A few weeks ago, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey hosted their third Golden Globes Awards, with much being made of their long-standing, real-life friendship in the lead up to the event (see here and herefor some examples).
This made me think back to an article that I co-wrote with Karen Boyle in 2012 which looked at the depiction of same-sex friendship between Poehler and Fey’s characters in the film Baby Mama (McCullers, 2008). The article came out of a surprising observation relating to the absence of Hollywood comedies depicting the origins of dyadic adult female friendship. Baby Mama was the only contemporary example we could come up with. (While several contemporary mainstream films focus on female friendship, the tendency is to focus on groups of female friends, pre-existing friendships or younger female characters who are still in high school or college). This is in stark contrast to the many contemporary ‘bromance’ films that feature the beginnings of close friendships between two men.
While our focus on the piece was on film, when trying to rack our brains for examples of developing friendships between adult women, all I kept coming up with were examples from television – particularly sitcoms. I can think of numerous contemporary representations of adult women becoming friends in this generic context – Penny and Amy in The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007 – present); Leslie and Ann in Parks and Recreation (NBC, 2009 – present) and Lily and Robin in How I Met Your Mother (CBS, 2005 – 2014) to name but a few (pictured clockwise from top left below). This has been in the back of my mind for the past couple of years now. What is it about the sitcom – and television more widely – that makes it a more conducive context for representing the beginnings of dyadic female friendship than Hollywood film?
One of my central research interests is on screen narrative. In our article, Karen and I argued that the depiction of the origins of adult female friendship poses an awkward narrative trajectory for Hollywood as it is seen to pose a threat to the development of hetero-romance (and, in turn, the patriarchal heteronormative order), the suggestion being that female friendship contains a potential erotic charge. As such, friendship between women tends to be portrayed in mainstream Hollywood comedies as a temporary stage in women’s lives, a kind of stepping stone to the ‘true’ fulfilment found in heteronormative romance, and in this way, it is managed and contained. This chimes with Yvonne Tasker’s assertion, writing about film in the 1990s, that ‘across a range of genres, the cost of heterosexuality and the narrative that enacts this as a journey, is the death of female friendship’ (1998: 140).
In stark contrast, in TV sitcoms, intimate female friendships often occupy a pivotal space and, moreover, these same-sex relationships are frequently tinged with romantic overtones. Leslie and Ann’s friendship in Parks and Recreation provides a notable example, marked by loyalty, intensity and open displays of affection (for further examples of the closeness of their relationship, see here). Female friendships in The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, meanwhile, feature more explicit homoerotic tones. In The Big Bang Theory, for example, Amy regularly displays obsessive behaviour with regards to her friendship with Penny, hinting at her attraction to her, while Lily in How I Met Your Mother often alludes to her sexual dreams about, and desire for, Robin.
As aforementioned, in Hollywood comedies the suggestion of homoerotic desire between female friends is seen as threatening to the patriarchal heteronormative order and, thus, one of the most common ways in which this ‘threat’ is contained is through comedic disavowal, working to dilute the intensity of the friendship and, in turn, the possibility of same-sex desire. Comedy is obviously key to the sitcom genre too and potential homoerotic moments between female friends in sitcoms also tend to be charged with humour. Certainly, Amy’s obsession with Penny and Lily’s ‘slips’ of desire for Robin are played primarily for laughs. Both The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother also feature moments when the female friends kiss, but again, in these cases the idea of same-sex desire tends to be diluted by narrative context. In How I Met Your Mother, for example, Robin and Lily kiss in an attempt to wake up Robin’s sex-obsessed fiancé from a drunken stupor. Thus, the kiss functions narratively to titillate a male and there is no suggestion that it will lead to anything more. This is not to deny the possibility of polysemic readings, of course, but rather to point to the fact that these moments of desire between female friends are fleeting.
This marginalisation of same-sex desire brings to mind broader work on explicit televisual depictions of homosexuality, which points to the incompatibility between these representations and serial form (see Allen, 1995; Dow, 2001; Kennedy, 1994; McCarthy, 2003; Davis, 2004). In particular, it makes me recall Anna McCarthy’s essay on the sitcom Ellen (ABC, 1994 – 1998), in which she argues that queerness poses an inherent problem for television’s representational politics, illustrating ‘the difficulty of making same-sex desire uneventful, serial, every day’ (2003: 97). McCarthy argues that the serial structure of fictional TV narratives typically mirrors the normative developmental narrative of sexuality, with heterosexual characters’ romantic relationships providing the over-arching narrative for many US sitcoms (93). It is easy to find examples of this in contemporary sitcoms – see Penny and Leonard’s romance in The Big Bang Theory or the entire premise of series such as How I Met Your Mother and Melissa and Joey (ABC, 2010 – present) – as well as a much longer tradition, illustrated by Sam and Diane’s relationship in Cheers (NBC, 1982 – 1993) or Ross and Rachel’s on/off romance in Friends(NBC, 1994 – 2004). As such, homosexual characters tend to be marginalised. (In How I Met Your Mother, for example, it’s notable that Barney’s gay brother only appears sporadically, most commonly in one-off, self-contained episodes).
Nevertheless, the form of the sitcom, with its emphasis on repetition and the deferral of resolution (frequently marked by hetero-romantic happy endings), offers very different narrative possibilities for the portrayal of same-sex relationships between women than film and it is this that I’d like to explore further in the future. The very length of many sitcoms (some of the programmes I’ve mentioned stretch across hundreds of episodes) means that the genre offers a more conducive space for portraying the intimacy, complexity and intensity of female friendships. This, in turn, means that these relationships can’t be quite as easily managed and contained. Importantly, rather than acting as a precursor for romance as is typical in films, these relationships between women remain structurally distinct, existing in their own right.
Susan Berridge is Lecturer in Film and Media at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on representations of gender, sexuality and sexual violence in popular culture. She has published on these themes in journals including Feminist Media Studies, The Journal of British Cinema and Television and New Review of Film and Television Studies. Susan is also the co-editor of the Commentary and Criticism section of Feminist Media Studies.