The BFF Paradigm
Recently, I had the pleasure of engaging in a fabulous chat on Twitter with Trinity, Reynje and Laura prompted by Trinity's tweeting a link to the article quoted above. This piece was written by a contributor to Just Between Us, an anthology of writing by Australian authors on the topic of female friendships. The depiction of female friendships--and particularly the BBF (best friend forever) relationship--is one that I frequently find personally challenging in books, movies and television. Most of the time, those depictions aren't relavent to my own experiences, and in my discussion with Laura, Reynje and Trin, it sounds like I'm not alone.
Thinking back to elementary and high school, I remember the distinct feeling that there was something wrong with me that I didn't have a best friend. That's what we saw on Beverly Hills 90210 (the original show), right? Not to mention my mother and most of the adult women I knew still had the same best friends they'd had when they were twelve, so the inevitable questions from well-meaning adults would often head in that direction I name whatever casual friend was around the most at any given moment, but that overwhelming feeling of being defective because I didn't walk around with half of a friendship charm.
That's not to say I didn't have friends and a reasonably full social life. In high school, I had a group of friends--girls and boys--that I spent time with and had a lot of fun with. A few of those people I'm still in touch with. When I went to college, there were a couple of those high school friends who I thought may be that best friend forever that adults told me I should have, but distance (pre-email and Facebook and even texting--the horror!) made that challenging. Late in my sophomore year of college it hit me that one close high school friend with best friend forever potential had faded into my history, rather than being a part of my present. I was so very sad about that.
In college, I had a similar, loose circle of friends, but that group was largely comprised of couples--it wasn't the Sex and the City fantasy (this was when SATC was popular) full of shoe shopping, gossip-fueled brunches and hangovers. Aside from my now-husband, I'm only in touch with one of those people, though I have wonderful memories of my four years with that group. By that point, I'd pretty much come to terms with the reality that I simply was going to be the anomaly, that person who didn't have a best, lifelong female friend. (This was around the same time I realized that my real best friend forever was my now-husband.)
Now that I'm older (in my 30s), I realize that friendships change, grow and end, and that's part of the cycle of our social relationships as humans. Sometimes people come into our lives for a period of time, and there's value in appreciating those relationships while we have them. I know that I'll never fit in at a "Girls Night Out" (just as I always felt out of place and awkward at slumber parties at twelve), that my enjoyment of solitude and aversion to gossip and large groups will keep me from obtaining the sorts of female friendships depicted in popular culture.
Interestingly, most of my friends these days--both women and men--are folks who I originally connected with thanks to the internet. (Did y'all know that Laura and I met on Twitter?) I think it's interesting that people with a similar brand of introversion to my own seem to connect with each other thanks to social media and online-turned-real world book groups. Even more interesting is the reaction of acquaintances I know through more traditional channels (as an adult, these channels are invariably work-related, which I don't think is entirely healthy) when I mention one of my friends I know thanks to online connects--they're horrified, truly.
Which brings me to the point that's actually germaine to this blog. Thanks to online connections, I've come to realize that I'm not particularly abnormal in not achieving epic, lifelong, best female friendship (and it's always portrayed as an achievement). And, I'm not alone in spending my teen years and 20s feeling like I was doing things wrong, or that I had a faulty chip in my brain preventing me from being really great at being some lucky lady's best friend. However, my wholly unscientific survey of the books for teens on my shelves and the teen-oriented television shows on my Netflix queue largely reinforce the image that for girls and women (the cultural norms for male friendships seem different, and quite honestly, seem to be more my speed) that without a best friend forever, full of all markers and rituals of best friendships that aren't all the different than sixth grade slumber parties, there's something wrong, there's something off or abnormal.
One of the many reasons I love Friday Night Lights so much is the way friendships have a transitory quality about them. Julie's best friend throughout the series is Matt. Tami's best friend is Coach. They both have other friends (Julie's friendship fling with Tyra is so very memorable), but neither has an epic, Beaches-style best friendship. Another one of my favorite friendships from that show (and really in all fiction, to be quite honest) is Tim and Becky, which among all of the friendships on that series, is the one I believe will last. But it's an unconventional friendship for sure and that's why I love it so much--because it's outside the friendship norm.
