Sister act: from Killing Eve to Little Women, female friendships finally get top billing

After years of men in the spotlight, now stories about women– and created by women – are taking centre stage at last

As a teenager, I was led to believe by popular culture that female existence was, roughly, one part seducing men, one part marrying men and one part consoling men returning from battle (I watched a lot of The Lord Of The Rings). This didn’t stack up with real life; my days revolved not around boys but around female friends.

Now I’m in my 20s, little has changed. I have not once tended to an ailing warrior but plenty of time has been spent on my relationships with women. Thankfully, while my life hasn’t altered, culture has. I’m finally seeing my friendships reflected back at me.

Storylines that put women’s relationships centre stage are everywhere at the moment. On Boxing Day, Greta Gerwig’s feverishly awaited film adaptation of Little Women, which has a rumoured budget of $40m, lands in cinemas. (Yes, it’s about sisters rather than friends, but close friends often feel like sisters.) It’s an apt way to round off a year that has seen a bumper crop of films about friendship. Booksmart put an original, women-led spin on the teen movie while Sophie Hyde’s adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth’s cult novel Animals featured an intoxicating yet ultimately destructive friendship between two hedonistic thirty-somethings. Even the Frozen films spotlight sisterhood (albeit, as with Little Women, a rather literal depiction of it).

Television’s in on the act, too – well, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is at least. In Fleabag, the screenwriter grapples with the psychological fallout of betraying a best mate, while Killing Eve explores the unlikely bond between a British intelligence agent and an assassin. Last month an evocative stage adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend – which charts the intense, quarrelsome friendship between Lenù and Lila from when they meet as Naples schoolgirls to their 60s – opened at the National Theatre.

Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer in season two of Killing Eve.
Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer in season two of Killing Eve. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

My appetite for portrayals of this kind is bottomless – and judging by their ubiquity, it’s a collective rather than an individual hunger. This is hardly a surprise. White heterosexual men are overwhelmingly the default protagonists on stage and screen. Sure, everyone’s perspective is equally valid on an individual level – but when one group has enjoyed cultural dominance for centuries, it’s no wonder we’re impatient for alternative viewpoints.

After all, such a narrow depiction of human experience is bound to contain glaring omissions. April De Angelis, who adapted My Brilliant Friend for stage, agrees. “Men have always told women’s stories, and they’ve always put themselves right at the centre of the picture,” she says. “If women had to tell the story of our lives, we’d talk about friends, really, talk about our daughters, talk about mothers, talk about grandmothers, and talk about the friendships that are important to us.”

Indeed, the platonic relationships women have with other women are some of the most significant of their lives. Part of what makes the Ferrante novels so relatable is that many readers will have their own brilliant friend: someone they believe is cooler or cleverer than them and whom they thus regard with a potent mix of admiration and resentment. (Naturally, the friend thinks the same vice versa.) Adapting the play has given De Angelis time to consider the passion of women’s friendships – and how formative this can be. “Female friends are as important as our lovers,” she says. “It’s part of our development as women, because we’re sort of moulding our identity on them, like a mirror. We’re growing through them, so we’re inseparable in the way we’ve grown up.”

Clearly, then, these kinds of storylines offer a more honest portrayal of women’s experiences. But they also better reflect our personalities. When women aren’t stuck orbiting a male lead in clichéd “crazy ex-girlfriend” or “unattainably hot colleague” roles, they get to be darker (as anyone who has quaked before Killing Eve’s brutal, unpredictable Villanelle will attest). They get to be jealous. (“Envy runs through that book so powerfully,” says De Angelis of My Brilliant Friend.) They get to use their bodies for fun rather than for seduction. (The boisterous play-fighting scenes in the new Little Women film, to which I begged a preview ticket, are a good example here.)

Catherine McCormack as Lila and Niamh Cusack as Lenù in the stage version of My Brilliant Friend.
Catherine McCormack as Lila and Niamh Cusack as Lenù in the stage version of My Brilliant Friend. Photograph: Marc Brenner

While I can wager a fair guess as to the answer, I ask De Angelis why, if it’s so important, has friendship gone unrepresented for so long? “It’s not told because a) it’s dismissed as a subject and b) women haven’t been given the cultural space to write about their own experience,” she says. It could also be down to fears of what women can accomplish when united. “What is frightening about women’s friendship is there’s power in being together, which is what Lenù says about Lila – ‘If we’d been able to study together we’d have drawn power from each other.’ There’s that sense of, you know, divide and rule – you keep women separate.”

No doubt about it, then: friendship storylines are doing important work correcting aeons-old cultural gender imbalances. They also have a smaller, but just as heartening, impact on everyday life. Along with letting us relive a favourite story, adaptations of mega-popular tales such as Little Women or My Brilliant Friend are a chance for happy discussions with friends who are also fans.

Since the first-look images from Little Women were released back in the summer, for instance, I’ve had approximately one text an hour from a fellow geek expressing either excitement (“Timothée Chalamet as Laurie! Be still my beating heart!”) or a nervy protectiveness (“What if Emma Watson’s dodgy acting ruins it?!” It doesn’t.)

Call me sentimental – blame the fact that I’ve watched Little Women’s eminently heart-warming trailer around five times in the last week – but it’s hard not to feel there’s a neat symmetry in storylines about friendship strengthening the audience’s own.


Gwendolyn Smith

The GuardianTramp

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