The raw thrill of both “How Should a Person Be?” and “Girls” (and let me acknowledge here that I am hardly the first person to compare the two) is in the way they treat heterosexual coupling as secondary, and how they depict the profundity of female friendships, not to mention their real perils—which are quite different from the competitive jockeying that is so often imagined. It is other women, not men, Dunham and Heti seem to be saying, who most impact the evolution of girls into women. Other women, not men, who provide the opportunities for self-expression and self-discovery. Other women, not men, who bear witness to the triumphs and tragedies of young womanhood. Other women, not men, in whom we both find and lose ourselves.
– Anna Holmes, “The Age of Girlfriends”
This has been a summer of discovering the profundity of my friendships. They are not all female friendships, as not all my friends are female; but I think they are the kind of friendships Holmes is talking about: aromantic, affecting, essential. And because I am female, all my friendships are deeply affected by my experiences of life, and of friendship, as a woman.
Friendship has always been strange and difficult for me. I am somewhat solitary by nature. My parents didn’t have close friends of their own when I was growing up, so they didn’t model good friendships for me. They created an insular, arrogant, antisocial family dynamic that discouraged me from intimacy outside of it. They never gave me any indication that friendships are important for human well-being.
Moreover, our society does a shitty job of teaching girls how to be friends or have them. Girls are mean to each other, we’re told. And, taught from early on to view each other as competitors and tools, secondary to boys, of course they are! My childhood relationships with other girls were fraught with manipulation, rejection, and outright bullying. My friendships with boys were distant or prohibitively awkward, as we all learned gendered expectations about emotional openness and heteronormative restrictions on emotional ties.
As a young adult, I have sabotaged friendship after friendship through awkwardness, prolonged silences, and mistrust. It feels like nothing short of a miracle that some friendships have endured anyway.
When my marriage ended in a clusterfuck that undermined some of my closest friendships, I woke up to how poorly I had been tending those friendships. I not only had failed to call or write, but had been unwilling or unable to trust my friends with the emotional depth and candidness that they deserved — and I needed.
After 25 years of deluding myself with an illusion of self-sufficiency, I realized I need my friends. Haltingly and heartwarmingly, I discovered that they were there for me. As I’ve spent the last three months alone and adrift between homes, I feel like I’ve been learning friendship for the first time.
This wretched summer, my friends have casually done a million tiny and enormous things for which I am grateful.
I’m grateful for the friends who picked me up from my apartment, picked me up from the train station, and picked up my grocery bills. I’m grateful for those who’ve installed me on their couches and made their houses my homes. I’m grateful to friends for taking me out, and for staying in and watching tv with me when I wanted to hide from the city. I’m grateful for when they fed me and when they trusted me to take care of myself. I’m grateful for the friends who have reached out to me every week, or at times even every day, just to say hello. And for those who’ve reached out to me for the first time in months, or even years, like it’s no big thing. I’m grateful for those who’ve shared their problems with me so I wouldn’t have to think about my own, for those who’ve made it easy for me to talk about my troubles, and for those who haven’t pressed me to explain. I’m grateful to my friends who have forgiven me my failures and to those who’ve accepted my forgiveness for the same. I’m grateful for the friends who laugh at me in a way that lets me know they know me. I’m grateful for the friends who include me in their lives, giving me things to do and places to be.
Every one of these gifts has been more than I ever expected. Above and beyond what I ever imagined I would deserve, what I imagined my embarrassingly malnourished friendships could be. Knowing how noncommittal and undependable a friend I have often been, it is difficult to accept these kindnesses. I’m awed by them. It’s hard not to feel like I’m imposing, like even the smallest attention to my needs from another person is too much to accept.
But I’m learning that the sandwich means “I love you.” I’m learning to stop saying “I’m sorry” and just say “thank you.” I’m learning that accepting help is a way of trusting and honoring my friends. It’s a way of being strong, not something for which I should be ashamed.
Many of my friendships are still in woeful disrepair. I have a list as long as my arm of people I should have called or written, like, yesterday. Friendship is a skill, and I’m bad at it. But friendship is a skill, and I can get better at it. I’m starting by making the choice to trust — and so much of this does come down to trust — that the foundations are solid. We’ll figure it out.
When I think about the ways I do feminism in my everyday life, cultivating and caring for friendship is one of the important ones. In a culture that pits women against each other and against men, intentionally forming bonds that we expect to endure is resistance. I think it’s important that we tell each other stories of friendship’s strengths as well as its dangers. Mean Girls is a truth, but it is not the only one. We should let each other know that it can get better: we can expect better; we can do better for each other and ourselves. I celebrate friendship as a feminist as well as a friend.