During the recent “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” reunion show, I watched six heavily-botoxed women hurl insults back and forth for an hour.
“She needs to learn some manners,” Taylor said, pointing at Kim. “You bully me all the time!” Camille yelled at Kyle. “You say things that aren’t true, Camille,” Kyle shot back. “You’ve done this to yourself.”
The show got me thinking about the parade of female villains produced by reality TV in recent years, all notorious for their bad treatment of other women. And I wondered: what ever happened to the positive portrayals of female friendship that used to pervade pop culture?
It used to be that girlfriends were celebrated. Shows like “Sex and the City” orbited around tightly-bonded groups of women with radically divergent personalities who loved each other for those differences. At the turn of the millennium, “girl power” was thriving and girlfriends were big business (See: The Spice Girls, and other proponents of feminine ferocity), hardly in need of defending.
But in popular culture today, women are frequently portrayed as catty backstabbers who “aren’t here to make friends,” let alone celebrate girl power. Obviously the preponderance of “mean girls” (or mean women) in entertainment doesn’t prove that any truly substantive change in the nature of female friendships is occurring, but it seems a growing cultural backlash against female friendships is afoot. Meanwhile, scrutiny of men’s friendships with each other is practically nonexistent.
Reality TV, a form where human caricatures are de rigueur, seems to thrive on the mean girl prototype, intent on convincing us that women have little loyalty or allegiance to their female friends. Women, neatly edited to conform to this stereotype, seem to be co-conspirators in their own character assassinations, often playing the role of backstabber as if they’d been cast by Jerry Springer. Whether fighting over the attention and affection of a man on dating shows like “The Bachelor” or mercilessly judging and mocking each other on any installment of the “Real Housewives” franchise, disloyal female friends are abundant and new ones crop up every season and are a staple of each new show.
Of course not all images of female-friendship-gone-awry are so extreme; there are certainly some shows that portray female friendships as supportive and nuanced, like Liz Lemon and Jenna Maroney on “30 Rock.” Still, consumers of pop culture will find it hard to argue that there’s not a strong undercurrent of formulaic and unflattering portrayals of women’s relationships with other women. Bad girlfriends are one-dimensional and come in only a few models: backstabbing, jealous, and selfish (and often, all three). In pop culture, they’re called “frenemies.”
The term frenemy appeared in print as early as 1953, but gained huge popularity in the past few years. A portmanteau of “friend” and “enemy,” it refers to an enemy pretending to be a friend to one’s face (but who is actually a competitor or rival) and has become part of the popular lexicon for younger generations.
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