"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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era