Lifestyle & Family

On-screen female relationships: The good, the bad and the ugly

A look at positive female friendships in the media and why they matter.

Courtesy of Nothing Ahead

Media can have an incredible influence, especially on young, impressionable minds. TV shows and movies teach young people what to wear, how to flirt, how to be funny and how to be in relationships of all kinds. 

The influence that TV and movies have on this susceptible demographic is remarkable, but potentially harmful. Consider, for example, the types of platonic female relationships we’ve seen on screen in the recent past and the fact that young girls subconsciously absorb the dynamics that are normalized in the media. 

In the media, female friendships have long been depicted as shallow, vapid, competitive, petty and largely centered around men. 

The Bechdel Test, which rates movies on their ability to meet the simple standard of having two female characters who have a conversation that does not concern men, exemplifies nicely the entrenched misogyny that exists in the media. 

Despite the test’s simplicity, a disheartening 58 per cent of movies in the Bechdel database pass the test.


The importance of female friendship

Courtesy of Omar Lopez

By portraying negative or shallow female friendships in television and movies, media outlets encourage impressionable consumers to go through life replicating what they see on screen and reaffirming norms that suppress female solidarity.

This causes young girls to form negative and unrealistic perspectives on friendship, diminishing the fulfillment female friendships may have brought them and skewing the information necessary to develop healthy, supportive friendships essential to growing up. 

This is why the representation of positive relationships matters.

It is imperative that young girls see other women talk to one another about things that don’t revolve around men. By talking about work, family, aspirations and current events, female characters become relatable and more importantly, three-dimensional.

This not only subtly dismantles gender roles and celebrates female solidarity, but makes for more captivating and robust storytelling.

Not just shallow, but destructive

Courtesy of Liza Summer

Outside of flimsy, one-dimensional female bonds, further reinforcing misogynistic stereotypes is the portrayal of competitive, destructive and sometimes aggressive female relationships. 

In the media, women are often pitted against each other, frequently in competition to win over a handsome romantic partner. In this process, the women are portrayed as manipulative, catty and scheming, adding fuel to the idea that this is how women should, and do, behave with one another.

An example of this kind of portrayal can be seen in Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), between the titular main character Rory Gilmore and her classmate Paris Geller. 

From the show’s pilot the pair were in constant competition: for top of the class, for the most praise and for admission into the best universities. Though the writers eventually tapered off competition between the two, they still maintained a toxic relationship that lasted till the show’s final season.

Passing the Bechdel Test

Courtesy of Thought Catalog

Fortunately, many shows have begun taking steps to rewrite the narrative; incorporating positive and meaningful female friendships into their stories. 

Parks and Recreation (2009-2015) does a great job of this. In this show the relationship between the main character, Leslie, and her friend Ann, is supportive, loving, complex and hilarious. Both characters are there for each other during the highs and lows of their lives, they are openly affectionate and not ashamed of declaring their friendship. Even when Ann eventually moves away, they manage to maintain a strong long-distance relationship, demonstrating the strength of their love for each other. 

As positive examples like Leslie and Ann are seen more frequently, there is hope for a more inclusive and realistic media landscape when it comes to depicting female friendships.

By demonstrating that they are more than just soundbites for moving along a male-focused plotline or creating petty drama for the sake of entertainment, the floor is opened for women to be perceived as real, living people who can, and do, have normal bonds with peers.

Media’s impact

Courtesy of Ali Pazani

In an article by Entertainment Reporter Ashley Bulayo, for The Young Folks, she writes of the ability to relate to scenes shown on television and apply them to one’s own experiences. 

“It feels more like certain characters are right there in your living room talking straight to you. That’s because the scenarios between these friendships are something real, something you can connect with,” she wrote.

She even discusses the effect that observing positive female friendships could have had on her as a young girl. “To be quite frank, watching shows reinforcing positive relationships while growing up probably would have changed my perspective on the idea of fostering friendships with other girls,” she shared. 

It is important to remain cognisant of the fact that what we see in the media is not always accurate. There is money to be made off of airing conflict, drama and intrigue and, unfortunately, it is easy to forget that the real world follows a very different set of rules.

Calling attention to misogyny in media will ensure that women, and their friendships, are accurately depicted, slowly but surely teaching young girls everywhere the importance of uplifting their fellow women. 

TV show’s recommendations with positive female friendships from the WQ Team!

  • Grey’s Anatomy
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • Ted Lasso
  • Derry Girls
  • Orange Is the New Black
  • Sex Education

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