Bromance is a big hit lately. Cop shows and other procedurals like Castle or Scrubs are rife with the fist-bumping variety of this, but you can also find it in period pieces or historical dramas like the BBC's Merlin. Earlier shows had many more: Due South, The Sentinel, Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O. While occasionally shows make joking gay references that get laughed off or explained away, often the friendships are just there, strong and unapologetic. These are men who epitomize "bros before hos", who would, and often do, take bullets for one another.
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is an uber-example of this, filled with the deepest, most transcendent of friendships. "I can't carry it for you," says Sam to Frodo, referring to the Ring, "But I can carry you!" Men swear their lives to one another, literally, and mean every word of it.
Don't get me wrong; I love bromance. I love that friendship is making a comeback, and that the Pink Scare — our generation's answer to McCarthyism — is finally beginning to wear off. But let's flip the coin and look at friendship on the other side of the sex line, shall we?
Materialistic and fatuous television shows like Sex and the City. Horrifying movies like Bride Wars. The women in these stories are shallow, near-sighted, and back-stabbing — nearly every plot that involves two women has one of them betray the other in some way. Very seldom do we see female friendships presented in a way that doesn't suggest each woman would gladly throw the other out the window over a man, a pair of shoes, a wedding location. We get the picture that female friendships are battlefields, or practice runs until women find their "real" companion — a man.
Even affirming stories about powerful women, like The First Wives Club (movie, not book), focus almost exclusively on their relationships with men. It is through men that they relate, and around men that almost all their conversations revolve.
It's exhausting. I miss Anne Shirley and Diana Barry (though to be honest, I thought Diana a little silly, and wondered how Anne could be such firm friends with a person of no imagination). I miss Cagney and Lacey. I miss Cimorene and Morwen (but not Cimorene and what's-her-face, who disappears after book one when she gets married). And I wish I could come up with more examples without having to strain myself. Occasionally I recall what initially appears to be a strong female friendship before remembering that no, yet again, it seems that poor, whiny Claudio was right, and friendship is constant, save in the office and affairs of love. Even Jane Austen can't give us friendships without the women fighting about a man at least once (Emma and Harriet, Lizzie and Charlotte). Even Cathy, the love-it-or-hate-it girl-power comic of the last few decades, championed the maxim, "When the boyfriend calls, the single [female] friend gets dumped".
There are plenty of reasons to fight with one's friends, and even good friends will fight. But are writers so unimaginative that the only conflicts they can devise for women are about shoes, shopping, or weddings? Male friends in bromance stories fight about work, about principles, about family, about life-and-death. Why can't it be the same for women? What, for goodness' sake, are we teaching our girls?
Part of this is personal, having grown up fiercely protective of my female friends, a trait that was appreciated when I was young but increasingly seen as odd the older I got. It was expected that I would grow out of it when I realized that my relationships with men were more important. When I didn't, people began to whisper, to accuse, to pity. Countless people have told me, to my face, when referring to my closest friend, to enjoy it now because even if I don't marry, she will, and then she — having recovered her priorities — will drop me, and it will be my fault for being so naive.
Because of this, I turned to fiction to find solace in the friendships there — and here the fictional world let me down, too. I found precious few friendships between girls that endured past a significant relationship with men, and instead discovered a discouraging minefield of ridiculous betrayals, boy troubles, and shoes. Why shoes? I have several female friends, yet I can count on one hand the number of times I've discussed footwear with them — and even then, it was whether I could get away with wearing combat boots with an evening gown to a formal I didn't want to attend.
I've complained about this before to others and have been given examples to cheer me up, and one of the most common is Glinda and Elphaba from Wicked (the musical). Despite the obligatory breakup-because-one-steals-the-other's-man drama, their friendship is indeed powerful and transformative; it is the glue that holds the entire plot together, and their final duet is the tearjerker that, in my opinion, makes the musical. And yet, they can't be together. Elphaba and Glinda don't get to ride off into the sunset. That is, of course, the tragedy of the musical, but as the plot managed to circumvent a major point of The Wizard of Oz, I wish they could've figured out a way to keep them, as well.
How many girls are we training to dump their friends as soon as a boy comes along, because they don't have any positive friendship role models? Little girls have plenty of stories, but once the teen years hit, forget it. By the time adulthood rolls around, apparently we should give up any meaningful conversation whatsoever and spend all our time talking about our sex lives and whether that purse goes with that skirt. It's no wonder that women in real life have a hard time getting their relationships taken seriously.
And maybe I didn't escape as much as I thought I did. Recently, when looking over my own writing from the last ten years, I found a startling gap in my own fictional friendships. I had male-male friendships, male-male relationships, male-female friendships, and male-female relationships, but almost no female-female friendships, and no female-female relationships. Despite being outwardly aware of the phenomenon, I still found myself sucked into it, writing mostly male casts with one or two female characters. Granted, my female characters were strong, positive role models on their own, but they had no meaningful female relationships of their own.
I'm working on changing that. This year's NaNoWriMo was one step in that direction, including two female protagonists who are best friends and who don't ever have a fight about men or relationships, who are good at their jobs and go into danger and who (I hope!) manage to be interesting, engaging characters. I don't plan to stop there, but it's discouraging and a little humbling to realize that not one of my other works-in-progress contains the sort of friendship I've been begging from others. I foresee a lot of rewrites in my future.