"She's my person": what are the best female friendships on TV?

From Buffy and Willow to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, relationships between women are no longer depicted only as bloodletting exercises in one-upmanship.

There’s a scene in the third season of medical drama Grey’s Anatomy in which Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) explains to her boyfriend Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) that she has to tell her best friend Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) about their recent engagement before informing the world at large. “This is about Meredith?” her new fiancé asks incredulously. “She’s my person!” Yang snaps back.

The ‘my person’ theme is one that the series always comes back to when exploring the Yang/Grey dynamic: trotted out for season-length arcs that cover parenthood, divorce, pregnancy, abortion, bereavement and emigration. It sounds cheesy as hell. More importantly, it should be cheesy as hell. Instead, it is life-affirming and largely realistic, as fine a depiction of female friendship as you are ever to find on the small screen. As often as I wish Grey’s Anatomy would die a gentle, network-assisted death, I never, ever want to see the end of Cristina and Meredith – they are the Platonic Ideal. 

I was reminded of their near-mythical status when watching clips of the Golden Globes ceremony earlier this week. It was hosted by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, a well-established double act from even before their famous Saturday Night Live partnership (they met at the famous imrov troupe, Second City, which boasts alumni such as Dan Aykroyd and Stephen Colbert). Poehler and Fey’s time on the Weekend Update segment – the first ever all-female hosts – was a (highly successful) joy and their noticeable ease with one another when performing owes as much to their improv training as to their friendship. 

Female friendships in popular culture come in all shapes and guises. For the longest time, they were portrayed almost exclusively as bloodletting exercises in one-upmanship – women seemed to exist purely to vie for existing resources, be they men, that aspirational high-flying job or calorie-light nutrition. The trope of the competitive and jealous female friendship abounds in culture, encouraged by tales of celebrity ‘catfights’ (never just a regular disagreement when it’s two or more women) or terse riders designed to showcase a rival’s (like ‘infernos’ and ‘love rats’, it’s always a ‘rival’!) inferiority.

To an extent, these ideas are still around: observe the breathless ‘sources’ who claim that Beyoncé has no time for Kim Kardashian, a woman who (probably) exists only on the periphery of her social circle...  Thankfully though, from Girls (Sky Atlantic) and Some Girls (BBC3) to Scott and Bailey (ITV1) and Getting On (BBC Four) realistically portrayed female friendships are in fine form on the telly at the moment. 

Around the same time as the much-vaunted Sex and the City, Joss Whedon was putting out some equally superior content for the female friendship canon with Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Theirs was far less glamorous than Carrie-and the-other-three, what with hellmouths and burgeoning evil behind every door. But peel back the layers of demonic activity and teenage worries and you find a great relationship, one that weathers high school where petty jealousies are the order of the day, a love triangle between the girls and their male friend Xander (Willow and Xander’s friendship is worthy of its own essay, to be frank), a discovery of a new sexuality, love lost and found and lost again tragically and even the death of one protagonist.

Even less explored is the friendship between Joan Clayton (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Toni Childs (Jill Marie Jones) in Girlfriends, a rare sitcom with four black female leads, which ran from 2000 to 2008, and received the not entirely welcome subtitle ‘Sex and the City for black people’. Joan and Toni had a remarkable, life-defining friendship: long-term and rife with the very real, very damaging problems that come with knowing someone so comprehensively. It was easily the most important relationship in each woman’s life, more so than any fleeting heterosexual romances. Long before Cristina and Meredith, Joan and Toni were each other’s ‘person’, and they were bloody marvellous.

More recently, the friendship between Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) and Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in Parks And Recreation has been a heart-warming thing in a show with no shortage of heart-warming moments. Their seeming incompatibility is acknowledged sweetly and knowingly (“Oh, Ann. You beautiful, naive, sophisticated newborn baby,” Leslie sighs early in Season 3), but it never feels like a sitcom machination.

Just like in real life, the show demonstrates that our friends don’t always look obvious – but that does not negate their importance. This is also done beautifully in The Vicar of Dibley, with Geraldine and Alice,; in Birds of a Feather, with Dorian and the Rackham sisters; and very recently, Fresh Meat – Vod and Oregon’s Odd Couple friendship is superb. My favourite friendship of the many web series suddenly out there on YouTube remains that between J and Cece (The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl), two socially inept women of colour navigating a world that usually doesn’t have time for their brand of quirk.

Of course, we don’t necessarily watch female protagonists for their friendships, and it is often not even the most compelling parts of their character arcs: Birgitte Nyborg is doing fine sans obvious gal pals in Borgen (BBC Four), as is Olivia Pope in More4’s Scandal. But I watch a lot of television and it seems to me that these ‘good’ friendships are on the up.

‘Good’ here does not necessarily denote ‘exclusively positive’ – whatever that may mean. No, these friendships often show undesirable qualities in otherwise excellent heroines. But that’s the beauty of them. We recognise – and telly continues to confirm – that women and their relationships have the capacity to be rich and multifarious. I may not have the Kalinda Sharma/Alicia Florrick dynamic on The Good Wife going on in my daily life (my God, imagine!), but I can appreciate its complexity and nuance all the same.  

I think it’s great that somehow, in between all the layers of low- and high-level misogyny we internalise via the many screens in our lives, each new generation of viewers is still managing to find popular cultures reference points around which to frame their friendships.

Meredith and Cristina in Grey's Anatomy

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496