When I was 10 years old, I was a cool girl. How do I know? Because I had only male friends. I was not like the ‘girly girls’, and having male friendships gave me street cred. Of course, I had to become a girly girl for my Rahul to finally like me (cue Kuch Kuch Hota Hai bgm) but for now, my cropped hair and interest in cricket would do.
Then the most unspeakable horror happened in the form of me changing to an all-girls school for my ninth grade. Armed with pop culture (pretty little liars, mean girls) references to how a girl group works, I braced myself for petty drama. Surprisingly enough, the girls were warm and welcoming – they did not feel the need to be mean to look cool. They showed disagreement respectfully and honestly. The all-girls school was a revelation – it allowed me to reflect on my male friendships and my distorted understanding of friendship itself.
Pop culture and the narrative of catfights
When the locker room controversy was ablaze, our society was forced to introspect what was seen as ‘common‘ in male friendship circles. Such gendered expectations of friendship paint women as obnoxious for expressing their interests or complaints whereas, men can comment on anything and be saved by the punchline of Imperial Blue’s advertisement – “Men will be men”.
It was also a time, when many women, myself included, took stock of everything that they had allowed to be said about other women in the name of friendship. When media and socialisation patterns tell us that male friendships are easier because they are easygoing, what is being missed by many women is an amazing chance to build bonds with fellow women.
This narrative thrives through the patriarchal lens that is reinforced through the media that dissects Taylor Swift’s girl squad and their ‘catfights’ and pries into the reason for Jesy Nelson’s departure from ‘Little Mix’ disproportionately; while the breaking up of boy bands like One Direction and NSYNC is treated as perfectly normal – a mature decision by individuals who have reached the end of their journey together.
An Indian counterpart is the infamous Koffee with Karan, that constantly throws questions to female guests on their views about their women colleagues. Uncomfortable questions about mutual ex-lovers, inducing the so-called catfights are repeatedly brought up to make the show ‘fun‘.
Our society has been conditioned to pit women against women, as each other’s competitors. The race to be good enough ensures that there is no trust between women and perpetuates the zero-sum (one has to lose for the other to win) design of patriarchal approval. But hey, if women are emotional and respond to such problems with questions about the way this game has been designed, it’s essentially their fault, right?
As Gahana Kataria writes, “Female friendships, if anything, are fierce because they were born on the foundation of a rebellion because we were pitted against each other since the day we were born and we bonded despite that. Over shed blood and past traumas. Over threads, needles & wax strips. Over our very will of surviving. This one’s for them.“
Features of male friendships
The gendered construction of friendship goals and their manifestation in popular media, had me thinking that the onus of proving that female friendships are just as supportive and fulfilling as male friendships, falls on women. But owing to the relentless analysis of feminists and their friendships, men have found the need to give reasons (mansplain) as to why male friendships are obviously better.
In one such effort by a men’s lifestyle blog, there is a checklist of features that make male friendships better. The first feature is that men have each other’s back. What makes it more interesting is the explanation they give for the same. The article opines that the lack of commitment in female friendship is frequently a byproduct of women’s familial devotion and other societal restraints in a nation like India where they are subject to extreme social pressure. However, the writers conclude that men do in fact, go a step beyond when it comes to friendship.
Another interesting feature is the bro-code, that men studiously follow. The bro code has been defined as the ultimate honour code that men follow in friendships, with no exceptions. An interesting watch for such men would be the documentary titled “The Bro Code: How Contemporary Culture Creates Sexist Men”.
It examines how popular culture, including movies, sports, television shows, and advertisements, objectifies and sexualises women, subtly pushing men to internalise their gender stereotypes and legitimise sexual aggression. The bro code of silence costs many individuals their safety. This misconstrued notion of brotherhood prevents men from calling out other men for their sexist, misogynist, and downright violent behaviour.
Then again, why make the effort, when you already have ‘annoying women‘ in your friend circle, who cannot take a joke and are not easy-going, to call out this behaviour? But the sad part is that we do not have enough annoying women in our midst to do this. In fact, there are quite many women who have internalised this misogynistic notion of friendship.
Sharing her bitter experience of being friendless in personal difficulty, author Carol Mason said that the only ones that were truly there for her were her husband and her mother. However, what is unclear is why she felt the need to attribute this to only female friendships when it is evident that male friends were not there too. It is also important to note that the Daily Mail felt the need to call it a ‘daring move to speak out that selfless sisterhood is a myth’. One wonders how Daily Mail would respond to the countless songs written about the glories of brotherhood.
The burden on women
The choice presented to women when faced with problematic male behaviour is between ignoring red flags or indulging in emotionally exhausting conversations. A Reddit thread that deals with this particular topic asked ladies for their response to misogynistic male friends. One user explained how her roommate came back and asked her if he was misogynistic because a girl told him so. When she replied in the affirmative, the guy turned to the other male roommate and asked his opinion because that was “more valuable to him.” The guy was willing to change only when the other guy also agreed with the female friend.
Whatever the reasons may be, the responsibility of calling out problematic behaviour of male friends is overwhelming for women. One of the features mentioned in the earlier checklist is the personal space available in male friendships. However, this space tends to translate into emotional distance, which makes it even harder for women to maintain male friends.
The patriarchal factory that produces the bro code also creates the toxic masculine mould, which prevents men from having deep emotional connections with their male friends. This often means female friends taking up the burden of being the sole emotional support for men. But all in all, how hard can it be for women to take up such emotional gold diggers when they are already taking the responsibility of criticising the hero-worship of Ronaldo and the disproportionate cyber hate on Amber Heard?
Perhaps this is what Kishwar Naheed meant in her poem, when she said, “It is we sinful women,who come out raising the banner of truth”.
Featured Image Source: Live Wire