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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot