Diablog: Female Friendships in TV, Part I

Sometimes what you need is a good portrayal of a complex friendship.
Sometimes what you need is a good portrayal of a complex friendship.

Gemma: When I was in college and fighting with a friend, my uncle’s gf said that we’re socialized to believe that friendships between women are these Simple, Beautiful things, and there’s something Wrong if they aren’t, and how much happier I’d be if I realized how deeply untrue that was. I found that to be true in practice and it’s something I’ve watched for in narrative since. I’m interested in the cases where a central character is female-identified and the Best Friend figure has a real story, and where the complexities of the friendship are not written to devalue it.

Rasha: I like your pitch, and I will roll with it. I agree that womyn friendships are Complex, ropey, thorny, full of difficult mirroring, and deeply affirming. It took me a while to realize that. What are some fictional female friendships we can look at on TV/film?

G: Well, my favorite these days is Jackie and O’Hara, even as they are no longer officially on the air.

R: Since this is you and I, we are probably obligated to talk about Kalinda and Alicia.

You know, in the days where the actual actors sat at the same bar.
You know, in the days where the actual actors sat at the same bar.

G: We are indeed. I think there’s something interesting in the thread of Olivia and Abby on Scandal, even as it’s never been written to my satisfaction.

Glamorous, but not all that satisfying.
Glamorous, but not all that satisfying.

(And I know GA is dependent on female friendships as well, so you’re welcome to bring that in, even though I don’t watch.)

R: There is. I am a little less compelled by most of the friendships on Grey’s Anatomy these days–it’s more the family and work relationships that seem to be pulsing with life. But Cristina remains one of my favorite characters and her relationship with Meredith is a worthy candidate for this conversation.

Wholly in favor of friend schnuggling.
Wholly in favor of friend schnuggling.

I haven’t watched Orange is the New Black, but I know you do, and I suspect there might be several relationships on that show that qualify for your pitch.

G: Yes, indeed. I’d look mainly at Taystee and Poussey for OITNB, with interesting parallels to Kalinda and Alicia, I think

R: Hunh, I would not have guessed that from what the Internet memes tell me. What parallels do you see?

Well, let's consider this one for a minute.
Well, let’s consider this one for a minute.

G: I am talking more about the first couple of seasons, less so recently, but I’d go with the potency of Poussey’s attraction to Taystee, Taystee’s lack of interest on that score and how fully the need for their friendship overcomes any concerns about that, how devastated Poussey is when the question of loyalty to someone else divides them and what it means for what is usually her power in the world. I’m not really talking about the most recent season, for various reasons.

R: This brings up something I almost introduced in the beginning: the presence of sexuality/eros in female friendships even where there isn’t a romantic relationship, even where only one of them might identify as gay/bi/queer/fluid, and perhaps even when neither of them might be directly interested in romance. I don’t have anything direct to offer here, but I feel attentive to the presence of latent eros in female friendships as it drives something other than a sexual relationship. Of course, I am of the opinion that all real friendships involve some degree of romance. We court friends, we are excited by who we can be with/because of their friendship.

G: I too am of that opinion; I think romance is a word that we—Americans especially—have set too many limits on. Friend-courtship is definitely a real thing, and the difference between portraying that on TV shows (e.g. Awkward Black Girl) and starting in medias res (e.g. Nurse Jackie) is an interesting one too.

R: So even though we’re not talking about queer relationships on TV, I think we’d be missing something by not addressing the way romance/eros moves through female friendships. It sounds like with Kalinda/Alicia and Taystee/Poussey, we get to see the dance of developing friendship. I arrived late to Awkward Black Girl, and my viewing is incomplete–what’s the friendship you’re thinking of there?

G: J and CC. J starts isolated, and has a weird sense of vibes with CC until she finally figures out that they are both awkward and then they engage in a joyous, awkward friendship.

Ain't no party like an awkward party.
Ain’t no party like an awkward party.

R: :) What different kinds of stories do you see us getting when we start in the middle of a friendship rather than during the courtship dance?

G: I think we see assumptions rather than discovery of intimacy. That’s one of the most compelling things about O’Hara and Jackie. Their closeness is not a discovery; it’s part of how the world is structured. O’Hara for the first season is the only one who knows about Jackie’s two lives. Her own life has been divided enough that she’s never wanted an explanation.

Bridging the divided-lives gap.
Bridging the divided-lives gap.

R: In some ways, starting in the middle of their friendships allows us as viewers to have a more intimate and even contentious understanding of each characters lives. Because we see Jackie and O’Hara through each others’ lenses, we get an understanding of them that is already informed by both the judgments and acceptances within their friendships. I’m now finding it hard to think of other female friendships that start in the middle.

G: Olivia and Abby.

R: Right!

G: And Taystee and Poussey. It’s not quite clear how long either of them’s been in prison in S1, but they’re already very much a dynamic duo. And I guess Brennan and Angela?

