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.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.