Though it's often superficial (which is problematic as well), in YA fiction in particular, it seems that The Best Friend is a character is nearly always present when the main character is female. This seems reflective of contemporary social expectations that in order to be a real girl, one much have a Best Friend Forever. Is this the case for the depiction of male friendships? It doesn't seem that way to me. Their norms in popular culture seem more fluid.
Furthermore, when the The Best Friend isn't present, part of the main character's growth is often around finding a female best friend (think The Truth About Forever or Along for the Ride, both by Sarah Dessen, which wonderfully celebrate the power of girl friendships, in addition to containing sweet romance storylines). Finding female friendships can be an incredibly empowering experience, especially for people who are lonely and feel isolated, and I appreciate these storylines so much, but again, they tend to reinforce a specific norm.
A notable exception, of course, is in issue-focused YA, but in that case lack of a best friend (or perhaps the unhealthy best friendship) is a symptom of whatever problem is explored. In this case, the protagonist often isolates herself from her former best friend because she's hopped up on goofballs or involved in an unhealthy, abusive relationship.
I do realize this is sweepingly general and that there are exceptions, but perception is important, and as a reader this is my perception. Despite that I'm pretty widely read, the stable and also-best friendless characters I can name are few and far between, and are primarily in urban fantasy or paranormal-focused stories, which I assume is because the main characters are too busy fighting demons to forge lasting friendships (or because their best friend was eaten by said demons, which is an entirely different ).
Awhile back a highly regarded teen author tweeted very derisive, flip remarks about young women and girls who are primarily friends with boys (I'm not naming names, because I can't find the tweets, and I don't think it's fair to name names without linking). Loads of folks tweeted their support of this viewpoint, creating the impression that this is a fairly well-accepted perspective, and made me wonder if this was a generally accepted norm. (Yes, I realize that Twitter is likely the worst gauge of public mood, but it's all I have in this instance.)
Even asking if that's the mainstream point-of-view saddens me tremendously because as a teen and younger adult, I often wasthat girl. Because of the nature of my interests and my gravitation toward more casual, less intense friendships, I always had platonic male friends and don't believe for an instant I was betraying something. Like many young people, I was just figuring out the type of relationships that worked for me. Literature should reflect the diversity of friendship experiences, just as it should all human experiences.
Friendship is not a one size fits all circumstance and I'm weary of it being depicted as such.
In her book Bittersweet, Sarah Ockler depicts in a side story a best friendship that's likely going to change, thanks to the two characters headed in different directions and that's pretty close to the reality for a lot of teens, and that sort of experience is pretty important as well. These girls are headed in different directions, and the unspoken understanding of that changes the dynamic between the two. That this BFF relationship likely won't last isn't showed as failure on either character's part, it's just an is. It's funny to me that this is such a small part of the story of Bittersweet, but it's the detail that's stuck in my head over a year and a half after I read it.
This weekend, I read Trish Doller's wonderful sophomore novel, Where the Stars Still Shine, and this book tackles friendship in an intriguing, distinctive manner. The main character has never had friends because she's spent most of her life on the run with her mother, moving from place-to-place, never having the chance to form lasting connections with anyone. The main character, Callie, is suddenly embedded in the life she would have lived, had her mother not kidnapped her when she was a child. Part of that life includes a cousin who desperately wants to fill the role of Callie's best friend. Like in Bittersweet, this (potential) best friendship is a smaller part of a much bigger story, but there's so much realness is Callie's awkwardness about this relationship and Kat's desperation for Callie to fill the role of her best friend, that it's notable for its veering away from the well-forged friendship path.
I'd love to see fiction for teens (in particular, because it's especially important for that age group) that depict both best friendlessness and the end of best friendships as normal, not as a symptom of brokenness. Some young people are introspective, quiet and content to have a loose group of friends for movies and whatnot, without the confessional sort of best friendship that's depicted as the only "normal" option.
If more books (and television shows, and movies) depicted Tim and Becky-type friendships, happily-alone girls, I'd be thrilled. I'd love to see more exploration of the notion that the second F in "BFF" can be a hard, hard aspiration and that romantic relationships can also be also best friendships.*
How do you feel about the way best friendship is portrayed in fiction? Is it reflective of your own experience? What are your recommendations for against-the-grain depictions of friendship?
*I have a lot to say about the way the romance genre so frequently draws a line between love interests and best friendship as mutually exclusive, which is why I'm a sucker for the for the quintessential best friends falling in love trope, though it bothers me that in this trope the BFFness has to occur prior to the romantic relationship.