Thoughts on female friendships (sorta)

Hey Ladies, accessorize with an Ugly Girlfriend!
There’s been a lot of talk recently within psychology, education, parenting, sociology, health, pop culture, and academia about the “Mean Girl” syndrome. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, it’s the recent hype surrounding girls’ aggressive relational behaviors and strategies. While there’s a lot I could say on it I actually want to consider the adult version and ask, “Is it really that different?” If girls are somehow socialized to be “mean”, should we expect such behaviors to disappear into adulthood? Of course not, we just replace the label “mean girl” with “bitch.” Certainly a lot has been written about the “bitch” and the sexism attached to the label as well as Mean Girls, and I’m feeling inclined to add to the conversation today.

Bacardi Breezer’s new ad campaign not only perpetuates such behavior, but does so in such an overt and explicit way that we are somehow supposed to find it humorous. I don’t understand what is humorous about women viewing other women as “accessories” that will help them feel better about themselves. And by “feel better” I mean attract more men so as to validate their own femininity. From a very young age girls are socialized to look at other girls and women. In fact, I think a lot of girls and women will say they look at the female body more often than they ever look at the male body. This is not at all surprising – take a typical teen magazine or Cosmo and count how many females are in it versus males; the females largely outnumber the males.
Moving beyond media, I think many females also say they are more likely to check out other females at a bar, party, in class, at the grocery store, etc. than they are likely to check out males. While a potential queer reading certainly exists and is at times present, it is also more complicated than that. I think in large part it is because from a very young age females are told to “size up other women”, we come to view other women as “threats” and thus we are supposed to check out our “competition”. The competition of course just further inscribes females within male patriarchal discourses in which women are to compete with other women in order to “win” the best male. It is all together a perverse and dangerous perspective which pits women against one another.

“Sally” from Bacardi Breezer’s new ad campaign

Now of course plenty of girls and women develop loving, supportive, and healthy relationships with other females. I do not mean to imply that all (or even most) female-female friendships exist within a dynamic of threats and competition. But I do think most females know this feeling all too well, either the feeling of being judged by other females who somehow perceive them as a threat or vice versa. And the stereotype is played out all too often within television and movies. Assuming the female protagonist is even given a female companion (something which in itself can be quite rare – think Disney films and most romantic comedies), the “friend” is never perceived to be as pretty, independent, popular, etc. as the protagonist. Regardless if the “friend” might actually be “the pretty one” or the “strong one” etc., she is still only viewed as a sidekick to the protagonist. Her identity and femininity are intended to be a reflection of the protagonist and her role is to help the protagonist achieve her goals (which usually involve a heterosexual love interest). The implications suggest that the protagonist is to be perceived as the powerful one within the relationship and the friend is usually her sidekick or minion, someone who looks up to the protagonist, wants to learn from her, or take advantage of social gains earned by association with the protagonist.

a) Alex and Harper from Wizards of Waverly Place b) Miley and Lilly from Hannah Montana c) Carly and Sam from iCarly

I admit to watching a lot of Disney and Nickelodeon shows, and the recent trend I’ve noted is the female friend seems to be rather sporty and therefore more masculine, or rather “less feminine”, particularly in shows such as Wizards of Waverly Place, iCarly, and Hannah Montana. While the more masculine friend might offer a positive alternative form of identification for some girls (as opposed to the overtly feminine protagonist), the friend often serves as comedic relief and the butt of many jokes (and even her tomboyish masculinity is still quite feminine).

For example, in one episode of Nickelodeon’s iCarly, the age-old narrative of “tough girl needs to be tamed” rears its head as Carly attempts to feminize her otherwise too aggressive and tomboyish friend Sam by giving her a makeover (episode “iMake Sam Girlier“). In these examples it is unusual for the friend to be the one to progress the narrative in any manner other than in relation to the protagonist. While I do appreciate the shows for providing the female protagonist with a female friend (and for casting Latina girls), I have to question why she cannot occupy the same space as the protagonist? That is, why must she be masculinzed (such as Sam in iCarly), or completely goofy (such as Harper in Wizards of Waverly Place) or stupid (such as Tawni in Sonny with a Chance) and therefore not intended to be taken seriously ? The two friends are not really presented as equals but rather a complicated power dynamic is at play in which one girl is much more adjusted, smart, popular, feminine, and confident while the other girl can only hope to achieve such a position. But I digress…

What I really wanted to talk about today was the ways in which adult females are still told to view other females as threats or competition and the ways in which such socialization creates negative power dynamics within female friendships. My friend Amanda and I were recently discussing how sad it is when you meet a new group of women for the first time and it becomes immediately apparent that even as adults there is still a “Queen Bee” within the group who derives her power from surrounding herself with other females whom she views as non-threatening. And likewise, when it is so easy to identify females who view themselves in a subordinate position within the group simply because they do not think they are as attractive, powerful, etc. as the “Queen Bee” (think being the operative word, because often such behaviors and positions are self-inflicted; in other words, the “sidekick” might actually be more attractive or smarter etc, but she does not view herself as such).

