Photo via IMDb.

Is The Dark Underbelly of Female Friendship Officially A Genre?

Lauren Mechling's new novel 'How Could She?' and Whit Stillman’s 1998 film 'The Last Days of Disco' can be read as friendship guidebooks.

by Tatum Dooley
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Jul 5 2019, 3:37pm

Photo via IMDb.

There’s a common antidote that says making friends in adulthood is harder than in childhood, where you’re grouped together systematically by school and mandatory party invites. And yet, throughout my childhood my sole complaint was that I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t want just any friend, I wanted a group of friends assembled of girls. Girlfriends I could ask advice to, share secrets, clothes, and misery. Luckily, any difficulty I had cultivating friends in childhood, I’ve made up for in the last few years of adulthood. An ugly duckling turned into a swan with lots of beautiful friends.

If shows like Girls and Broad City, and Taylor Swift’s social media bombardment of her ‘girl gang’, welcomed a narrative about female friendship into the zeitgeist, another suite of texts shows us the dark underbelly—texts that get to the core of the dissolution and difficulties of friendships that happens after the cameras stop rolling. If you asked what texts were more useful to me in my pursuit of female friendship, my vote is firmly planted in the latter category because what else than eventual rejection was holding me back from making friends? Books like Lauren Mechling’s How Could She? and its predecessor of sorts, Mary McCarthy’s 1954 novel The Group, plus films like Whit Stillman’s 1998 The Last Days of Disco, act as guidebooks to my venture of friendship and all the pain that comes along with it.

These texts get to the core of the precarious ego present within female friendships. Friendships are filled with ego, as is any relationship. But it feels more pronounced with female friends. You’re in direct competition with friends of the same sex—perhaps both looking for love in the same city or chasing assignments in the same industry. If you’re not confident enough, this insecurity manifests in passive aggressiveness.

Kate Beckinsale’s character in Last Days of Disco, Charlotte, is the embodiment of the toxic ego that exists in female friendships. “You were a bit critical. The guys there preferred women more laid back,” she tells Alice, played by Chloë Sevigny. “I’m laid back,” Alice whispers back. “Well, for whatever reason you didn’t have much of a social life,” Charlotte bites.

And the final cut: “Maybe in physical terms I’m a bit cuter.” Alice looks bewildered at her friend’s rapid fire insults hidden under the guise of advice, but all is forgiven when an inside joke brings them back together. It’s easy to watch this scene play out and think of Charlotte as insecure, but it’s a lot harder when the insults are being lobbed at you in real life. Eventually Alice drifts away from Charlotte, moves out of their shared railroad apartment. There comes a time in a friendship when you can no longer wait for your friend to grow up.

How Could She?, Lauren Mechling’s novel that came out earlier this month, likewise deals in the currency of ego, abandonment, and heartbreak. The first time I read it I raced through it at the speed it would take to watch a film, hungry for the secrets of female friendship to be revealed to me with a dose of schadenfreude. The book does have a certain cinematic quality. I can imagine Sophia Coppola directing it for her apt ability to capture female animosity. Coppola’s 1998 short film Lick The Star is another honest portrayal of female friendship. Loyalties between a group of young girls switch at a dizzyingly speed. One day you’re home sick, the next day leadership has been uprooted and a new victim of taunts is crowned.

You can almost hear the childhood taunt throughout How Could She? “No, you’re not my best friend anymore. SHE is/” The queen bee of the book is Sunny, the vivacious watercolor painter whose life looks enviable from the outside and is, of course, incredibly lonely. Her friends are too intent on where they stand with her to notice anything’s amiss. “Sunny had been acting different with Rachel, holding herself at a slight remove that Rachel felt in the gut.” “Agonizing!!.” I wrote in the margins having felt that shift myself.

The three friends, Sunny, Rachel, and Geraldine, met working at a magazine in Toronto, a meet-cute that haunts their friendship due to shared histories, knowledge of each other’s secrets, and professional competitiveness.

When Rachel haphazardly steels a pitch Geraldine told her she was working on, I jotted down grrr on the page (I sleep well at night knowing, no matter what difficulties arise in my friendships, that none would stoop so low as to steal my pitch ideas). “She was eager to leave. Rachel stood motionless, the tension between Geraldine and herself palpable. She would have preferred they were in a fight.” Mechling hits on another truth (something she does often throughout the book): fights between female friends tend to take the form of nuanced politics, rather than outright blows.

With the fruits of female friendship comes the agonizing power plays and imbalances, the sting of not reaching out in the hopes they’ll contact you first, and feeling hurt when they don’t. Towards the end of the novel, the characters inch closer to a place where their egos don’t dictate their actions and they become better friends for it—albeit not with each other. I take notes.

I guess I should correct my introduction: I’ve always had friends, I’ve just been unable to keep them. My ego too ready to bruise, my tongue too ready to spit passive aggressive insults a la Charlotte in Last Days of Disco. I took it personally when I was snubbed, not unlike Rachel or Geraldine in How Could She?, and vowed never to call again.

Now, I somewhat embarrassingly, tell my friends when I feel hurt. I apologize when I’m wrong and vow to be better. I text first, invite friends over to my apartment for dinner. I let go of my nervousness about being too eager lest I scare a friend-pursuit away with my neediness. The result? I woke up surrounded by a group of girlfriends who shared my interest, dry sense of humour, and ambition. It wasn’t until I let my ego fall away and listened to my id’s desire to be close to other women—when I started to act on my impulses for female intimacy—that my dream of having girlfriends came true.