Post may contain slight spoilers.
Since tittering with Acro coven-mate K.S. at the beefcake and bromance of Magic Mike XXL last month, I have been hungry for more stories about friendship. One of the best things for me about the Magic Mike sequel was the way it dwelt in male friendship and let the quiet moments between the men unfold. Those, more than any panting over hard dude bods, are the moments that I recognize as most genuine.
Friendship seems always to get short shrift in popular discussions about relationships. While desire, usually expressed as sex or ambition, romance or power, is compulsively and regularly narrated for us, friendship is always the consolation prize. It is the zone that represents thwarted desire. As a form of dependence that does not preserve the individualism undergirding our narratives of desire, friendship has the potential to be something radically affirming and constructive. And for all our chatter about the difficulties of romantic love—men are like this, women are like this, am I right, ladies???—it is friendship that feels truly dynamic, diverse, complex and difficult.
In preparation for this list I asked some of my friends to recommend their favorite stories about friendship, and as with most friendly advice, I summarily ignored it all (thanks, buds!). So below find a more or less idiosyncratic and personal list of friendship stories that I find particularly compelling.
The relationship between Abbi and Ilana is the best-friendship I’ve always coveted. Both effortless and deep, whimsical yet vital, youthful but solid, their friendship is striking in its simplicity. Neither sex nor competition muddies their rapport and mutual devotion. And unlike other female friendships on this list, this is not the sweetness of girlhood dependence before adulthood and the world of men and sex intrudes. No rich dentist or kinky neighbor could hope to replace the spark that exists for these women in each other.
Ilana is the best-friend unicorn of every 20-something girl’s dreams. More adventurous, brazen and cocksure than the staid Abbi with a sporty suffer-no-fools attitude and a seemingly boundless well of affection, she is the exciting boundary-pushing fantasy girl that inspires so many submissions to Thought Catalogue. The manic pixie dream friend who doesn’t seek adulthood or personal development, but will joyfully hump a wall in triumph at learning that Abbi has finally, finally, pegged a guy.
Every time I hear Ilana’s “dooood!” I am reminded of all of my cusp-of-adulthood friendships and the self-contained intensity of young women who keep the best of themselves for each other.
We are, all of us, just Abbis searching for our Ilana.
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
There is a certain kind of friendship that is only possible in the presence of a shared enemy. I’m not talking about the kind of bonding facilitated by a bad boss or a mean teacher, but about a primal connection that can draw people hurt by the same person together. These friendships are built on the perverse satisfaction of dwelling in one’s misery, of discovering an ally who will poke your wound only to comfort you in your hurt. Finding someone who knows your pain intimately, and won’t ask you to metabolize it constructively.
This is the friendship that Roz, Charis and Tony share in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Each woman has fallen victim to Zenia, erstwhile best friend and recidivist husband-stealer, whose long-ago death is not as permanent as it should be. They are drawn together through their shared anger and pain at Zenia’s various betrayals, but they are equally bound by an unspoken grief at her loss. Although each woman rages and mourns at the loss of her man, filtered through that pain is the more fundamental betrayal of sisterhood and friendship perpetrated by Zenia herself. We might have expected it of men, they say, but how could a woman do such a thing to me?
Drawn together by the betrayal of another woman, Roz, Charis and Tony need each other simply to bear the pain of losing both their men and their sisterhood at once.
Withnail and I
Unlike other nostalgic 80s films about the 60s, Withnail and I remembers the era as intermittently hopeless and hysterical through the lens of a rapidly disintegrating friendship.
The film follows the relationship between the titular Withnail, played masterfully by Richard E. Grant, and Marwood (the “I” played by Paul McGann), two unemployed actors living one drink to the next in a grimy London flat as they attempt to snatch a little relief from the oppressive misery of their lives on a misguided holiday in the country. It is about the kind of friendship made possible by substance abuse and the kind of substance abuse facilitated through codependence. Alcoholism enabled by a friendship that feels distressingly like addiction. Withnail’s calls for alcohol are a constant refrain, and one of the best scenes in the movie has Withnail guzzling lighter fluid after they’ve run out of booze while Marwood objects that “you should never mix your drinks!” Riding the line where devotion slides into addiction, it deftly captures the feeling of emotional hangover.
Here is codependence and self-destruction at its most horrific and compelling. Here is friendship with a profound loneliness at its center. Here are men who consume each other with needs that can never be satisfied.
I should mention this is a comedy.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
I am devoted to bromance. Although I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about women and their relationships, my heart positively melts in the presence of genuine affection between men. Bromance isn’t exactly rare in film—the buddy movie is a time honored tradition, as is the cowboy flick—but the friendship between Butch and Sundance transcends, for me, the usual perimeters of male friendship prescribed by Hollywood. Their jauntiness is not a cover for homosexual panic. Their friendship is not an excuse to flee shrewish wives. They do not compete for money or jobs or women. No grudging respect, this. Theirs is a meeting of kindred hearts.
Butch and Sundance are so obviously in love with each other in that way that we fall for friendships that feels like destiny. The movie feels a little dissonant because it looks and feels like a gritty revisionist western with the sparkling banter of a romantic comedy. It lets Paul Newman and Robert Redford be beautiful and charming at each other in a way that feels more consistent with Frank Capra than John Ford. Theirs is the closest to genuine sexual tension to appear on this list. The banter is clever and flirty, and it really seems that bickering through the desert on horseback is the greatest pleasure these men could imagine. If Robert Redford were a woman they would have found their way into bed before the third act. As it is, they consummate their love through the proxy of an apparently non-competitive romance with the same woman—Butch handles the seduction and Sundance gets the sex. But rather than doing the obvious queer reading this film is begging for, I want to dwell in the friendship. This movie allows us to enjoy the erotic potential of friendship without insisting that its only pleasure must eventually be sex.
At its center, the Harry Potter series is about the vital necessity of friendship to the struggle, any struggle. The ties of friendship in this world have the power to mobilize armies and topple totalitarian regimes. These books believe that courage is a function of community and that the causes we fight for must include the people we love. Friendship here is nothing if not a political association. It is the very basis of revolutionary potential and political action. Fighting for a better world cannot be divorced from dedication to community just as investment in friendship is intimately tied to enthusiasm for justice. It is, perhaps, a romantic fantasy to believe that a pure enough love can solve political problems, but I think it is just as true that the model of anti-individualist dependence offered by friendship is a good place to begin building a sustainable politics.
Friendship here, as in a lot of other YA fiction, is so much more critical than romance. The crucible of puberty and sexual awakening is a strong presence, but desire can never sustain the struggle the way friendship does. The most touching relationships in the series are not the romances, many of which whiff hard, but the fierce loyalty and trust comrades carry for each other. They fight for the world so that their friends may continue to live.
Sula by Toni Morrison
The friendship in Sula is, in many ways, quite the opposite of that in Broad City. While Abbi and Ilana can live uncomplicatedly for each other while high-fiving over their various conquests, Nel and Sula grow up violently and early to discover that the communion of women is perverse and destructive in a world organized by men under the sign of hetero love. Among many things, Sula explores the ravages that adulthood and sexuality have on the exuberance of female friendship.
Sula and Nel’s adolescent devotion disintegrates under the pressure of Nel’s choice to marry a man named Jude while Sula remains unattached and unapologetically unconventional. Eventually Nel loses Jude and Sula both, and they live most of their lives without each other. But Sula’s death provides one of the most heartbreaking moments of mourning for friendship I have ever found:
“All the same, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We were girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.”
To be girls together. That is a loss worth mourning.
Do you have a favorite story about friendship? Any recommendations for must-reads? Let us know in the comments!