By Charlotte Hollingsworth
Let’s start off on the right foot here. I’m going to tell you some things about me so that you can feel comfortable with trusting my opinion. I watch a lot of TV. Always have. I love it. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures and will proudly discuss Breaking Bad and Firefly in the same paragraph as The OC and The Vampire Diaries. This is not to say I am an expert, I’ve never seen The Wire or The West Wing or even Grey’s Anatomy, so there are huge gaps in my education. But, I have studied these shows. I’ve studied pop culture for years now. And that doesn’t mean I’m just taking it in, which I do greedily and without shame. I tear it apart, study its parts, study trends in how it affects us and how we affect it, and own more than one text book on the subject. I love it. I love pop culture. And sometimes, it loves me.
If you do a quick internet search of Strong Female Protagonists on TV, you will find a pretty consistent list. While I was doing this kind of in depth research for this article, I noticed a trend that completely side tracked me and created what you’re about to read. I noticed a distinct lack of friendship. Specifically, strong and consistent female friendships in shows that focus on a badass or tough female lead. So let’s explore that, shall we?
Friendship is Magic
I was pleasantly surprised at the list I was able to pull together of strong, powerful, tough women in lead roles on TV that had good, solid, and consistent female friendships. Leaving out the obvious shows that focus specifically on women in groups (and these women would rarely be called “badass,” which is an issue in and of itself) like Girls or Sex in The City, here are some of my favorite Strong Female Friendships:
Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg:
From the first episode to the last closing shot, Willow and Buffy are always there for each other. Buffy tops most lists for strong/tough/badass women on TV, and Willow is not a stranger to such accolades herself. But the most amazing thing about that show (I know, how do you choose?) is that these two women are never pitted against each other over men, looks, or any other of the many common reasons girls on TV hate each other. They fight, yes they do fight, but they fight about morals, they fight about consistency, they fight about being there for each other. Buffy is never weakened by her friendship (ok, well, maybe that one time they killed her but… you know what I mean) and is still able to conduct a bustling love life and consistent ass kicking without ever once saying my most hated phrase, “I just can’t hang out with girls, they cause too much drama.” No. Vampires cause drama.
Elena Gilbert and Bonnie Bennet
Ignoring the glaring issues of Elena’s poor emotional boundaries and Bonnie’s vaguely creepy romantic interests, the friendship between this vampire and witch has a lot to offer. Throughout the show, the two girls remain deeply bonded despite many exterior changes and huge opposition to their alliance. And while neither may kick as much literal ass as Buffy, they both use their supernatural abilities to accomplish some major violence against those who wrong them. They are constantly looking out for each other and the show makes a point to let each character express over and over how they will never give up on each other. That’s incredibly powerful for a show that could so easily have gone the route of Boy-Girl-Boy-Triangle-So-Who-Needs-Friends?
Leslie Knope and Anne Perkins:
I don’t think there is a stronger and more powerful female friendship in the history of TV than that of Leslie “Waffles for Dinner” Knope and Anne “All the Strengths” Perkins. And while neither character is the same kind of Strong Female Protagonist as Buffy, they are both incredibly strong women. Through honesty, attention, and support, Anne and Leslie continually build each other up and help each live her best life. Again, and are you catching the pattern here, the writers never pit the two against each other over men or power or any of the things women are routinely taught to fight over. They celebrate each other’s accomplishments and offer support when things go wrong. Basically everyone should have a Leslie to her Anne, and vice versa, because we all deserve to be and have friends that fiercely loyal.
Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That
A huge number of strong women on TV don’t have any close female friends, but exist within universes where no one seems to be able to maintain any kind of decent relationship. I can’t find fault in Arya Stark’s lack of a BFF when every single character in that show might be stabbed by every other character at the drop of a dragon egg. Similarly, Mad Men continually throws Joan Holloway and Peggy Olsen against each other, but everyone in the offices of Sterling Cooper is fighting against each other for power. One of my very favorite shows of all time, Lost, falls in to this category. Even though there are quite a few stellar badass ladies on that island (Juliette forever) there is so much else going on around them that few lasting friendships are made (the most notable exception obviously being the pure cinnamon bun of friendship between Hurley and Charlie but we can’t talk about that or I’ll cry on to my computer and die in a fire.)
In some of these cases, there are no strong female friendships because there simply are not enough female characters. In Battlestar Galactica, there are only three consistent female characters and two of them are fracking cylons. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace is in a completely different class than Laura Roslin, and sure as hell Six and Eight (or Boomer if you haven’t seen the end of the first season… which is your fault at this point) aren’t there to make friends. Zoe Wash and Kaylee Frye have a mutual respect, and Inara Serra certainly feels a level of care for Kaylee, but there is never much time when the three are ever alone together long enough to establish a really clear bond. That, and their romantic involvement with their male crewmembers is much more a focus for the writers of Firefly than any development of the comradery of these women.
These rough and tumble women are forced by fate and circumstance and boring writers in to never forming lasting friendships with anyone, let alone women. And while Starbuck and Boomer/Eight are pals with the men on the ship, as is the case in a few examples that didn’t make my cut, many of these shows simply do not focus on platonic human relationships. Sometimes because of aliens, sometimes because of polar bears, and sometimes just because there are just not enough people who aren’t actively trying to kill each other. However, it is important to note that with the simple addition of a few more female characters, or a little less focus on the romantic interests therein, each of these shows could just as well have had a handful of important moments showcasing the power of female friendship.
Who Needs Friends?
So what about the women on TV that just don’t have any friends, at all? Olivia Benson doesn’t ever schedule a girl’s night out, and Dana Scully hasn’t had a conversation with a not-in-peril human woman in decades. These women are fiercely strong, independent, and remarkably strong role models for young women who don’t want to take any guff, and yet simultaneously they reinforce the idea that strong women are not friends with other women. That old familiar phrase, “girls cause so much drama” is played out over and over in these situations. The idea that if one woman succeeds it takes away from the success of another woman. Basically the opposite of Shine Theory.
This plays out all over the media landscape with traditionally tough girls being lumped in with the guys instead of the girls. Because feminine things, well, those make you weak! Veronica Mars, Super Girl, Jessica Jones, these women kick ass and can’t be bothered with girls who wear lipstick and steal boyfriends. Even Xena, Warrior Princess couldn’t maintain a strictly platonic female friendship (IT’S CANON THEY BASICALLY MADE OUT.) Keeping women against each other is a classic way to keep them from forming powerful groups that can outwit and outsmart the patriarchal complexes keeping us all in check.
Increasingly, the role of powerful female relationships is becoming more prevalent, but we still have a way to go. Outside of TV the systematic devaluing of female relationships is as strong as ever, with music, movies, and books pitting women against each other at every turn. And yet, with such fantastic role models as Monica and Rachel, Leslie and Ann, Rory and Lane, and of course Buffy and Willow, there is hope for a stronger presence of true girl power in our media landscape. You can be tough, strong, kick ass, and still catch up with your girlfriends over coffee. And sometimes over ass kicking.