After countless boy-meets-girl romances, Hollywood has recently turned its attention to a new kind of love story: the female friendship. The idea that a platonic girlfriend can be your soulmate has become mainstream in shows like Insecure, Broad City, and Dead to Me, and in movies such as Girls Trip and Booksmart, and the increasing seriousness devoted to this subject represents a remarkable cultural shift. Here’s our Take on how the female friendship has become one of the most complex, essential, and revolutionary relationships onscreen today.
After devoting countless movies and shows to boy meets girl romances, in recent years Hollywood has turned its attention to a new kind of love story: the female friendship. The idea that a platonic girlfriend can be your soulmate is becoming increasingly mainstream in a world where apps like Bumble help us match with potential BFFs and many women celebrate Galentine’s Day every February 13th. So, what characterizes the modern onscreen female friendship?
The increasing seriousness and attention devoted to this subject in recent years represents a cultural shift in priorities, reflecting that many contemporary women are just as likely to be seeking a Romy to their Michelle as they are a life partner — or are perhaps waking up to the fact that their best friend is that life partner. Here’s our take on how the female friendship has become one of the most complex, essential, and revolutionary relationships onscreen today.
- The women put each other first. Likewise, the story itself is more interested in exploring the rich dynamics of this platonic relationship than in telling a traditional love story.
- The friendship is full of overwhelming adoration. Far from being threatened by each other’s awesomeness, the friends find joy in lifting each other up.
- It represents emancipation. Through each other, the friends come into themselves.
- Yet for all their aspirational undertones, the most interesting female friendship stories are challenging, and often come with dramatic conflict that must be worked through.
Female Friendship Myths
For all their positive, empowering connotations today, over the years platonic female relationships have often been devalued or misrepresented in one of several ways:
To begin with, women are often framed as frenemies, consumed by envy, and prone to backstabbing. The 1939 film The Women is noteworthy for not including any men in its story of female dynamics. Yet it’s far from a feminist vision of friendship, instead suggesting that women are inherently catty and shouldn’t trust each other.
Mrs. Morehead: “Don’t confide in your girlfriends. If you let them advise you, they’ll see to it in the name of friendship that you lose your husband and your home.” - The Women
More recently, this mentality is intertwined with the idea of “relational aggression,” a term coined in 1995 to describe how girls express aggression through behaviors like exclusion and rumor spreading. Early 2000s bestsellers like Odd Girl Out and Queen Bees and Wannabes — which inspired Mean Girls — drew wide cultural attention to the important issue of female bullying, and posited that girls’ emotional intelligence makes them uniquely skilled at finding each other’s weakest spots. But their side effect was an inordinate focus on girls’ ability to harm one another, without enough emphasis on how female friendship can sustain us and make our lives better.
A subset of the frenemy narrative is stories where women are portrayed as rivals for a man. The message being sent is that it’s impossible for two female characters to ever prioritize their relationship over a guy. This is why the proto-typical “hot girl” in a story is often defined by her lack of female friends — implying that her sex appeal makes her inherently threatening to other women.
Tess Nichols: “You know, I don’t have that many girlfriends. For some reason, girls just don’t like me. I don’t know why. Okay. Fine. I know why.” - 27 Dresses
The female friendship has also been treated as superfluous or transitional — again, within a larger cultural context where finding and settling down with “the one” is framed as a woman’s greatest purpose. In the late 18th century, writer Lucy Orr said that marriage was “the bane of Female Friendship.”
One of the darkest subversions of the female friendship story is the story of toxic obsession or manipulation. The author Karen Hollinger observes that movies like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Poison Ivy, and Single White Female — all released in 1992 — were examples of the “anti-female friendship film,” which “mocks the possibility of women’s forming the bonds of loyalty and affection.” They imply that there’s something inherently wrong or scary about one woman getting too attached to another, often suggesting that the obsessive one is in love with her friend (who is appalled by this romantic attention). As Hollinger writes of Single White Female, its anti-female friendship theme serves as “an admonition to women to dedicate themselves completely to men.” (Hollinger 234)
Graham Knox: “She’s a lunatic, Allie. She’s got to go.” - Single White Female
Finally, in many stories, the best friend character is cast as the sidekick. This is a common rom-com trope, and again exists primarily to give precedence to the heterosexual romance at the center of a story — in these narratives, the friend is usually used as a tool for delivering exposition or commentary about the male love interest.
