"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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear