Is fighting over "the sisterhood" holding us back?

Singling out female friendships for scrutiny has ceased to do us any favours, say Rhiannon and Holly.

How should one go about befriending a woman? This seemingly simple question has baffled both genders for time immemorial (read: at least 25 years.) ‘Can men and women be friends?’ has, of course, been bandied about as the eternally unanswerable anthropological equivalent of ‘what is the meaning of life?’ for quite some time, resulting in an abundance of controversial essays, playground/office japes, and toe-curlingly embarrassing rom coms.

As the world dealt with this for a decade, limited edition copies of When Harry Met Sally clutched tightly in their speculating hands, the other inevitable question lay low for a while. But now that bromances are all the rage and same-sex friendship is once again under the spotlight, we seem to be revisiting the strictly female side of befriending women. We have started to once again ask ourselves ‘can women truly be friends with women?’

In the dysfunctional ocean of the internet, everyone is willing to stick an oar in. ‘Women are such bitches to each other,’ is a common phrase, predominantly on American websites. And in a way, who could blame them? The view pumped out by the Hollywood media is mostly that of ultra-flaky girlie girls who are best friends until the latest lipgloss runs out or Robert Pattinson walks by.

Meanwhile, their menfolk retain a more steadfast loyalty to their brothers, who they continue to chest-bump affectionately during nights out to the football before complaining over beer about the wives they chose to propose to. Following the ‘logic’ of this skewered worldview, there are now entire websites dedicated to deconstructing why women are ‘so bitchy’ to other women. A lot of them have gone so far as to suggest that ‘women being bitches’ is scientifically natural and/or proven, painting the vast majority of female friendships as superficial constructs developed to get them closer to something they’d really like instead (men, money, fame, anything fluffy and pink.) It’s safe to say that out there in cyberspace, the sisterhood really isn’t coming off that well.

So is it true that we’ve all abandoned the sisterhood and become back-stabbing bitches instead? Back in the days when being a feminist was trendy and your boyfriend wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a couple of inches of armpit hair, sisters were doing it for themselves and they wanted people to know it. Even the nineties brought a healthy dose of Simon Fuller-sanctioned girl power in the shape of the Spice Girls. And then very quickly, the cool factor in female loyalty seems to have wound up abandoned on the dressing room floor, crumpled in a sad heap alongside Geri Halliwell’s signature Union Jack minidress. We may not have actually have suddenly turned on each other en masse, but pop culture definitely got sick of us liking each other.

The next time ‘the sisterhood’ came under real public discussion was arguably not until Caitlin Moran’s bestseller, How To Be A Woman, hit the shelves. It turned out that she had an entirely new take on it anyway. In short, Moran didn’t believe in ‘the sisterhood’ - and she put forward a great catalogue of reasons why you shouldn’t, either. If girls refuse to criticise girls, it destroys our credibility and turns us all into sexists, she claimed. In order to be taken seriously, we can’t be seen to be enacting the prejudice that has been used against us, however pretty the packaging for that prejudice is. ‘The sisterhood’ is just another idea we should leave in the seventies, along with the mullet and tie-dye dungarees, she suggested. And it’s certainly difficult to deny that on the surface, a conscious effort to protect other women from scorn just looks like replacing an old type of shitty bias with a new one.

The counter-argument says that at its best, a ‘sisterhood’ mentality provides respite in a world where the odds are already stacked against us. By sticking together, we’re merely working towards redressing that imbalance. And undeniably, there are some ‘head slamming on desk’ historical moments when we definitely feel a loyalty to the sisterhood should have stepped in: no pointing fingers, Elizabeth I, but certain monarchs who claimed to be better at their jobs because they were ‘more like a man’ didn’t do us any favours. Maggie Thatcher, likewise, is said to have claimed that there were hardly any women clever enough to be in politics, never mind follow in her own (terrifying) footsteps. Jokes about how much brains it takes to snatch a milk carton off a child aside, the spirit of Thatcher lives on in a significant minority of modern women across boardrooms and operating theatres and laboratories alike, claiming that the key to their success lies in being ‘different from most women’. Ladies, please. Get back here and start hitting those home runs for your own team, rather than defecting to the other side the moment you’ve honed your skills.

The return of the contentious issue of female friendship hasn’t escaped the attention of Jezebel, which published a guide last week on how to be another woman’s friend (if you’re a woman yourself, that is.) Its common sense approach - be honest, yet loyal; stay tolerant; exercise compassion - was essentially a perfect description of friendship, alongside a reminder that the idea of women as two-faced, false harridans with as much depth as a paddling pool isn’t true after all. In fact, the whole article just reinforced human truths that all women (and indeed all people) really know very well. Yet it wasn’t decried as a piece of lazy journalism: it was popular, well-received, and even congratulated for a revolutionary message. Why is that? Well, because we were all so versed in the doublethink of ‘female friendships’ that we lived our own versions of them perfectly happily, while simultaneously believing in the notion of the ‘toxic female friend’ that gets sold to us from every corner. In our droves, us women found it truly a novel message that our friends are really just our friends.

Ultimately, the singling out of female friendships for scrutiny has ceased to do us any favours. But whether you’re with Caitlin that everyone should just be ‘one of the guys’, or with Jezebel that girl-on-girl crime is just bad sense, it’s worth reminding yourself not to buy into the bullshit. If you truly believe that ‘women are such bitches to each other’, then what you really believe is that ‘women are bitches’, full stop.

That means that you’re ten years away from commenting loudly at the roundtable that you wouldn’t have made enough to buy a pair of vintage Louboutins for every day of the week if you were like ‘other women’. And do you want to be that managing director, claiming triumph over the natural handicap of womanhood? Didn’t think so. No one’s asking you to support a system of preferential treatment any more - but if you don’t care to keep a single female friend, sister, then you better start asking yourself why.

Were the Spice Girls friends? Who cares. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad