Jenny Rogers is an assistant editor for The Washington Post’s Outlook section.
‘Boy or girl?” the woman asked, gesturing to my bulging belly. “Boy!” I replied.
“Oh, that’s good. Boys are so much easier.”
I didn’t give this much thought the first time I heard it, or the second. But it kept happening. The further along in my pregnancy, the more often people — colleagues, neighbors, strangers in the grocery store parking lot — kept assuring me that I was lucky to be having a boy. “They’ll love you forever.” (A daughter would obviously turn on me.) “Girls are good, but then they become teenagers.” (Of course, teenage boys are guaranteed delights.) And: “You know how girls are.”
Yes, I know how girls are. They are the most intelligent, kind, clever and loyal people in my life. They are the ones I incessantly text about painful or embarrassing episodes, but also about what I ate that day and what I thought of last night’s “Project Runway” and how my baby’s eyes are changing color. They are my best friends, and, as a new book on female friendship contends, these relationships are as vital as any other in a woman’s life.
“Text Me When You Get Home ” is journalist Kayleen Schaefer’s love letter to her friends. Schaefer rejects the idea that women’s friendships are rife with dysfunction and that women themselves are somehow dysfunctional, a concept that she shows remains strong in popular culture. The suggestion that I’d be better off with a son than a daughter, even when made with a wink, was the latest in a barrage of mixed messages I’d heard about my gender since I was a kid. “Girls are mean,” a teacher once told me sympathetically. (As if our fights were any meaner than the taunts the boys exchanged with each other.) A male middle school classmate wore a shirt that said, “Don’t trust anything that bleeds for seven days and doesn’t die,” which disturbed me for reasons I couldn’t articulate as a 14-year-old. “You know women and their cellphones,” a pastor joked during a sermon, knowing that any reference to women’s materialism, shallowness or shopping habits from the pulpit would always get a gentle chuckle from the congregation.
It all adds up — those and a hundred other little things — to how the world sees women. We can vote and hold jobs and live much more freely in this country than in many; most of the men I know are not misogynists — far from it. But we still get the message: In the wider world, girls count less. There’s something wrong with girls. You know how girls are.
Most of us didn’t need the #MeToo movement to tell us that a small number of men treat women badly and that a great number of men (and women) are willing to excuse behaviors that they themselves would never commit. A woman doesn’t need to have been raped to know she lives in a world where rape is prevalent and unlikely to be punished. She doesn’t need to be sexually harassed by her boss to know that if she were, the company would protect itself, not her. Institutions are not designed for us.
But there is one institution that is: friendship, where I coexist with these reportedly mean and catty women. My female friends include a dozen ladies I’ve picked up at different jobs and in different cities over the years, plus a raft of college sorority sisters for whom sisterhood is not a joke. Their friendship is a rejection of every negative thing I’ve ever heard said about women and a balm for any bad thing that comes my way.
“Text Me When You Get Home” aims to offer some insight into this critical institution. Though not particularly political and written before #MeToo, the work feels fresh. In the face of near-daily revelations about high-ranking men who treat women as disposable, Schaefer shows how stabilizing and joyful it can be to connect to another woman.
The book isn’t perfect. Schaefer weighs it down with her own biography, which provides the least lively and insightful material here. (An encounter with a popular female former classmate looms large in Schaefer’s mind but is unlikely to interest anyone else.) She juxtaposes her experiences with her mother’s to make an unconvincing point that young women today care more about friendship than did previous generations. Extrapolating such wide meaning from two women’s stories, without accounting for individual personalities and circumstances, doesn’t work; I could just as easily offer my own mom’s life to refute her point.
But there’s plenty of good, too. A short but essential section debunks the “mean girl” myth. The concept of girls as bullies came into sharp focus in 2002 with the publication of two books: “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls,” a mostly anecdotal account of girls tormenting girls that cited “relational aggression” studies from the 1990s, and “ Queen Bees and Wannabes.” “Queen Bees” author Rosalind Wiseman spoke to Schaefer with apparent regret about her own book, explaining that it was intended to be a guide to help parents understand what their daughters were going through and to give them a common vocabulary. But instead, her taxonomy of girl world — the popular ones, the desperate strivers and the targets, who jockey for power and lash out at one another — turned into a bit of pop sociology used to denigrate girls rather than understand them. “She was dismayed,” Schaefer writes, “to see that for some girls and their parents the labels simply became typecasting that no one bothered to look past.”
Schaefer cites a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services article called “The Myth of ‘Mean Girls,’ ” which stated that there’s no proof girls are more vicious than boys, despite the huge amount of media attention the idea has gotten in the past two decades. The report points out: “Several large cross-cultural studies and meta-analyses have found no gender differences in relational aggression.” That’s a surprising rebuke to what has become conventional wisdom about how girls treat one another.
Where “Text Me When You Get Home” proves liveliest is in tracing how popular culture has treated female friends and how the current cultural landscape is more hospitable than ever to the concept. Schaefer’s interviews with screenwriters, producers and directors show how sexism infects the entertainment industry and how hard people have pushed back to create more true narratives about women and their friendships.
