It’s busy season around here at the Ren household. The first three weekend in August are the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire, and I work in a booth there. It’s hot work, but it’s a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to it. And one of the things I look forward to is spending time with my best friend. She’s really busy and I have two small children, so there are not a lot of chances to get together, but we make the most of the ones we have. Watching most movies, you’d think that idea was in a foreign language to a lot of screenwriters, because they don’t seem to think women have friendships that aren’t rivalries.
I admit that men’s friendships are often jettisoned to streamline plots, but it feels as though they’re more likely to have movies all about their friendships than women are. When movies claim to be about women’s friendships, what you usually get is something like Bride Wars or, in my opinion, Bridesmaids, where they don’t seem to like each other very much. It seldom seems to take much to get the women to be horribly cruel to one another, even if they barely know each other.
Okay, so my experiences in grade school make it pretty clear that women can be awful to one another, starting from when they’re little girls. True enough. It’s also true that some women never outgrow that. I could tell you stories. However, I think the majority of women are just as tired of that nonsense in real life as I am on the screen. I watched Bridesmaids with a then-friend, and we actually couldn’t get through it, because we didn’t feel it showed that these women liked each other enough to be the sort of friend you’d ask to be in your wedding before having them humiliate themselves to be the most important person in the wedding—above the bride.
Basically, I think more movies need characters that feel as though they’re written for Thelma Ritter—yeah, she’s snarking at you just as much as anyone else, but if you really need her, she’s there for you, and she’s your friend enough to bother dancing around subjects that are sensitive for you. The stuff she picks on is stuff that doesn’t hurt. And all these details need to be quite clear in the film, not just what you have in mind when you’re writing. After all, you no longer have the luxury of just casting Thelma Ritter.
Even ostensible “women’s buddy movies” usually in some way involve women not being very nice to one another. I’ve read the occasional defense of one of those scenes as “giving the character tough love” or similar, but generally, I don’t feel the love, just see the tough. I suppose it’s unjust to pick on Star Wars here, as the only reason people don’t think of the movies as character-lean is that every extra ends up with a complicated backstory in the extended universe. But outside of maybe Phantom Menace, to we have any reason to believe that any of those women have any female friends? Any friends at all that aren’t Our Heroes? A lot of women in action movies have their coworkers and that’s it. It just feels as though women’s internal lives aren’t onscreen as much as men’s, and there’s a belief that women’s friendships are crueler than men’s.
My faire boss’s one-time girlfriend once asked me why I got away with teasing him while she didn’t, and my answer was that he knew I’m kidding. And maybe the people writing these movies think that they’re showing that sort of friendship. Goodness knows they exist; I have a friend whose Facebook feed consists largely of people saying snarky things to him and him responding in kind. (Though you’ll note these stories of mine are not limited by gender!) But before you can show the cruelty, you have to show the kindness, and not only do some movies fail to do that first, there are plenty of examples of movies that fail to do that at all.