Why Aren't There More Strong Female Friendships on TV?
There was a scene in the recent series premiere of USA's freshman buddy comedy Playing House that saw pregnant (and newly single) protagonist Maggie chase down her pal Emma as Emma made her way to the airport to return to her high-powered job in China. Maggie eventually caught up, told Emma she loved her in front of a whole crowd of people, and then begged Emma to stay and help her raise her baby. It was a nice play on the clichéd "race to the airport" scene that the movie industry has somehow tricked us all into thinking is romantic, and the bit ended with a bystander urging the two women to kiss as one of them explained that they're just really good friends. Not only was it funny, but it rewrote a boring trope in a way that highlighted the significance of strong female friendships—something that we don't see very often on television.
Female friendships are often just as important, if not more so, than the romantic relationships usually portrayed in media. So why doesn't TV feature more of them? I mean, just think about how many shows revolve around a "bromance"—it's a term that's only become popular in recent years, but male friendships have been a small-screen staple for a very long time. That mine has been plundered so many times that no one even bats an eye when another series about dudes being dudes comes along. It's not that I dislike bromances—I'm guilty of loving Teen Wolf's Scott-and-Stiles friendship a bit too much, and I fondly recall Turk and JD's relationship on Scrubs—but I didn't realize until I started watching Playing House just how much TV is lacking deep, honest friendships between women.
As Playing House has progressed (it's now five episodes into its debut season), we've seen Maggie and Emma's friendship grow beyond the simple premise-establishing set-up stories of the pilot. Emma often acts as Maggie's personal hype-woman when she's feeling less than beautiful because of her pregnancy. She's supported Maggie as Maggie has struggled with the reality of her impending divorce. When the two women were both interested in dating the same man, the show focused more on their friendship than on their respective romantic relationships. It's easy to see why they've been best friends for so long, and it's a treat to watch.
It makes me wonder why we don't see more of that sort of thing. It's not that strong female friendships don't exist on TV; Cristina and Meredith of Grey's Anatomy immediately come to mind (though who knows how much we'll see of that pairing we'll see in the wake of Sandra Oh's departure from the series). But they're very rarely the center of a series, and they're very rarely depicted as serving any purpose except being a vehicle for discussions about men. There's a reason the Bechdel test exists, and it's because women on TV often spend far too many scenes talking about the opposite sex when they could be conversing about literally anything else. Relationship drama will part of television until the end of time, but it's not the only thing that's interesting.
It's a baffling world we live in where many female TV characters are portrayed as stereotypical friends who secretly hate each other or who only care about finding a man. As a woman myself, I can honestly say that 95 percent of the conversations I have with my female friends are not about men. In fact, most of them have something to do with food, needing to find food, and the next time I'll be able to eat food. But I can't speak for all the ladies.
Television has showcased several iconic female friendships over the years, going as far back as Lucy and Ethel on I Love Lucy and Mary and Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but they're few and far between. Even shows that are praised for their true-to-life storytelling are often lacking in the Strong Female Friendships department. Consider Friday Night Lights: It's often been called one of the most sincere TV series ever made, but even though it featured several regular female cast members, most of the relationships were male/male or male/female. Or Battlestar Galactica: The most important relationships on that show were between Kara Thrace and the Adamas, never Kara and another woman. Or The West Wing: CJ Cregg was in a position of power, but when did she really interact with other women on more than a superficial basis? Or even Sex and the City: The main cast was all women, and they had very strong friendships, but holy crap those women spent way too much time talking about men and sex. Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte—and SATC itself—are important part of TV history, but that show doesn't exactly represent the average woman.
I've never considered myself to be a television viewer who's deeply concerned with gender bias—I've never been all that perturbed by, say, the lack of women on Supernatural, or by the way women are written on The Newsroom—but Playing House stands out. It feels like TV has finally gotten female friendship right. It's the foundation of the series, which in itself is memorable because most of the strong female relationships we've seen on TV in recent memory have been more of an added bonus, acting as just one aspect of any given series. Leslie's friendship with Ann was a highlight of Parks and Recreation, Buffy and Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a very strong friendship that grounded much of the series—especially when Willow eventually moved into the Summers house—and Lily and Robin on How I Met Your Mother proved that writers don't have to choose between showcasing male friendships and female friendships. But even though it's easy enough to name a handful of good ones, wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to? If television as a whole portrayed female friendships more naturally, then we wouldn't feel compelled to point it out when a single show gets one right. Hopefully that day will come soon rather than later; in the meantime, here's a quick look back at some of our favorite female friendships on TV.
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