A cute, if shallowly written, friendship.
A cute, if shallowly written, friendship.

R: How does that change the dynamic of the story, or what kinds of stories can be told on OINTB? Let’s come back to Olivia/Abby and Brennan/Angela. (Sidenote: does Angela ever call Temperance Brennan [aka Bones] anything other that “sweetie”? I seriously cannot remember her using Tempe’s name at all.)

G: (She refers to her as Brennan when she’s not talking to her, but I don’t know that she addresses her by anything other than “sweetie,” no.) Well, I do believe the Trojan horse framing about OITNB, which I know some critics don’t: that the White Fish Out of Water bit with Piper is ultimately a smokescreen for getting us into the clearly deeper, richer stories of the other characters, primarily WOC, in the prison. And the unfailing depth of Taystee and Poussey’s connection changes our understanding of how the micro-society within the prison is built, and also offers an intimacy that is genuinely not transactional, when we’re being taught to view the prison society as primarily either transactional or split into “families.” Taystee and Poussey are distinct from either of those frameworks.


R: That sounds like a narrative harvest worth fighting for, even as I confess that the prospect of entering the story via Taylor Schilling’s character is what has kept me away.

G: She sucks, but the narrative is entirely down with allowing you to believe she sucks, all the more so after the first season. I mean, I think S2 is a huge narrative mistake and the choices made to create it a much bigger racial problem than literally anything else on the show, but it was actually done to offer more to Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley and was successful at that. And I am talking about that season as the deepest source of Taystee and Poussey’s friendship, in spite of my huge objections to the way they shaped the story around it.

R: Maybe someday I will venture it. I am super excited by all the actresses I’ve been introduced to through OITNB existing in the world. Let’s get a rough frame on Oliva/Abby and perhaps Angela/Brennan and wrap up?

G: (Just a side note that I am SO EXCITED for Samira Wiley to be Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale and if that friendship is anything like it is in the book we may need to do a Part III to this come May.)

This is going to happen!!!
This is going to happen!!!

R: (Alright then)

G: I mean, Olivia/Abby has never been written particularly well, but it is a friendship that starts in medias res. But the power dynamic is built into it for a long time; the loyalty is assumed because Olivia Rescued Abby.

R: I, too, wish for more development of the Olivia/Abby friendship, mainly because Olivia needs a friend and a peer, not just someone who she takes care of or is in battle with.

Or both of those things simultaneously.
Or both of those things simultaneously.

G: This is true. And Abby has just been both of those things.

R: Yeah, I wish for more dynamism and stickiness in that friendship, but it often feels really shallow. And yet, Abby is the best candidate for a female friend that Olivia has. Mellie may be a peer, but they will never really be friends, no matter how many campaigns they run together and how much hootch they drink.

Mellie plans to challenge that limit.
Mellie plans to challenge that limit.

G: This is very true, although Shonda & co. do try to push that connection as far as they can.

R: Counterpoint: does anyone on Scandal really have a friend?

G: We might have to define the word, which I’m reluctant to do. Scandal is a world where nothing comes before power.

R: Yeah. Sounds right.

G: So either almost everyone is friends by the terms of their world, or none of them are by the terms of ours.

R: Looking to Bones: there is a more of a Jackie/O’Hara dynamic to Brennan/Angela, life advice included. Did we ever get a flashback episode of how Brennan and Angela became friends?

G: Yeah. Brennan basically discovered her as a street artist, as far as I remember.

R: For some reason, I’m imagining them meeting in Venice Beach, even though the show is set in DC. I really can’t remember that story. I mostly remember their relationship in terms of Angela giving relationship advice.

G: It’s kind of Angela gives advice on How To Be Human. And I think the scene was by the beach. I do want to observe the pattern of the secondary friend being more “wild” in one form or another. It’s a trope, but it has some interesting results.

R: Ha! Angela, O’Hara, Kalinda fit the “wild” type in one way or another–boundary breaking/bending, bisexual/fluid. I think Meredith is actually more wild than Cristina. Maybe that makes Cristina the main character?! I wish.

Cristina's hair is definitely wilder than Meredith's, but that's kind of its own thing.
Cristina’s hair is awesomely wilder than Meredith’s, but that’s kind of its own thing.

G: I would definitely be more inclined to watch the show if Ellen Pompeo were secondary.

R: And Olivia lives a wilder life than Abby, for better and for worse.

G: Well, I mean, in the end Jackie ends up more “wild” than O’Hara, and in some ways the drama in Brennan’s life outpaces Angela’s. There’s often a switcheroo. But the trope of setting those frameworks/expectations is an interesting one.

R: Ok, I need to wrap. Let’s think of questions/dynamics for next time. This one seems fruitful.

G: Yes! I also want to think about the role of gender. Like, what gives these relationships their female identity.

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