"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.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue