girls offered interesting insights through investigating the ways Queen-bee-led girl groups could be underhanded, cliquey, and exclusive, reflecting wider societal problems. But as this framework morphed into a ubiquitous cliché, it could start to feel that the primary representation of female relationships onscreen was this one idea of catty aggression.
“Those rules aren’t real” “They were real that day I wore a vest.” “Because that vest was disgusting.”
- Mean Girls
In recent years, though, we’ve seen a shift away from this rivalry-centered framework – in a wide array of examples ranging from Parks and Recreation to Derry Girls. Refreshingly, stories of group friendships in high school, college and early adulthood are moving beyond simply replicating the standard “mean girl” clique. While high school show Euphoria may center a group of “It Girls” complete with the “mean girl” and the pretty one the focus is on how these friends actually love each other – and when they do have conflicts, it feels tragic for them. The Sex Lives of College Girls, set in college, also adds more nuance, highlights a kinder, warmer idea of young female friendship, and subverts our expectations of cattiness. The character of Leighton is introduced as the typical posh, snobby mean girl , but instead of this making her the class Queen Bee, she struggles to connect with the other girls at first. In fact, her perfectly polished demeanor gets in the way of social capital – at the Kappa Brunch, Leighton fails to make friends with her researched approach, while Whitney is embraced because she lets the girls know the real her. Over the course of the series, Leighton starts to become more comfortable with herself, and ends the season by forming real friendships through being vulnerable with the roommates she initially pegged as dorky. Meanwhile, fellow roommate Bela’s arc even more explicitly deconstructs the trope of female rivalry – at the start of the season, Bela competes with other women for limited spots on the Catullan, a prestigious comedy publication. But by the end of the season, she and the other women realize they shouldn’t have to compete against each other – if the Catullan forces them to fight, they don’t want to be at the Catullan. We see this model likewise in stories about women post-college in early adulthood. Whereas, starting in 2012, Girls was still largely about how a group of female friends could be toxic with each other from 2016 to 2021, Insecure centered the friendship ups-and-downs of four women as they found their way to a more mature adulthood in their professional and personal lives – always emphasizing how important and fulfilling nurturing true friendships is. Other stories – like Broad City starting in 2014 and 2019’s Booksmart – have debunked the leader-and-sidekick cliché through stories about equal two-person friendships where both take great joy in each other’s presence.
“I am so in love with you. - Bitch I know!”
And whereas film and TV are classically full of female relatives fighting, 2022’s Bad Sisters looks at what real female friendship looks like in a family context, too. The show’s close-knit central group of sisters may bicker, but more often they have great times, and they’ll go to any lengths for each other – even if it means getting embroiled in a murder plot.
We’ve also seen an important move away from the female-rivalry-at-work trope. Compare the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada to The Bold Type (which ran from 2017-2021). In The Devil Wears Prada, two young women in the fashion-magazine industry are viciously pitted against each other.
“Face it, Andy, you sold your soul the day you put on that pair of Jimmy Choos. I saw it.”
- The Devil Wears Prada
The Bold Type is the exact opposite. It’s set in the same high-pressure industry, but instead, there’s a focus on teamwork and mutual support as the women help each other move up through their careers.
“Move your ass!” “Excuse me, my friend is having a moment!” “So rude!”
- The Bold Type
CHAPTER TWO: THE WISDOM OF AGE
More supportive on-screen female friendships aren’t totally new, but previously they tended to be confined to stories of older women.
Whereas younger female characters are often depicted as being fiercely independent as they focus on their personal goals, older women get to be more community-oriented. We could already see some of this sisertly love and maturity in the foursome of Sex and the City – who were still pretty young, mostly 30-sometings in the original show but feeling a little more established in life than the 20-something singletons they encounter. Yet in this era, the main characters are still self-motivated, each focused on their own path and obsessed with their romantic lives.
“How is it that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?”
- Sex and the City
When we revisit them in And Just Like That in their 50s, even as their lives have developed in different directions, they’ve learned to rely on their friends in an even deeper way. Though Samantha has moved on in life, the remaining ladies’ worries feel bigger and more existential, but they deal with these bigger questions that come with age together.
Typically, in stories of older womens’ friendship, the women have already had their main romantic storyline, and so their friendships don’t need to compete with their romantic arcs. In fact, the friend groups often come together around a shared experience, typically related to some fallout from their past romantic relationships: in Waiting To Exhale, two of the women are divorcees, the other two are long-time mistresses, and all four are searching for new partners that value them. In First Wives Club, the women come together because they have all been mistreated by their husbands – and much like in Waiting to Exhale, they help each other restore their sense of self-worth so that they can get the comeuppance they deserve. Both these movies end with some of the women pursuing new or rekindled romantic relationships, but other times the women in stories like these more explicitly reject the roles of wife and mother that society forces them into. In Thelma and Louise, their time on the run feels like a necessary emancipation from the trapped lives they were living. So rather than return to their oppressive roles, they decide to drive off the side of a cliff together.
