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Plenty of the women in my life have commented on how most of their friends are men. Some happened to fall into a friendship group with men by chance, some enjoyed male-dominated hobbies, but I’ve also met a good few who had consciously chosen to be cautious of other women or avoid them altogether. The purpose of this article is not to slam other women for their own choices, but to examine why exactly female friendships hold the perceived potential to be more complicated, gossipy, or generally more toxic than male friendships, before making a case for close bonds with other women, and how we can beat the stereotypes.
The first assumption to debunk is that all women or female friendship groups, in general, hold any one common trait. Women make up more than half of the world’s population, yet society has an obsession with lumping us all together as one big person. It may seem obvious, and we may all know this rationally, but there is a patriarchal tendency to identify a trait in a few women and assume most have it. For example, typing ‘women aren’t funny’ into Google yields pages upon pages of articles and studies agreeing with that very statement, despite not claiming to have met every single woman in order to check, likely having been exposed to a limited number of female comedians whom they happened not to find funny. Perhaps a similar phenomenon occurs when a woman is burned by a toxic female dominated environment, as some comment their choice to befriend men is a reflection of bad experiences with women. Women are, to state the obvious again, all different people, therefore no matter how many women have behaved awfully toward you, this does not warrant writing off an entire gender for friendship.
At this point, you may be playing a reel in your head of all the many, many times you have witnessed women behaving in the exact toxic way we are assumed by the patriarchy to behave, and you didn’t dream it. Whereas it’s unfair and sexist to assume right away that all women are catty and cannot help it, some of us are sometimes, at least by society’s standard. Sometimes, people behave in ways that are mean, women included. However, an issue we need to tackle is the impossible standard women are often held to in order to be perceived as a good person.
You don’t have to be friends with everyone, and you don’t have to stretch yourself thin to do them favours either. It is perfectly okay to be just polite, friendly enough, and to say ‘no’ without a long list of excuses. There is no need to personally like and support every single woman in the name of feminism or lifting each other up. It is not ‘gossiping’ to express discontent toward someone with genuine reason, or to speak out against something serious. Hindering other women unfairly or gossiping about them for a misogynistic reason such as their sexual choices or their weight, is where I personally draw the line.
The patriarchy programmes certain assumptions about gender into us, and it’s our responsibility to consciously programme them back out. Most women, at least when we’re young, will have passed judgement about another woman based on things that don’t really matter, or for making personal choices different to our own, myself included. Step one to forming genuine female friendships is to question your kneejerk reactions, and if you still don’t like that particular woman, just don’t be friends.
When threatened with social exclusion, studies have shown that women and girls have a tendency to exclude others. In other words, if you’re on the committee that decides who isn’t in the group and becomes the go-to gossip victim, it can’t be you. I have both excluded other women, and been excluded for arbitrary reasons, and neither felt right because it just doesn’t need to be that way. I went along with talking behind someone’s back for no good reason as a teenager as means to establish myself in a group, before it became a habit. What I try to do now, and what I am sure a lot of women do, is evaluate the situation for myself, and if I don’t agree with what’s being said, I question it politely.
For example, if a friend comments on another woman’s weight gain, you don’t have to show them up in an unnecessarily mean way, you could just calmly contribute that you hadn’t noticed because it doesn’t matter, and everyone’s weight fluctuates. Personally, I have noticed that people back down pretty quickly, and may have been using it as a bonding tactic rather than expressing a genuine opinion. Furthermore, something I stand by when making friends is the assumption that the people who gossip to me, also gossip about me. Therefore, I take notice when other women turn the conversation away from judgemental bullying, and note that they are someone to be trusted.
When faced with the majority of senior roles being occupied by men, it’s easy to kick other women down to claim our spot as the one woman on a leadership team of five, for example. It is taken for granted that women are competitive, that we’re innately out to get each other, but it’s just not true. Why should women have fewer spots at the top? Why can’t three female colleagues form three of that same team, as men could and nobody would bat an eyelid? If we continue to support each other, appreciate each other, and thrive together, it may take a while for true equality to happen, but at least we won’t be part of the problem.
The vast majority of the best friends I have ever had have been women. There have been ups and downs, we’ve probably complained about each other to our other friends and even judged each other on occasion, but I wouldn’t trade those bonds for anything. Give other women credit, tell them things to their faces just as you would like to be told if you upset someone, or if someone had admired your strength from afar. Put yourself out there, I’ve made multiple friendships by asking women on ‘friend dates’ where we go for a coffee and just chat, laugh, and show each other some understanding. We’re all stuck in various parts of the same boat, so let yourself be vulnerable with other women and together, we can get to shore.