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23 March 2016

From The Princess Diaries to Tangerine, the best women’s friendships in film

Relationships between women – in life and in the movies – are often as richly cinematic as their romantic counterparts.

By Simran Hans

If the romantic comedy has been transmuted into – or rather, hijacked by – the bromance, what exactly is the genre’s female equivalent? With 45 per cent of the top grossing Hollywood movies failing the Bechdel Test in 2015, it’s hard enough to get films to include two named women who have a conversation about something other than a man, let alone an accurate, interesting portrayal of a friendship between two or more women.

Without a neat portmanteau to describe films that depict female friendship, it’s easy to forget that they actually exist – but they do, and in as many different varieties as the friendships themselves. There are brooding “I’m unhealthily obsessed with my BFF” dramas; slushy weepies; sugary teen movies; buddy comedies about girl gangs; but few capture the way women relate to one another with any kind of specificity. Sex and the City (the TV series, not the films) mostly did it well – it was never really about the sex, but rather the push-pull of the clashing egos and conflicting emotions between its four central characters. However, it unfolded leisurely over six seasons – a luxury not afforded to films with the same or at least similar concerns.

From giddy infatuations to comfortable, life partner-style ease (think of the scene in Frances Ha where Greta Gerwig’s Frances describes her relationship with her best friend Sophie like “a married lesbian couple that don’t have sex any more”), through jealousy, heartbreak and compromise, platonic relationships between women – in life and in the movies – are often as richly cinematic as their romantic counterparts. In Mistress America, the friendship that forms between Brooke (Greta Gerwig) and Tracy (Lola Kirke) is an obsession forged in the throes of loneliness as “Baby Tracy” struggles to find her footing at university in a new city. Tracy quickly falls for Brooke and the glamour she represents, losing herself in the shininess of a new friend in an attempt to ease the ache of emptiness.

Other films about female friendship explore what happens when the bond between two women is threatened by the arrival of a man. In Girlfriends, Walking and Talking and Frances Ha, three respective pairs of roommates are wedged apart by romantic relationships. Though each of these films comes to its own (admittedly untidy) resolution, the female friendships at their respective centres aren’t fractured beyond repair – though they do capture the bittersweet nature of growing up and growing apart.

The same can’t be said for Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, which depicts the ugliness of a longstanding female friendship turned sour with novelistic detail. Katherine Waterson’s Virginia and Elisabeth Moss’s Catherine are perfectly passive aggressive as a pair whose friendship has been poisoned by jealousy and splintered by distance – though there’s a realism in the way Queen of Earth brims with Elena Ferrante-style internalised angst. The sharp sting of betrayal that’s felt when your best friend replaces you with her boyfriend is enough to send anyone into an existential tailspin, let alone the emotionally unstable Catherine.

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My favourite films about women allow for conflict while letting their characters maintain a sense of sisterly solidarity. In The Princess Diaries, Lily (Heather Matarazzo) is honest about the feelings of jealousy stirred up by her best friend’s princess duties, telling her that, “The green monster of jealousy came out because you were Miss Popular and I thought I was losing my best friend so I got angry and upset and hurt, and I told you, I need an attitude adjustment!”

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Later, there’s a scene that sees Anne Hathaway’s Mia laying low in class, shiny, newly-tamed mane tucked in an unflattering grey felt hat. Her best friend valiantly defends the formerly-frizzy Mia when she reveals her blow-dry to cries of “It looks like she’s had a head transplant!” (Lily’s response: “Well I think it rocks! Voltaire, hair. I would personally like to learn about Voltaire.”) A lesser film might’ve used its best friend to throw the heroine’s strengths and weaknesses into sharp relief – but in The Princess Diaries, Lily gets her own arc too.

In the best kinds of these films, women are wells of strength, drawing (and only occasionally draining) power from each other. In Sean Baker’s Christmas-themed caper Tangerine (2015), the quiet power of female friendship is demonstrated in the sisterly sharing of a wig. When a bigoted passerby throws a bottle of piss out of their car window at trans sex worker Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) takes her straight to the launderette. Sin-Dee sits exposed in her wig cap while her soaked clothes and wig spin, stewing in shame when Alexandra offers up her own wig in an act of unprecedented tenderness.

It’s a touching moment that spotlights the supposedly feminine trait of self-sacrifice – something that makes same-sex friendships between women special and sacred. Women are generous towards one another, buoyed by an encyclopedic knowledge of their friends’ tics and flaws. But, as these films show, women can be flinchy and flighty and selfish too. This is a good thing. The portrayal of a rich variety of friendships between different kinds of women will lead to better films – and better roles for women in general, provided we let them talk to one another.