In fact, for many years, female friendship has, paradoxically, been defined in relation to men. As film historian Shelley Cobb puts it, “Whether explicitly or not, female friendship is always seen as a threat to the patriarchy….” In 1939’s Gone with the Wind, Scarlett spends most of the movie chasing her beloved Ashley and resenting his sweet wife Melanie. Yet as these two women lean on each other to survive the Civil War, it emerges that Mellie is the truly strong and admirable half of her marriage, while Ashley embodies only an illusion of love — one that’s unnecessarily pitted Scarlett and Melanie against each other.
In 1985’s The Color Purple, the protagonist Celie initially resents her husband’s strong-willed daughter-in-law, Sofia, because Celie is in an abusive marriage while Sofia holds the power in her relationship. So Celie urges Sofia’s husband to hurt his wife, but the real reason Celie focuses on Sofia is she’s powerless to fight the system that’s hurting them both. In the end, the women are able to be united and draw strength from one another.
Sofia: “I know what it’s like to wanna sing… and have ‘em beat outta ya. I wanna thank you, Miss Celie, for everything you’ve done for me.” - The Color Purple
2001’s Legally Blonde sets up a classic female rivalry in Elle and Vivian as they feud over Warner. But they eventually come to admire each other. Warner, meanwhile, reveals himself to be both incompetent and without integrity. Again, Elle and Vivian were never really chasing true love, but what this guy represented: an ideal based in patriarchal, heterosexual standards.
These examples reveal that the source of women’s competition or resentment is often a culture that disempowers them, and tells them to prize male attention most of all.
There are many onscreen female friendships that barely pass the Bechdel test — named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which measures women’s representation in stories by whether there are at least two female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man. 1995’s Waiting to Exhale and the TV series Sex and the City each center on a group of four female friends who always show up for each other — but their friendships are still founded almost entirely on discussing relationship troubles.
It’s only in the last few decades that female friendship stories as a whole have become more complex and dynamic. Now the best friend is no longer on the sidelines. Instead, she often serves as the most important person in the protagonist’s life. Instead of showing friends competing, there’s a greater emphasis on women aggressively uplifting each other.
Amy: “You are the strongest, coolest, smartest, most stunningly gorgeous creature this high school and this Earth has ever seen.” - Booksmart
Many contemporary depictions also show female friends actively calling each other out, pushing each other to do better. These stories are invested in every element of the women’s lives, not just romance, making room for family issues, careers, and internal hangups.
The Politics of Female Friendship
A typical platonic female friendship doesn’t lead to children or marriage — in other words, it has no concrete societal purpose connected to traditional gender roles. What, then, is the emotional and political importance of this kind of relationship?
From The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s Mary and Rhoda to the women of Sex and the City, single, 30-something working women onscreen have long demonstrated the centrality of friendship in the lives of women who choose not to settle down early and start a family. Stories like these mirror the reality for more women than ever today: as millennials increasingly put off marriage until later, friendships naturally play a more significant role in their lives. But for older characters with spouses or families, too, female friendships are equally crucial survival networks, helping the characters get through a lifetime of ups and downs. One of the most iconic early onscreen friendships is the one between I Love Lucy‘s Lucy and Ethel, 1950s housewives who liven up each other’s worlds by getting into various shenanigans, suggesting that even happily married wives still need a friend to have adventures with.
Ethel Mertz: “You always do drag me into your crazy schemes!”
Lucy Ricardo: “Well, this is one time I can do without you.”
Ethel Mertz: “What’s wrong with me all of a sudden?!” - I Love Lucy 5x19
Depictions of black female friendship in shows like Girlfriends and Insecure emphasize the necessity of this kind of connection in a world where black women are forced to code switch and endure predominantly white spaces. As Kellee Terrell writes for Vogue, “We need a space where our interests, issues, fears, and lives are always at the center… And as Insecure‘s Issa and Molly remind us — those spaces are the ones we create with each other.”
The female friendship has also been shown to have the potential to unite women in rebellion against larger structures of oppression. The 1980 film 9 to 5 provided an early model for this, as three women in a male-dominated office resolve to take down their sexist boss. And the idea of female friendship as liberation is at the heart of 1991’s groundbreaking Thelma & Louise. After Louise kills Thelma’s would-be rapist, the friends’ cross-country odyssey together helps them transform into confident, emancipated women. The movie’s famous ending freezes them in flight, emphasizing the freedom they’ve discovered through each other.
But most of all, the importance of female friendship is simply that it offers a deeper enjoyment of life. We’ve seen countless movies revolve around the reunion of formerly close girlfriends who’ve lost touch in adulthood, emphasizing how their lives just aren’t as fun without each other.
