Cover Story: Cat Fight

The anatomy of female friendship

May 10, 2006 at 2:06 pm

I was pushing a cart through Kroger when I saw an ear, a ponytail, the collar of a green coat. All it took was a glimpse of someone who looked like Kim, and I was off on a silent tangent.

Simmering, I passed rows of breakfast cereal and wondered why, despite all my best telepathic efforts, Kim was still stalking the Earth, undoubtedly scoping out boyfriends to steal and manipulate as she had mine in the 10th grade. When I snapped back to reality, my thoughts were no less disconcerting: I miss my old best friend. I hate my old best friend.

Though more and various people have come and gone, I'm still not over this girlfriend breakup. Given that nearly every female I spoke with in my research has at least one deliciously horrific girl-tale to tell, I need to find out what attracts us to women — and what makes our unions fall apart so famously.

Delving into Lauren Greenfield's Girl Culture, a pensive and barefaced peek into the evolution of the American girl experience, I began to wonder if I've ever had success in girlfriendship, or was my coming-of-age, like so many of Greenfield's subjects, unwittingly buried beneath a thick coat of lip gloss?

One of my earliest "girl experiences" was at age 8, when a friend and I would spend languid afternoons reenacting whatever cheesy soap opera the babysitter was watching. I'd tell my husband Raymond (Tabitha from two streets over) how bad the kids (four tattered Pound Puppies) had been while he was at work all day (the opposite end of the back yard for a few minutes).

Then Tabitha and I would roll awkwardly in the grass for a while before calling it a day, scampering off to dinner. Ah, bliss.

I wonder now about the significance of Tabitha. She was my first female friendship. Doomed. Why? Because we as women harbor deep-seated and quasi-sexual inclinations in our friendships?

Wait, that's a sobering diagnosis. But to this day when I get all gussied up I have to admit that an adventurously high heel or uncharacteristic shade of lipstick isn't always thrown in for the fellas, though I consider myself straight — the goal is attracting admirers on both sides of the gender fence. It's an old sentiment, one that fascinates men and pinks the cheeks of women — the idea that all chicks got a little bit o' lesbo in 'em.

Opening the straight gate
"People can experience a sort of fluidity of sexual identity," according to Michelle Gibson, associate professor of gender studies at UC. "Sometimes (sexual attraction) is in one place and sometimes it's in another, but that can be highly influenced by circumstances. You don't have to have sex with everyone you're attracted to."

While certainly not the only one, this is a big reason that platonic female friendships resemble more intimate or romantic relationships, especially when they fall apart. It's the hetero-only values we routinely transmit to children that are responsible for this chasm, according to Gibson.

She recalls grade school dances when the teachers would remind students that "girls have to dance with boys" and other social instances in which the lines between men and women are fiercely drawn.

"I still hear women say, 'I hate buying tampons in the drugstore, it just feels so public,' " Gibson days. "(It's) that assumption of heterosexuality and of innate differences."

Call it the Straight Gate — a series of lessons that place femininity and female sexuality into a rigid context. It's a factor in my involuntary embarrassment when the guy behind me at the bank sees me reach into my bag for a pen and pull out a tampon instead. It's the reason I beamed with pride for an entire week when, post-flu, I was able to fit into Cindy's size 4 jeans.

It's in us, and it creates a paradox in our psyches. We're taught to seek friendships with women because they'll understand us more than men — even to the extent that we're engineered to believed that heterosexual men and women can't be just friends.

That's complete rubbish, according to Don O'Meara at UC's Raymond Walters College, whose recent study debunked the Harry and Sally myth by identifying the surmountable challenges facing male-female friendships: defining it, dealing with sexual attraction, seeing each other as equals, facing people's responses to the relationship. For women, though, that very same assumption of heterosexuality is telling us to vie for attention, competing sometimes viciously with our girlfriends.

Such was the case with Lauren, a 32-year-old schoolteacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"I met Jackie when I was 21," she says of her former friend, using a pseudonym. "I'd recently had an abortion, and I was having a really hard time getting my mind around it. We got to talking, and she told me that she had gone through the same thing. It felt so good to be able to talk to someone who knew what I was feeling. ... We were immediately best friends."

After years of closeness, however, the day came when Lauren and Jackie became interested in the same guy.

"All bets were off," Lauren says.

Jackie divulged Lauren's deepest secret without revealing her own to Mr. Perfect in order to win him.

"I was devastated," Lauren says, "I couldn't believe it. They're still together, and it makes me physically sick when I see them."

Losing a piece of yourself
Girl breakups pretty much suck at every level of the game, according to Anne Sisson Runyan, head of the Department of Women's Studies at UC. She says that women and girls have higher expectations of their relationships with one another because they are bonds that have been sought out and supported based on guidelines like class, race, nationality, level of education and value structures.

"Such higher standards make betrayal/falling out all the harder because it also affects one's sense of self-identification," Runyan says.

And so one of the reasons girl breakups are so painful is you're losing a piece of yourself.

Then how do we make our girl bonds stick? Many of the women I asked were "couples" who had been friends for 10-plus years, and they didn't seem to be able to put an exact finger on it.

Yet Julie, 28, of the Julie-and-Amy set, says, "She doesn't let me get away with anything if she knows I'm wrong about it, but she has a way of sorting me out that's not a lecture. We never sugar-coat anything for each other."

Gibson offered a similar notion.

"I believe that in a friendship intimacy is created by productive challenges," she says. "Though not all people want that level of 'push,' it's the most intimate relationships in which someone can point out (shortcomings)." ©