The BFI is now moving into the second month of a season dedicated to film depictions of female friendships (‘Girlfriends)’. Given the recent revelations around women’s treatment in the entertainment industry, now more than ever there feels a need to have films which depict women in a nuanced and thought-provoking light. The films included in the season have often had creative input from women themselves, with female directors and/or scriptwriters helping to shape films which feel like authentic representations of the complexity of female friendships.
There is a pervasive belief that in some way women’s friendships are inferior to those shared between men; that they are more superficial, ‘catty’ or changeable. As one researcher into the topic of female friendship put it, this is a belief that can be found everywhere from ‘the occasional pronouncements of social scientists; articulate observation of essayists, novelists and other purveyors of conventional wisdom; and in the homey generalizations of the “person on the street’. It is something that many of us are conditioned to think from such a young age that it becomes difficult for women to extricate themselves from the belief. I’ve met many women who even pride themselves on avoiding female friendships, preferring the company of men as they’re more ‘relaxed’ and less ‘bitchy’. This is a concept which naturally has found its way into popular culture – we’re all more than familiar with the ‘mean girls posse’ trope or the backstabbing best friend. Female friendships are often revealed to be false and full of elaborate schemes based on a need to compete for men or work opportunities.
The issue isn’t that there are any films which depict these kinds of friendships, as women are of course as just as capable of acting cruelly as men are, it’s the sheer prevalence of the concept. The very fact that the (albeit deeply flawed) Bechdel test exists shows that there is a deep-rooted issue underlying the depiction of female friendships in cinema. Many films lack scenes of women discussing anything other than men. What will comes as no surprise to many women, however, is that research shows how women communicate more deeply than their male counterparts. A study on adult friendships by Aries and Johnson found that female participants converse ‘more frequently’ than their male counterparts and ‘on a greater depth in topics involving personal and family matters’ . In fact, the only topic which men were found to discuss in greater depth and more often than women was sports. So like Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own puzzling at the lack of female friendships in the novels she reads, I’m led to ask – where are all the ‘girlfriends’ at?
Luckily, things aren’t entirely bleak. The BFI’s latest season brings together a collection of films which show female friendships at their messy, talkative best, in a range which covers both the ‘classics’ and some films that many may well not be familiar with. These films act as reminders that female friendships are every bit as intriguing as their male counterparts and deserving of intelligent and challenging representation in films. These are often the very kind of films which become something like old friends in of themselves and can be returned to time and time again in moments of need.
Although the February half of the season is behind us (along with it two of cinema’s most lovable friendship duos in the form of Muriel’s Wedding and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion) March is full of both iconic and hidden gems.
The academic Jennifer Coates claims that friendship is unusual compared to other relationships in our lives in that it is based on equality. This means that ‘even when there are differences of age or social class or ethnic background, friendship can only be sustained – will only deserve the name if participants treat each other as equals’ . A common theme in the ‘Girlfriends’ season is the struggle to maintain this sense of equality in the face of great life changes, such as career or romantic successes. Often women begin at the same point, whether meeting at a young age (as in Beaches) or simply a similar life stage (Girlfriends), and find their friendship battling to survive the inevitable jealousies and heartache caused by seeing each other take different paths in life. ‘The grass is always greener,’ and a common theme is that a woman’s feeling of success in one area often comes at a cost in another. There is an immense amount of pressure on women to ‘have it all’ and these films explore the effect that has on our relationships with each other. When in Beaches (Gary Marshall, 1988) CC Bloom castigates her old confidante Hillary for turning her back on their friendship, Hillary erupts back ‘I was jealous. I was so jealous of you I couldn’t see straight!’. Although both women had found success in some way in their lives, their deep friendship was almost strangled by the feelings of envy that they both felt towards the other. Films like these use women’s outbursts of passion as antidotes to the common preconception that their friendships are shallow in nature. These women yell, fight, weep and laugh their way through decades of friendship, and it is incredibly enriching watching them do so.
