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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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.