Samantha Albertson: “I’d forgotten how much it helped to have you guys as friends.” - Now and Then
While women are taught to see marriage and motherhood as the ultimate markers of feminine success, in 2019, London School of Economics professor Paul Dolan made headlines when he said that, “the healthiest and happiest population subgroup are women who never married or had children.” It may be time for our culture to also reassess the importance of friendships to a woman’s personal fulfillment. In Bridesmaids, Annie spends most of the movie envying Helen for her polished, perfect life, but in the end, we see why this woman who seems to have everything is left feeling empty:
Helen Harris: “I don’t have any female friends.” - Bridesmaids
In Dead to Me, Christina Applegate’s Jen and Linda Cardellini’s Judy form a life-changing friendship in the aftermath of losing or separating from their male partners — and the dark comedy even implies that, on some level, what will really make a woman happiest is to get rid of the man in her life and bond with a female friend who accepts and appreciates her for who she really is.
Jen Harding: “She’s the only person who has been here for me. The only person that doesn’t make me feel like I am failing at everything!” - Dead to Me 1x3
Friendship as Romance
In many ways, the female friendship has become the love narrative of our time. Many creators explicitly use romance language to describe their stories’ central friendship. So what does the friendship-as-romance look like in practice?
First, many modern stories put the best friend in the esteemed role usually reserved for the romantic interest. In Bridesmaids, the love object two women feud over isn’t a guy — it’s a platonic girlfriend. Subverting the idea of women coming together to discuss their boy problems, the movie shows Annie using her male love interest to vent about her friendship. In Frances Ha, Frances explains her ideal romantic relationship by describing a hypothetical experience of locking eyes with a person at a crowded party:
Frances Halladay: “And you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes… because that is your person in this life.” - Frances Ha
At the end of the movie, she gets this longed-for moment of connection — not with a boyfriend, but with her best friend.
Like romances, female friendship stories channel the feeling of actually being in love. This can take the form of the intoxicating, obsessive, or sometimes even destructive pull of a friend who utterly captivates us. Other stories capture what it’s like to be totally smitten with your friend.
We’ve also begun to acknowledge the devastating pain of friend breakups. The pop culture canon prepares us for romantic heartbreak, and can even make this feel like an important, universal rite of passage… but there’s no such stock narrative about parting ways with a friend. The 1978 film Girlfriends was one of the first movies to dramatize the disorientation of your best friend moving onto a new, more “adult” phase of life without you. More and more stories now treat this dynamic seriously.
Sasha Weiss: [Screaming] “You still talk to someone at 2 in the morning! It’s just him now. Nothing changed for you. It just changed for me!” - Life Partners
Season four of Insecure focuses on the deterioration of the friendship between Molly and Issa that has always been at the heart of the show. This break happens through a series of small fractures. The women neglect their relationship by not prioritizing one-on-one time. Each fails to see the personal progress the other is making, instead, holding onto outdated or unflattering impressions. The show also reveals how, while many people are willing to do whatever it takes to make a romantic partnership work, we may not be prepared to do the same for our friendships.
Molly Carter: “Maybe who you are now and who I am now just… don’t fit anymore.”
Issa Dee: “Okay.” - Insecure 4x9
The tension between Molly and Issa creates a crushing emotional impact that viewers are probably more used to feeling toward their favorite on-screen couples. Ultimately, the season sends the message that a platonic best friend who really gets you is as rare as a romantic soulmate — and these relationships need to be nurtured, cherished, and worked on just like any marriage.
Molly Carter: “I’m glad you came.”
Issa Dee: “I’m glad you called.” - Insecure 4x10
Friendships are defined by enduring appreciation, love, and the choice to show up. As writer Ann Friedman puts it, “They are not sanctioned by any church, nor recognized officially by any state. This is perhaps why women, historically diminished by the government and burdened by the family, find such fulfillment and power among friends.” The female friendship is radical in that it rejects the ideals that define so many relationships in our society: it’s not about possessing someone forever, or grounded in the idea that one person “wears the pants.” It’s about equals dealing with their individual dreams and problems together, rooting for each other, and doing life side by side. It represents completely rewriting the narrative of what a meaningful relationship looks like… and that means the female friendship has the power to open up undiscovered possibilities, both in our culture and within ourselves.
Thelma Yvonne Dickinson: “Louise, no matter what happens, I’m glad I came with you.” - Thelma & Louise
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