This season isn’t all just about the trials and tribulations of female friendship, but also about joyously banding together to give everyone else hell. Excellent examples of this are the two films scripted by Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hanks, 1953) and The Women (George Cukor, 1939). Whilst the former is the more famous of the two, the opportunity to see Joan Crawford delivering some of the most hilariously biting remarks in cinema history in the latter isn’t one to be missed. Playing the villain of the story, out-maneuvered by a group of close friends, Crawford delivers the iconic final line “And by the way, there’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society — outside of a kennel.” Anita Loos’ women are feisty and more than a little devious, with a rejection of traditional female behaviour which even now feels like two fingers to polite society. These friendships allow women to be earnestly themselves and help each other deal with any backlash which may come with that. Another film which embodies this attitude is the eighties classic Nine to Five (Colin Higgins, 1980) featuring Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. The film sees the trio wreaking revenge on their sexist, lecherous boss after growing sick of his abuse. Excitingly, it was reported recently that all three of the actresses are in support of a reboot, the plot of which would see the three older women passing on advice to a younger group facing similar issues. Given the current #MeToo revelations, a film which shows women working together to put sexist male bosses in their place sounds apropos.
The season also provides the opportunity to see some films which many will be unfamiliar with or are unlikely to come across elsewhere; such as the documentary Martha and Niki (Tora Mårtens, 2016) which features two women participating in and winning the biggest International Street Dance Competition in Paris. The season features several foreign language films, such as the joyous Czech romp Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966) or the intricate, albeit lengthy Japanese film Happy Hour (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2015). This representation of both real and fictional friendships from across cultures feels like an important addition to the season, which could have easily relied too heavily on popular hits or singular perspectives.
Outside of the standard screenings, the BFI will also be hosting The Guilty Feminist Live!, the immensely popular podcast run by Deborah Frances-White. The session will focus on discussions of female friendship as well as other hot ‘feminist’ topics, taking an honest approach to the difficulties that lay in trying to maintain a non-hypocritical approach to womanhood. With podcasts such as The Guilty Feminist, or The High Low, providing many women with an outlet to talk openly about their feelings about how they’re represented in cinema and how hard it is to always embrace the ideals they would like to, this feels like an important addition to the season. These films shouldn’t be viewed passively, but dug into, teased, and torn apart. Not every film in the season will appeal to everyone, and all are flawed in some way, but they at least provide a thought-provoking jump off point for conversations around how female friendship is represented in cinema.
The recent glee that both popular news outlets and social media personalities have taken from the very public disagreements between Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall just proves that negative sentiment around female friendship is alive and kicking. The outright pleasure taken in the revelation that these two actors who had played such iconic female friends were found out to be enemies after all, feels perverse and rooted, I believe, in the idea that people felt like it proved something to be true about women’s relationships. The belief that adult women can’t truly be friends as they are portrayed in Sex and the City, because groups of women are bound to be inherently cliquey and preoccupied with social one upmanship is pervasive. Well, to hell with them I say. Roxane Gay in her book the Bad Feminist  puts it best:
“Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses – pretty but designed to SLOW women down”
So this International Women’s Day, if you’re looking for an opportunity to celebrate female friendship for the complex and rather fantastic thing it is, then this season at the BFI is by no means a bad place to start. And even if no deep, feminist insight is attained, at the very least you’re guaranteed a lot of laughs and a few tears (looking at you, Beaches) along the way.
For a full list of the films featured in the Girlfriends season, please visit the BFI website. We also have an exclusive code providing 2-4-1 tickets across the season quote girlfriends241 when booking.
 Wright, Paul H. “Mens friendships, womens friendships and the alleged inferiority of the latter.” Sex Roles, vol. 8, no. 1, 1982, pp. 1–20., doi:10.1007/bf00287670.
 Aries, Elizabeth J., and Fern L. Johnson. “Close friendship in adulthood: Conversational content between same-Sex friends.” Sex Roles, vol. 9, no. 12, 1983, pp. 1183–1196., doi:10.1007/bf00303101.
 Coates, Jennifer. Gender and Discourse. Edited by Ruth Wodak, SAGE, 1997.
 Gay, Roxane. Bad feminist: essays. Olive Editions, 2017.