“I don’t remember feeling this awake, know what I mean? Everything looks different.”
- Thelma and Louise
Other female friendships among older women reject conventional gender roles more subtly, without anyone driving off a literal cliff. Golden Girls focuses on a group of women trying to navigate being single at an age where they thought they were past these anxieties. When Rose begins dating for the first time since her husband died, she’s understandably nervous about the prospect of having sex with someone new. Rather than sitting with these fears herself, she benefits from sharing them with friends who are supportive and encouraging, and she gets to move on and have this new romantic experience… but at the end of the episode, the best part seems to be going back home to be with her friends. More recently, Grace and Frankie – about a friendship that develops between two former female rivals after their husbands leave them (for each other)— highlights the same joys of finding a true friend later in life. While we may expect that the guarantee of happiness in old-age is a long-term partnership or perfect family, stories like Grace and Frankie remind us that a friend who gets you, offers you fun, and supports you having new experiences can be the most amazing way to feel truly alive at any age.
These stories undo some of the ways our society fails to prize friendship as an important value in life. And today, on-screen female friendships of all ages are drawing from these same lessons to emphasize supportiveness, community, and vulnerability among friends.
CHAPTER THREE: FROM RIVALRY TO ROMANCE
Recent representations of friendships between young women take on an almost romantic tone – they’re intimate and vulnerable, they’re centered in the characters’ lives, they’re supportive and loving, and maybe most importantly, they embrace play.
Play can be crucial in forming who we are as people, especially when we’re young. We often get to see young couples finding themselves through play in romantic montages but the female friendship equivalent is typically a makeover or shopping trip montage that’s more about the fashion than the friendship. Stranger Things subverts this trope when Eleven and Max go on a shopping trip – their montage isn’t about showing off clothing to the camera, but instead about Eleven finding herself, having fun, and coming out of her shell. Through play, Max creates space for Eleven to figure out and understand the world she’s living in. Before her friendship with Max, Eleven’s life is defined by rules and boundaries. But Max does away with all these rules in one fell swoop, and we see a new side of Eleven begin to emerge.
“Come on.” “Where are we going?” “To have some fun. There’s more to life that stupid boys y’know.”
- Stranger Things
And play isn’t just being treated like romance in stories about young girls. In We Are Lady Parts, Saira encourages Amina to embrace her inner rockstar with an almost romantic-feeling emphasis on play. Amina starts the series with a single-minded focus on completing her Ph.D. and finding a husband. But as the series goes on, Saira pushes Amina out of her comfort zone and repeatedly reminds her of how amazing and talented she is, until Amina admits that she loves being a part of the band and just wants to play.
“Am I really that bad?” “That bad, you’re that good.” “You gotta own your freakiness before your freakiness owns you.”
- We Are Lady Parts
Everything I Know About Love also explores the importance of play in friendship even as you become an adult. Maggie, Birdy, Nell and Amara are all entering adulthood together – but when they lean too far into the idea of themselves as adults, it disrupts their friendship. It’s when they’re in their more playful moods that their friendships feel strongest. When Maggie and Birdy are in playful moments, they have a chance to reflect, and remember why they became friends in the first place. The show emphasizes this by cutting between sequences of Birdy and Maggie dancing as adults and doing the same dances as teenagers.
“Sometimes I think you remember more about me than me.” “Course I do, that’s the whole point of being best friends with someone your whole life.”
- Everything I Know About Love
Instead of being a major source of negativity or tension in the story, these female friendships nourish, motivate, and ground the characters like a romantic story arc traditionally would. While the rest of the world may be trying to encourage these women to grow up or change who they are to better suit a job or a boyfriend, these female friendships get to be about connection, self-love, and play.
The roadmap culture has given for young women coming of age has historically been pretty narrow. Even as we’ve moved through waves of feminism, there has still been a sense of individualism that’s pervaded – in fact, sometimes that individualism has been conflated with feminism. Female success has been equated with career advancement, romantic success, and making it on your own.
“Wish me luck!” “Why?” “I’m gonna get one of those job things!”
But female friendships on screen are shifting away from that framework. We’re starting to celebrate the value of the collective over the individual, and to celebrate community as essential, nourishing, and crucial to discovering who you are. Jobs and relationships may come and go, but these closer, sisterly bonds are forever. Now, we’re representing them with the importance they deserve.
“Go leave that legacy in the world!”
- Everything I know About Love