On the last weekend of last November, I flew home to LA to see a band. My former roommate picked me up from the airport, bringing us back to the apartment we used to share. I sat on my old bed, listening to traffic and ocean breeze shuddering the trees outside.
Boygenius comprises of three singer songwriters—Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus—all of whom enjoy successful solo careers. Earlier that month, they released a six-track collaborative EP. The show in LA was the last stop on their tour. Between songs, they gushed about each other without a trace of competition or hyperbole. It seems they’ve struck upon the seemingly impossible: an egoless supergroup, rooted in friendship and respect.
Typically, I don’t recognize my friendships in the ones depicted in popular culture. Even now—in 2019—female friends are often either under-represented, pitted against each other (usually over a romantic partner), or written with such a lethal dose of sentimentality that they alienate their intended audience. I want to counteract these antiquated portrayals.
My relationships tend to teach me what I don’t want, rather than what I do. Following that logic, here are the things I’ve learned to avoid when writing female friendships.
TACTIC 1: Make characters compatible, not comparable.
For fans of all three artists, it’s obvious who wrote which songs on the Boygenius EP. Each artist stayed true to her individual aesthetics when composing. And at the show, each artist played nearly an hour of solo work. For me though, the real power came at the end, when all three women came back onstage to sing together. While it was still clear who contributed what, each track sounded like an enhanced version of their prior work. They complemented each other beautifully, even though their individual aesthetics remained distinct and identifiable.
Characters should also do this in their friendships. They must exist in their own rights, with specific tastes, quirks, and histories. Their differences should be clear. But they must also enhance each other, highlighting the beauty in those differences and the strength in considering them as a unit. In short, strive for compatibility, not conformity.
TACTIC 2: Don’t keep the angry world out.
Relationships don’t happen in a vacuum. The outside world must exist, whether it’s through careers, shitty partners, different politics. These things all wear on friendships and should not be ignored. They provide context for a character’s psychological state, allowing you to discover what these relationships can withstand.
In Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, the friendship between Jocelyn and Rhea resonates because we are allowed to see how the world molds it. As teenagers, both girls fancy themselves punk rockers, trying on the identity to varying degrees. Jocelyn dives deeper, falling for an older record producer, Lou, whose intentions are painfully obvious to everyone except Jocelyn herself. Rhea mothers Jocelyn, taking every mistake and nugget of withheld information personally. Rhea feels she’s being left behind, measuring herself against societal expectations, while also understanding that their environment is both performative and temporary. That said, she never abandons her friend, even in situations that warrant walking away from. As adults, Rhea becomes an actual mother, while Jocelyn lives with hers, still battling addictions introduced by Lou. Jocelyn is now the one who’s been “left behind.” Yet the women assume the same roles. When Jocelyn strikes out in anger, Rhea supports and comforts. Life interferes in their friendship but does not change its core dynamic.
TACTIC 3: Don’t try to make them perfect.
In the TV show, You’re the Worst, Gretchen and Lindsay share an individualistic, self-preserving attitude that they enact in their own ways. In one episode, we see them return to the same frozen yogurt shop, taking samples from an increasing frustrated employee who eventually tries to stop them from returning. Their response? Dumping the samples on the floor. While human decency asks viewers to see this action as wrong, instead, it’s almost impossible not to cheer them on. They live by their own code of conduct, holding each other to the same subversive rudeness.
When stakes are much higher—Gretchen battles depression, Lindsay hides an abortion from her partner—there’s a shared acknowledgment that neither of them adheres to ultra-sweet or accommodating femininity. They are also not perfect with each other. Gretchen is judgmental and prone to lashing out. Lindsay is flaky and clueless. Competition, pettiness, betrayal—these things occur between them. In context, their missteps are believable, as is their ability to forgive them. Friendships do not require characters to ask for exceptions to all their friend’s rules; rather, an acknowledgement that the small mistakes will be forgiven.
TACTIC 4: Don’t be afraid of sincerity.
Before the last song of the concert, the women gathered around one mic, nu-folk style. They paused. At first, they appeared to enjoy the applause, growing louder in anticipation. But when the woman in the middle wrung her hands and turned away from the crowd, it became clear that they were all crying.
In A Visit from the Goon Squad, Rhea and Jocelyn reunite in their forties to say goodbye to Lou, now on his death bed. Upon reflecting on the direction her life took after her relationship with Lou, Jocelyn begins to cry.
“Rhea puts her arms around me,” she narrates. “Even after all the years, she doesn’t hesitate.”
“‘It was all for no reason,’ I say.”
“‘That’s never true,’ Rhea says. ‘You just haven’t found the reason yet.’”
On stage, three women stood. They leaned into each other, singing about dissolving their band, moving to Idaho. I think they knew what they had grasped was fleeting—the harmonies braiding around the room deserves to be admired, because they are rare to find and even harder to keep. Around me, my friends drew close. We have not had an easy year. One lost a job; another’s depression came back; another’s relationship is in tatters. I was there for a concert, but we all knew that I was not really there for a concert. My roommate put her head on my shoulder. This is what sincere displays do to an audience. Forget the gooey shit; what I am picturing is more like the wooden legs of a pier. Weathered, sturdy. Not going anywhere soon. When the band wiped tears off each other’s cheeks, I wanted to reach my hands out and call to them. As their song surrounded us, I leaned into accepting bodies. Here is what I wanted to say: We love this thing you made together.