Archive for the ‘media’ Category
Published in Sunday Life, 16 January 2011. Copyright Rachel Hills 2011.
Bitchy? Competitive? Painful? Female friendship can certainly be one complex pas de deux. Rachel Hills explores the dark side of bonding – and breaking up – with our besties.
In Hollywood, as in life, some truths seem universal: there will be heroes and there will be villains, for example, and it will be easy to tell the difference between the two. Women will squabble over everything from men, to jobs, to who scores the biggest, most outlandish venue for their wedding reception. And any character played by the doe-eyed, deepthinking Natalie Portman will be beyond reproach.
But these don’t allow for Black Swan. Set in an elite New York City ballet company, the film tells the story of two ballerinas – Nina (Portman) and Lily, played by Mila Kunis of That ’70s Show fame – competing for the lead role in Swan Lake. At first glance, the two seem to be polar opposites: Nina is passive, a perfectionist and innocent to the point of being childlike, while Lily is relaxed, a little wild and potentially dangerous. Nina is a perfect fit for the role of the White Swan, Lily for the Black Swan. The trouble is, in this performance, they are the same role.
A straightforward tale of female cattiness and competition? Not exactly. Nina wins the lead, but on stage she struggles to unleash her dark side. Meanwhile, Nina and Lily grow closer. But is Lily really Nina’s friend, or is she secretly plotting to undermine her? As the audience, we’re set up to sympathise with Nina, but as the story unfolds, Nina’s version of events seems increasingly unreliable.
“So much of the relationship [between Lily and Nina] takes place inside Nina’s head that it’s not possible to say what is really happening, and what is a figment of her imagination,” says Portman. Just as, initially, its female leads appear to be opposites, so too does the film seem to play to stereotypes of catty and competitive female friendships. “But because of the twists and turns the story takes, it’s much more complicated than that,” she says.
Women aren’t the only ones who have less-than-rosy friendship experiences – just look at ageing rock stars Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – but culturally speaking, the notion of the dark female friendship is seductive. And for good reason, says Portman. “We live in a society that has been traditionally dominated by men, where women are put in comparison with each other. Our men’s magazines rank women by their looks. It’s typical for one wife to get too old and the husband to replace her with a ‘younger model’.”
This sense of expendability is particularly acute in Black Swan, she says. “Nina is in a world where women are treated as interchangeable – if they get too old, if they get injured. And it is because she feels so replaceable that someone who is similar to her, while very attractive, is also very threatening.”
Like Nina and Lily – or Mick and Keith, for that matter – many women have a tale to share of friendship turned sour. But while competition and insecurity may play a part, they don’t tell the whole story. “Women place an enormous amount of energy and hope into their friendships,” says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Toxic Friends: The Antidote for Women Stuck in Complicated Friendships. And rather than reflecting an unseemly underbelly of an otherwise sunny relationship, the much-talked-about “dark side” of female friendship is more often an unintended consequence of that intensity.
“The female bond is riveting,” says Barash. “The gender identity is so strong among women that we think, ‘Oh my God, another woman, she understands my plight, she understands me.’ ” The sense of connection can be so strong, in fact, that any break can feel like a slap in the face. “There are all these murky rules about what it means to be female friends. Sometimes because the expectations are not spelled out, it confuses and disappoints,” says Irene S. Levine, author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend.
These expectations don’t just apply to the way we and our friends treat each other; they extend to the nature of friendship itself. “In a large sense, women are judged by their ability to make and keep friends,” says Levine. “It can make it seem like losing a friend is some kind of moral failing, but actually, friendships do have a natural lifespan.”
That feeling of moral failing is one Monica, 27, can relate to. “I’m very hesitant to talk about women as having something unique [from men],” she says. “But I’d always heard about the fact that women can be catty or bitchy, and I’d never really been able to identify with that.” That was until she fell into her own complicated friendship, with a young woman she met while studying overseas.
The two were fast friends, quickly developing a relationship in which they saw each other “all the time”. But things soon turned sour, partly due to a misunderstanding about a male friend but mostly, Monica says, because they just weren’t that compatible as friends. “Certain relationships bring out the worst in people,” she observes, “and this one brought out the worst in both of us.” Still, drawing back wasn’t easy – “We’d already gotten into the pattern of hanging out so much,” Monica explains – and the fallout left both women feeling hurt.
Reflecting on the experience, Monica remembers feeling a lot of shame. “One of the biggest things was the feeling that I’m a bad person,” she says. “Which is not to say that I feel guilty about anything I did, but more that these things seem to happen to people who are bad, so I must be bad.”
Susan Shapiro Barash says that in other cases this sense of failure can lead to people choosing to stay in friendships that are bad for them, or that they have simply outgrown. “Women make more excuses for their friends than they do for their husbands or children,” she observes.
