In defense of the BFF
Alice Robb at The New Republic is not convinced that women need a best friend. “Grown women don’t need a best friend,” Robb asserts, “no matter what Amy Poehler tells you.” I can only assume that she’ll be publishing an anti-kitten op-ed next.
I'm a grown woman with a job and a partner, and I'm comfortable saying that female best friendship is not only necessary, it’s magic. Like Oprah-and-Gayle-sharing-a-milkshake magic or Cyndi Lauper-parasailing-with-Lisa Frank over-a-chocolate-ocean magic.
Robb, on the other hand, is worried about the “potential dangers” of female best friendship. Dangers of female friendship? Like mimosa poisoning? Sleepover-induced sleep deprivation? Shopping fatigue? No, Robb is worried that lady BFFs rely too much on each other, that their friendships end too acrimoniously, and that the “pressure to single out one friend as the best is childish.”
“Having one all-consuming best friend may be more appropriate for children, who don’t have the distraction of adult responsibilities,” Robb scoffs, revealing the true coldness of her mechanical heart. Robb goes on to suggest that female BFFs are just “anxious millennials” who want to stay in a childlike state of arrested development because they can’t find “steady jobs or relationships.”
But there's an elephant in the room of Robb’s argument, and that elephant is patriarchy. Yes, patriarchy, that most cumbersome and smelly of elephants. Robb cites a handful of sociological and psychological studies from the admittedly impoverished field of friendship studies but nowhere does she venture to consider a feminist rationale for female best friendship.
Female best friendships are not childish. Women bond closely with other women to experience the joy of friendship, to be sure, but best friendship is also a deliberate and necessary act in the face of a sexist world. Lily Allen is wrong about a lot of stuff but she’s right about one thing: it is hard out here for a bitch. We make less money for the same work, and we experience harassment, discrimination, and violence on a massive scale. All female best friendships are formed against this backdrop of pervasive sexism, whether we identify as feminists or not.
It doesn’t matter if a woman is an “anxious millennial” or not, a woman is a woman, and a woman needs someone who “gets it,” who knows what it’s like to exist in this world as the weird amalgamation of object and trophy that men perceive us as.
Millennials, too, are able to form these necessary bonds in ways that Robb might not be able to perceive. In her article, she says that “most of the adults [she] knows” don’t have one person that they’d identify as their BFF: “the intensity of the friendships fluctuates along with everyone’s changing geographic and romantic circumstances.”
But anxious millennial that I am, I can hold my BFF’s talking head in the palm of my hand whenever I have a cell signal or a Wi-Ficonnection. My best friends and I have never lived in the same city, in fact, but we make it a point to video chat once a week. In true millennial fashion, we used to record and publish these calls as aYouTube show. The most intense response to our show came from men who, we can only assume, are a little bit jealous of the emotional intimacy that my friend and I can share with each other.
And that envy is justifiable because female best friendship is magical. I have someone out there who cares about my day who doesn’t have to deal with the annoyances of living with me. When we hang out, we laugh until we cry and cry until we laugh and everything in between. There is no posturing, no distance, no hierarchy, just fun and support.
It’s odd to me, then, that Robb seems to position straight male modes of intimacy as a healthy norm while depicting best friendships as “unhealthy” because of their exclusivity and dangerous intensity. “Men in heterosexual relationships,” she notes, “are comfortable naming their wife or girlfriend as their ‘best friend.’”
What Robb doesn’t note, however, is that many men default to labelling their wife or girlfriend as their “best friend,” because they have no other friends. White heterosexual men in particular have the fewest friends of any other demographic in the United States. Once these men get married and achieve a certain status, they can let their male friendships go and exclusively use their wife for emotional support.
But if it's OK for men to put all their emotional eggs into one wifey basket, why should we be suspicious of women who invest deeply in a romantic partner and a platonic best friend? I'm no scientist and I haven't invested in any mutual funds just yet, but I'm pretty sure two is a bigger (and therefore "safer") number of loved ones to keep close to your heart. I'll take a partner, a best friend, and a crew of besties over a wife, a beer, and the game any day.
Shaming female BFFs as “childish,” though, isn’t just annoying and hypocritical, it’s downright anti-feminist. As Simone de Beauvoir observed in The Second Sex, isolating women from one another or policing the intensity of their bonds to one another is a classic gesture of patriarchal power. The only way women can form their own history and their own culture is by spending time with each other, by making it a point to maintain cherished friendships no matter what romantic arrangements they enter into.
Forming a deliberate, beautiful bond with another women in a woman-hating world is a beautiful feminist act that’s both politically important and a whole lot of fun. So put on an episode of Parks and Recreation, call up your BFF, and enjoy the beautiful magic of female best friendship.
Samantha Allen is a doctoral fellow in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. In addition to writing regularly for the feminist gaming blog The Border House, her writing has also appeared on Salon, Jacobin, Kotaku, and First Person Scholar. You can find her on Twitter at @CousinDangereux or on the web at www.samanthaleighallen.com.