Blowout fights, unfiltered judgment, and scandalous hook-ups make gripping television, and expose the true complexities of our closest connections.
The characters Emma and Maggie on Playing House kind of remind me of the relationship I had with my first inseparable BFF, Becca, in fourth grade: They dress up as imaginary characters, watch scary movies together, ogle hot guys’ butts, and sing along to their favorite songs in the car, among other classic BFF activities. Except, of course, my friend Becca didn’t abandon a high-powered career to help me raise a baby. In fact, at the beginning of seventh grade, Becca just stopped talking to me. My best friend dumped me, for no apparent reason.
Much has been written recently about how Playing House illustrates how some female friendships transcend time, distance, major life changes, romantic entanglements, and other earthly concerns, but in reality, that’s rare. Most female friendships are messy. Often they fizzle out, blow up, or change in some dramatic way. TV is just starting to show the full range of how female friendships grow, change, and sometimes die. There’s no Kumbaya moment at the end of the episode where a fight gets resolved, à la Sex and the City, and so many other shows past and present. Instead, rifts and struggles remain a subtle and growing presence over the course of entire seasons.
On Girls, Hannah’s BFF relationship with Marnie has devolved gradually over three seasons, as the two friends hurt and fail to support each other in various ways. From the very first scene, we know these roommates have an intimate bestie connection: Hannah’s naked in the bathtub, having a heart-to-heart with Marnie about her longtime boyfriend. They dance to Robyn together as they deal with their respective boy troubles. But by the end of the season, they have an epic fight, arguing over which one of them is “the wound.” Hannah tells Marnie that she doesn’t care about being a good friend, and Marnie moves out (of her own apartment, incidentally). In season two, Hannah judges Marnie for using her looks to get a “pretty person” job as a hostess, and Marnie sleeps with Hannah’s now-gay ex-boyfriend, Elijah. This leads to a confrontation in which Hannah urges Marnie to realize, “I’m not the bad friend, and you’re not the good friend. I don’t need to play by your rules anymore.”
And yet, in season three, Hannah does her best to play by Marnie’s rules during a girlfriends’ beachtown getaway in the North Fork of Long Island. Marnie wants the four friends to “heal,” but no one seems interested, so Hannah makes time to have a heartfelt chat with Marnie that ends with a hug. But that’s not enough for Marnie, whose quest for some kind of friendship nirvana leads the four friends into a blowout fight in which they all express exactly how disappointing they find one another. In an astute observation about female friendships in general, Hannah says to Marnie, “You cannot put this much pressure on relationships.” Marnie tells Hannah all she’s done is disappoint her; Hannah suggests she lowers her expectations the way she has—not expecting anything from anyone. “I can’t lower them any further,” Marnie finally confesses. Overall, this seems like a case of two women who are ultimately too self-involved to be good to each other.
Then there are older women who are facing different issues: Meredith and Cristina on Grey’s Anatomy, whose 10-season relationship has been hailed as “the best female friendship on TV.” After many years of being each other’s “person,” Meredith and Cristina argued this past season over the different life choices they’ve made. Meredith, no longer emotionally “dark and twisty,” chose to marry Derek (a.k.a. “McDreamy”) and have two children, while Cristina eschewed marriage and children, by way of abortion and divorce, to focus single-mindedly on her career.
In the course of the season, Cristina and Meredith go from being a paragon of female friendship to a model of how harshly women can judge each other. Cristina criticizes Meredith for “letting up” on surgery to spend more time with her children. During a fight, the two women exchange biting words, and Cristina tells Meredith, “You’ve become the thing we laughed at.” Cristina’s disapproval is so powerful that Meredith starts putting in more hours at the hospital, instead of standing up for her choices.
Right before leaving the show for good, Cristina issues a final blow, saying to Meredith, “You are a gifted surgeon with an extraordinary mind. Don’t let what he wants eclipse what you need. He’s very dreamy, but he’s not the sun. You are.” Aside from this being terrible marital advice—since when does one person get to be the sun?—Cristina’s “compliment” implies that Meredith has compromised her ambitions to be with a hot, successful man. In order to win in her own career, Meredith should be working harder to make sure her husband loses. And again, she takes the bait: Later in the episode, Meredith picks a fight with Derek.
I wish she could just roll her eyes and say “whatever” to Cristina. Part of me wonders if they would have remained friends if Cristina hadn’t left the show. Research has shown that friendships shape our lives, so it makes sense that sometimes a pal whose influence is unwanted no longer makes the cut. Perhaps Meredith will end up befriending a surgeon who is also a mom and therefore understands her better. It’s also tough to imagine the Girls gals will remain tight in 10 or 15 years—particularly Hannah and Marnie, who clearly have such different needs when it comes to post-collegiate friendship. Next season Hannah will be off at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, meeting people who share her passion—so perhaps we’ll find out sooner rather than later.
On the other hand, sometimes friends who take different paths or choose to break up for a period can still find common ground later, or, they simply stay friends despite difficulties. Waiting for the bus back from North Fork, Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna reenact the dance moves they learned over the weekend, suggesting that they were able to have some fun when they weren’t busy fighting.
Emergencies have a way of bringing old BFFs back together. On Nashville, childhood best friends Scarlett and Zoey broke up over a man—Gunnar—but they end up reconciling when Scarlett has a nervous breakdown. With some time and distance—and a crisis—Scarlett has a major change of heart with regard to her best friend dating her ex. “I should have just been happy for you,” she tells her. Some friendships are so long-standing and full of history that it seems impossible that they would ever break up entirely; instead, they take the occasional hiatus.
Arguably one of the best reconciliations between longtime friends happened on the brilliant, short-lived My So-Called Life, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In an adolescent rite of passage, Angela drops her good-girl BFF Sharon to befriend the irresistibly rebellious Rayanne Graff, who helps Angela dye her hair “crimson glow.” But when Sharon’s dad has a heart attack, Angela comes to her old friend’s side and they find a way to stay connected on a different level. Angela sums it up beautifully: “There’s the people who you’ve known forever, who know you in this way that other people can’t, because they’ve seen you change. They’ve let you change.”
Like Sharon, I chose to forgive Becca and we were able to rekindle our friendship only a year later. That was almost two decades ago, and we still see each other. We’re not Emma and Maggie from Playing House, who seem to achieve a sort of Marnie-ish perfection in their rock-solid friendship: They promise each other at the end of one episode that they will never pretend something’s “totes kewl” when it’s not, and they lift each other up when they fall apart. While Hannah tells Marnie her life is one mistake after another, Emma says to Maggie that she wouldn’t be such an “interesting, amazing person” if she hadn’t made mistakes. That’s not me and Becca at all. But in the end, that kind of perfection is just too much pressure.
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