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creator of “Designing Women,” told Schaefer that she wanted a show that combatted the idea that women’s friendships were marked by jealousy, resentment and frivolity. Her concept so confounded the network that the head of programming at CBS felt the need to apologize to media representatives and advertisers at the pilot preview, saying that the show was “quite different” and “we still don’t know what to do with it.” Bloodworth-Thomason said critics in the audience who had already seen the show booed and yelled that they liked it. “They just overruled him,” she said, “and he was shocked he was so off base.”
Mary Agnes Donoghue, the writer of the popular film “Beaches,” revealed to Schaefer that her vision of a movie that showed the power of female friends clashed with director Garry Marshall’s vision: He wanted a catfight. (Schaefer includes some fascinating history about the catfight as a concept — it was first used to describe scuffles between Mormon wives in 1854 and later became a staple of pornography.) Marshall wanted the women in the film to end their friendship over a guy; Donoghue insisted that was silly — women’s big fights weren’t over men. A writer’s strike helped save Donoghue’s idea: No one was available for a rewrite, and “Beaches” went on to resonate with millions of women.
Schaefer packs in plenty more details: director Paul Feig recalling how a male producer warned him to expect catfights on the set of the all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot; Sarah Paulson being asked about “actress in-fighting” on the set of “Ocean’s Eight,” a female spin-off of the “Ocean’s 11” series. Paulson crisply rejected the idea out of hand. Kay Cannon wrote the smash hit “Pitch Perfect,” about an underdog all-female a cappella group, as “a very strong female-centric girl-power kind of movie,” but studio execs wanted her to add a love triangle and write the film around that. When Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer pitched their brilliant show “Broad City,” about two friends who more or less just hang out, one exec said: “I don’t get why we’d watch this. Are they going to get married?”
Meanwhile, other modern shows discreetly made female friendships their cornerstone. The real relationship of “Grey’s Anatomy” was not the romance between Meredith and neurosurgeon Derek, but the friendship between Meredith and her fellow intern Cristina. Michael Schur, co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” says the show initially concealed that Leslie and Ann’s friendship was its core. “We were able to tell this story of a female friendship in part, I think, because we built a little bit of a Trojan horse,” he said. The show was originally announced as a spinoff of “The Office” and perceived as a vehicle for Amy Poehler, not as a showcase of two heterosexual ladies who shower each other with love, support and absurd compliments (“Ann, you beautiful tropical fish,” “Ann, you are such a good friend, you’re a beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk-ox,” etc.).
Schaefer demonstrates how professionally productive female friendship can be (which feels particularly relevant as #MeToo has highlighted some of the pitfalls of the workplace for women), citing the female friends who created the nut-butter brand Wild Friends, the news digest theSkimm and the razor-sharp fashion website Go Fug Yourself. Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon’s real-life friendship led to the creation of HBO’s hit series “Big Little Lies.” As co-producers and future co-stars of the show, they pitched it together to execs and sparked a bidding war. “It was kind of amazing to feel the interest — that’s what happens when women combine their powers,” Kidman told Vogue. “If I’d gone by myself to try and do it, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Central to the book is the idea that friendship is assigned little importance. As more women marry later (the median age of first marriage for women stayed between 20 and 22 for 100 years but now is around 27), being single is the norm for women in their mid-20s to early 30s, and friends occupy the perch traditionally reserved for a romantic partner. But the wider culture hasn’t quite caught up. On forms to list beneficiaries for life insurance, “there’s not a box for friend,” as Aminatou Sow, host of the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend,” tells Schaefer. “Galentine’s Day,” a recurring episode on “Parks and Rec” in which ladies celebrated ladies, has become a cultural phenomenon but is still a made-up holiday, not invested with any of the significance of Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day.
“There’s been a tacit, depressing assumption that our friendships, unlike our other relationships, should be temporary . . . that at some point we will have to distance ourselves from each other,” Schaefer writes. “But we’re pressing back on this notion. We’re caring for each other — loudly and continuously for no reason besides wanting to. . . . The women around us are essential.”
We need our friends. Schaefer cites research showing that the traditional fight-or-flight response to stress doesn’t manifest in women the same way it does in men; rather, women demonstrate a “tend and befriend” response. In one of many animal studies with similar findings, male rats froze under stress, while the females climbed into the same cage and groomed and licked each other. Though we prefer texting to licking, I was stunned by how closely this describes how my friends and I rally to each other in tough moments.
It’s often observed that women’s friendships are deeper than men’s. Perhaps that’s because of how women communicate, or because men aren’t raised to have intimacy in their relationships with other men. But being female in a male-dominated world creates its own kind of stress, and teaming up with our own is one way to stay sane. When women are so often undercut or underpaid, told we’re too fat or bad negotiators or apologizing too much or using uptalk or doing whatever we’re lately accused of, it’s not just good friendship to rely on each other. It’s good sense.
By Kayleen Schaefer
Dutton. 275 pp. $24