Sasha, a 33-year-old who has ended three close friendships in the past few years, explains it like this: “Everyone wants to have that Sex and the City ideal. And because of that, no one wants to admit to themselves that a friendship isn’t working. We don’t want to walk away from it, because if we do, what would that say about us? So, you have these friendships that aren’t about showing up for the other person in a real, present way. Instead the person is viewed as an emblem, a reflection of who you are and your place in the world and nobody wants to be the bad guy.”
The problem, in Sasha’s experience, isn’t that women are nastier or more competitive than men. It’s that they’re taught that expressing negative emotions like anger or disappointment is not on. “We tend to try to smooth things over,” she says, “because that’s our ‘role’ as women. But if you don’t express it, if you don’t assert yourself and you instead turn all your anger inwards, it’s going to come out in the most destructive, raw way. It’s when the anger’s stored up and everyone’s been denying it that things get nasty.”
This toxic combination of stigma and denial can make it tempting to fall back on stereotypes and generalisations when a friendship does turn sour. She is the bad one – the Black Swan – and I am the White Swan. She is crazy. What else could I have expected? Everyone knows women can’t be trusted. Men are so much easier to deal with.
“Stereotypes exist to make it easier for us to make sense of the world,” says Natalie Portman. “Something happens and you’re like, ‘This is that type of behaviour’ or ‘This is that type of person.’ It’s supposed to save you time instead of figuring something out for yourself, but we’re wrong about these things so often that the stereotypes don’t always help us.”
“It’s definitely easier to say, ‘Women are just like that,’ ” says Sasha. “Then you don’t have to take responsibility. It’s like when people say men can’t be monogamous. The problem with this is you never learn for next time. Just like in a romantic relationship, you take all those things into your next friendship. You don’t know why it keeps happening; you just know that people are mean to you. You don’t know why they’re mean to you, and you don’t have to look at the way you treat people yourself. You get to be the victim.”
In many cases, our other friends might egg us on when we’re in this state of mind, says US sociologist Dr Jan Yager, author of Friendshifts and When Friendship Hurts. “It’s interesting that most of the people I work with hurt a friend, but all of their friends are telling them that they shouldn’t feel bad because what they did was right,” she explains.
This might be their way of showing their support, or it might be an expression of competitiveness itself, says Yager. “A lot of people are jealous of their friends’ other friends, so they might have an unconscious motive to not have that relationship repaired.”
But the jump to blame isn’t always or solely self-righteous. Sometimes, as in Black Swan, it’s simply that one negative thought leads to another, until a person we once cared deeply about is buried under the weight of them all. And selfserving or not, such thoughts can lock us into a kind of confrontation that can be very difficult to step out of. Says Monica, “It’s like you start to lose perspective.”
Traditionally, argues Jan Yager, women have tended to invest more in their friendships than men, who, she says, are more likely to “let things go” – whether that means sweeping small issues under the carpet or letting go of a friendship that isn’t working out swiftly and entirely.
But as women have increased their participation in the workforce and men have grown more comfortable with intimate friendships, this divide has started to dissolve, with women more inclined to discard relationships that aren’t working, and men becoming embroiled in their own convoluted conflicts. As Irene Levine observes, “The less intimate the relationship, the easier it is to end it” – regardless of the genders of the people involved.
But Yager isn’t convinced that ending it is always a good thing. “A lot of people haven’t learnt that even terrific relationships have conflict. They think that if there’s conflict, then the relationship should end. That’s not the way relationships really work,” she says. “If a friendship has been important to you, it’s important to at least try to work it out.”
Levine agrees. “It’s so important to think through whether you really want to end a friendship, because once you do, you can never go back to the same level of intimacy,” she says.
That’s not to say all friendships are worth salvaging. “People change over time,” says Levine, “and the people who were good for us at one point in time might not be good for us at another. Sometimes people hang on too long to old relationships because they have a special kind of emotional tenacity, and that’s not good, either.”
For Monica’s part, she has few regrets: “I’m obviously not happy that we’re not speaking; I wish it could have faded naturally. But that was almost impossible, considering the circumstances. I don’t want to say that she was bad or I was bad. I’m more than happy to admit that I didn’t do things in the best way I could. But the situation was tricky, and in every moment I did what I thought was the best thing to do.” In other words, there was no Black Swan.
Sasha says she has learnt much the same lessons. “Going into other friendships I’ll remember everyone makes mistakes,” she says. “No one’s seeking to deliberately hurt me, and I don’t need to take it so seriously. They were probably having a bad day. Accept and move on. Or at least talk about it before it gets to the point of no return.”