“Lucy” from the Bacardi Breezer campaign

You would think such behaviors would have been outgrown, but this is not always the case. I hear so many women say they have a hard time trusting other women, or they don’t get along as well with women, or are not as comfortable with women as they are with men. And I just think, yea that’s because we are having to undo decades of socialization which has taught us not to trust each other, but rather to view each other as threats. It’s yet another example of the ways in which patriarchy hurts women, that is, when women view and judge each other through the same lens through which men are “supposed” to view us. (Paging Laura Mulvey)

And that is why I find the Bacardi Breezer ads to be so incredibly offensive. Yes, I recognize that the ad is intended to be funny, but it’s not. It’s not funny when women are told to view other women as “accessories” and to use other women in order to make themselves feel better, or to use other women so they can appear more feminine and attractive to men. In a world in which women are still fighting an uphill battle for equality and respect apart from our bodies, we cannot stand to pit ourselves against one another nor can we afford to size up other women based on their bodies (or anything else). When women judge other women on the basis of male masculinity we have already lost the battle. If we judge and use each other based on our bodies and sexuality, how in the world can we ever tell men that’s not ok? So yea, shame on you Bacardi for your misogynistic, childish, and offensive ad.

And finally, because I’m discussing female friendships and because I love Sarah Haskins so much, I leave you with her recent video about female friendship and shopping!

Image Credits: 1) Sally 2) Bacardi Ad 3) Wizards, Hannah Montana, iCarly, 4) Lucy

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on female friendships (sorta)

  1. Thanks for this great blog post J! Loved how you brought in the topic of female friendships… the whole "frenemy" phenomenon is also relevant here and I'd definitley think it warrants more academic attention (maybe a future project for one of us?! haha)….I also saw this Bacardi ad being talked about on jezebel and was totally disgusted by the way these ads contribute to that very dangerous idea that being sexist is still okay and funny! Furthermore, if you don't laugh at something like this – or god forbid, actually critique it in front of a group of people, you will likely be dismissed as not having a sense of humor. It's that dismissal that really bothers me. That's why sexism has been so hard to beat — alot of young women find themselves without space to openly critique for fear of losing their "feminine" status and alienating men. There's so many problems with these ads…the body image issue is just the tip of the iceberg, but, I have to mention it anyways – all of the "ugly friends" are described a basically fat, no "ugly skinny" friends here. So what can we do about this??


  2. Hi Jessalynn, thanks for the comments and thanks for brining up the frenemy angle, I thought about that as well. And also thanks for mentioning the ways in which women are dismissed for ever critiquing sexism when it's "supposed" to be funny. I feel like humor is the hardest form of sexism (and racism) to critique simply because we risk perpetuating the stupid "feminists have no sense of humor" stereotype. It's like somehow humor is supposed to be exempt from critique, which is what makes it so dangerous.And yes, I would be interested in working on a collaborative project. And to tie it more into my primary research interests maybe we could consider looking at the intersection of "frenemy" and new media technologies which further enable such behaviors (kinda think Gossip Girl is completely built around such principle). We should talk about this when you get to Austin 🙂


  3. Great post! Also, way to step up to the big leagues and buy your own domain name. Just make sure to tell me next time so I can change my link to you he he he.


  4. wow,this post definitely made my day. I've been stuck in the library for the last week and a half finding quote-on-quote, "scholarly articles" for my English 200 paper. It was quite refreshing to read something more up-to-date. As odd as it sounds, my paper aims to address Carly in "iCarly" as a subtly, but convincing third-wave feminist character, whom often breaks gender-stereotypes of women on television. Though she has her flaws (such as trying to convince her best friend to dress less "tomboyish"), I think her flaws can account for her young age. But more importantly,thanks a bunch for the daily enlightenment. -Josette


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