Cine-Spiration: Beyond Mean Girls, Magnolia, and Ms. Dunham

This week, the Summer 2014 Virtual Reciprocity Ring kicked off with its first pitch released to a group of over sixty women. I’m excited by the enthusiasm and genuine care that have been shown by the group, even to women they’ve only just “met” via introductions online. It’s easily among the strongest examples of female friendship and goodwill I’ve seen.

I’ve written previously about my nearly constant stead as “the girl among the guys”, and spending this much time working with women has encouraged me to dig deeper and explore that dynamic. Naturally, my communications and film studies backgrounds came into play (the latter of which, oddly enough, featured in depth study of masculinity)- I paid a lot for them, there’s simply no shaking them off now.

With women, both experientially and in popular media, that dynamic is considerably harder to navigate. Emily Rapp, in her essay “Transformation and Transcendence: The Power of Female Friendships”, wrote:

Friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, ‘bonus’ relationships to the truly important ones. Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children. (emphasis added)

IMAGE CREDIT: Thought Catalog

Think about the nature of media portrayals of female relationships. Mean Girls. Sex and the City. Girls. They’re wildly different, but in each instance there are elements that are outside of the reach of many everyday women.

In the case of Mean Girls, proximity brought young women together, not common interest or even a modicum of care for one another.

Sex and the City, while closer, demonstrates that female friendships can exist within the framework of separate lives, but ultimately showed the most strength when one is serving in a surrogate role for another significant life relationship.

And Girls…I like Girls, but it’s hard to want a friendship like the ones that Lena Dunham have written for her characters. These women, brought together by mutual friends or proximity during college, ultimately spend a great deal of time judging one another, allowing each other to fall into irresponsible situations, harboring silent (or sometimes vocal) jealousies, and other elements of friendship that would be hard to tolerate in everyday life.

Slate magazine says all this and more about the present and recent past of female friendships on TV and in movies:

Setting aside the obvious- Hollywood recoils at having too many ladies dominate the screen- great female friendships aren’t plot heavy […] platonic relationships between women aren’t typically complicated by the problems that plague romantic, family, and work relationships.

If the friendships we hold up as TV’s ‘greatest’ require us to divorce our husbands, quit our jobs, and move in together- and thus transfer all our problems on to one another- in order to constitute a meaningful relationship, then few real women have any female friends at all.

The Atlantic echoes Slate’s consternation with the limited scope of female friendships on TV:

The problem isn’t just the old but persistent stereotypes of bitchy cliques and mean girls, “frenemies,” gossips, and clucking hens, but the less obvious, more positive portrayals as well. Usually, the primary job of ‘best friend’ in sitcoms or romantic comedies is to provide moral support as the main character embarks on an exciting new relationship, and to perform damage control after the inevitable breakup. Friends certainly do that, but not only that.

But in this reciprocity ring, I’ve seen women pull together to help one another out, within the realistic context of their daily lives. I’m seeing friends of mine from various circles come together to share resources and ideas of value with one another. Pop culture and other societal influences have taught women to fear that- “what if they like each other better and I’m boxed out?” “Is she going to steal my friends?” But this sort of dynamic, one that encourages mutual respect and assistance, doesn’t breed those types of worries, only strength. We’re offering to provide counsel, resources, and support to one another in a way that my very best female friendships have, but also in a proportion that I haven’t seen in popular culture…until recently.

Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair premiered a new show on USA last week, Playing House. While the premise of the show seems to fit the mold of the “grand pseudo-romantic gesture” that seems less realistic, the show is based in the real-life best friendship of Parham and St. Clair. This is their second show together, after years of working together in the improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade. Their real-life friendship has spanned many years, mileage apart, and generally consists of the sort of small moments and commitments that don’t make for compelling TV in their own right. You can feel that bond in their characters Maggie and Emma, even in their more ridiculous moments:

These are the moments that we don’t always get to show on TV, but absolutely happen. Spoiler alert to the guys that haven’t quit on me in this post so far (prouda you!): Women are silly, inappropriate and sometimes a little gross. But most Hollywood portrayals of them don’t reflect that.

Another outstanding example of this is Comedy Central’s Broad City. Unlike the nature of most programs about female friendships, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (another pair of UCB alumnae) and their relationship are nearly an afterthought as they navigate lives in New York City. Described once as “a funny version of Two Broke Girls,” I love the show for its attention to situational comedy without creating drama of the main characters’ dynamic. A moment where the two women cash a check for one selling a piece of art that in most places would be (a) reduced to a schmaltzy moment or (b) fodder for jealousy, instead looked like this:

And in a weird way, that’s what I’ve loved so much about the Reciprocity Ring project. A summer project dedicated to women has been the best version of female friendships that I could have hoped for. The undercurrent of the relationships that I see forming are comfortable, designed to build up those in the group, and held in the appropriate level of regard- just like those of a solid improv troupe, or of true female friendships. At the same time, the nature of the relationships informs the objectives at hand without taking center stage. I’m so enjoying seeing what has developed in this space, and look forward to continuing to build a space where these real, nuanced, and successful relationships can grow further.

2 thoughts on “Cine-Spiration: Beyond Mean Girls, Magnolia, and Ms. Dunham

  1. I was just thinking today how fruitful the experience has already been and only two pitches have been discussed! Thank you for inviting me. It has been amazing to see folks jump right in to help (relative) strangers. Have you thought about presenting the experience?

  2. Marci, the thought had crossed my mind. I’m considering synthesizing the experience and some of the opinions on it for a piece in the Women in Higher Education Journal…I gotta put a pin in that idea. Thanks for the encouragement 🙂

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