Tag Archives: friendship

Big Friendship: The Least Examined Important Relationship

Book cover: Big Friendship

Debbie says:

Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, co-hosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, are students and examiners of friendship. One of the underlying principles of their book Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close is that friendship is both under-rated and underexamined:

There’s an expectation that friendship is the easy part of life. All support, no strife. If it gets hard? Well, it wasn’t meant to be. While there are piles and piles of books to help you through a crisis in your marriage and offer you advice on repairing estranged family relationships, not much guidance exists for best friends who can sense things falling apart but don’t know how to put them back together. … We found a lot of articles about how painful friend splits can be, and almost all of them carried an overwhelming sense of fatalism, as if this were the only natural outcome for a friendship on the rocks.

Sow and Friedman are both immensely likable and very smart. And that comes through in the book. They are phrasemakers and definers: “big friendship” itself:

it has been much harder for us to find a language for the difficult parts. The frustration of giving more to a friend than they’re giving back. The unbridgeable gaps in even the closest of interracial friendships. The dynamic of pushing each other away even as we’re trying to reconnect. The struggle to find true peace with a long-term friendship that is changing. We even lacked a name for the kind of friendship we have. Words like “best friend” or “BFF” don’t capture the adult emotional work we’ve put into our relationship.

We now call it a Big Friendship, because it’s one of the most affirming–and most complicated–relationships that a human life can hold.

They’re better known for coining (and defending) the term Shine Theory (“I don’t shine if you don’t shine”), which is a well-known road map for how women–in particular–can defend and support each other against the ways the patriarchy works to make women’s ideas and contributions invisible. The concept has been so successful that they had to trademark it and keep it from being used by grasping, anti-woman businesses and sites.

In writing the book, they chose a unique narrative voice. They wrote in first-person plural (“we” and “us”), while the feelings, reactions and responses of each of them separately are in the third person (“Aminatou thought”; “Ann felt”). It’s a little awkward, because it’s unfamiliar. They explain it early, and eventually you realize how much this choice centers the friendship as a separate entity from the friends.

These two women are hugely different from me; they are decades younger, they are much more ambitious, they are much more into consumer goods and they bond over types of popular entertainment that aren’t mine. They are like me in that they are extremely thoughtful about relationships in general and friendships in particular. They love each other deeply (but not erotically or romantically) and they love their other friends. They also love bringing friends together and creating what they call friendwebs, something I also do.

They did a lot of research for this book, aside from telling their own story. Researchers and experts on friendship are thin on the ground, but they found a handful, most of them interesting. They don’t flinch from the interracial aspects of their friendship (Friedman is a white midwestern woman, Sow is a Nigerian immigrant) and their chapter on the “trapdoor” is especially strong. It starts with a story of a party Ann hosted, where Aminatou was the only Black person (“Nothing. Not even a racially ambiguous tan.”):

The writer Wesley Morris calls this experience the trapdoor of racism. “For people of color, some aspect of friendship with white people involves an awareness that you could be dropped through a trapdoor of racism at any moment, by a slip of the tongue, or at a campus party, or in a legislative campaign,” he wrote in 2015. “But it’s not always anticipated.” The trapdoor describes the limited level of comfort that Black people can feel around white people who are part of their lives in a meaningful way. Even if these white people decide they will confront racism every day, it’s guaranteed they will sometimes screw up and disappoint the Black people they know.

The book lags in the last quarter, when they tell the story of the rift in their friendship which they prefigure at the beginning of their story: what caused it, and how they eventually healed it. This is my kind of story, but their account feels drawn out and almost bloated.

Friendships are one of the factors that can most sustain us in the travails of 2020: I find something special in the arrival of this book at this time, and would love to see it herald much more analysis, discussion, and storytelling about the joys, perils, and complexities of friendship.

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Teenage Girls and Selfies: It’s Not What You Think


Laurie and Debbie say:

Teenage girls taking self-portrait
Teenage girls taking self-portrait

We take it as given that any negative stereotyping of adolescents, especially adolescent girls, is likely to be oversimplistic if not plain wrong. Jay Livingston at Sociological Images, working from a This American Life episode by Ira Glass, not only agrees with us but has a lot to say about the complexities of teenage girls’ selfie culture:

Here’s some context. Mario Almonte, writing at the prominent feminist blog Huffington Post two years ago, said in part:

get ready for a generation raised to believe that they are the center of the universe, who believe that everything they do is of immense interest to the rest of the world. They grew up with parents telling them every day that they were the most precious and valuable thing in life. Don’t try to convince them they’re not. All of their friends agree with them.

Livingston and Glass are pushing against this callous characterization, sometimes described as vanity, sometimes even as narcissism (!). Here’s Livingston:

You can see why [people] might think that new technologies – Instagram, cell phones (self-phones?) – have made kids today the most narcissistic generation in history.  In an earlier post, I expressed my skepticism about that claim. And, if we can generalize from an episode of This American Life last November, the selfie-Instagram-comments syndrome is not about narcissism – seeing yourself as standing shiningly above everyone else. It’s about fitting in – reading the social map, finding where you stand, and maybe changing that place.

And here’s a young woman identified as Jane, from the This American Life episode (quoted in Livingston’s article):

we, like, just started high school, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. So you would comment on someone’s photo who you’re not really super close with or that you don’t know really well. And it’s sort of a statement, like, I want to be friends with you, or I want to get to know you, or like, I think you’re cool.

If someone that you don’t know very well commented on your photo, you – it’s sort of like an unspoken agreement that you have to comment back on their photo. Like when you’re making new friends, if they comment on your photo, you comment on their photo.

There’s a great deal more detail, especially in the radio transcript.

Narcissism is an extremely serious clinical diagnosis. If we are discouraged from applying it to one of the most influential and terrifying figures of our time, surely we should not be applying it to an entire generation, or the female half of an entire generation. But a quick Google search reveals that a disturbing number of journalists and professionals are willing to at least make some money or get some clicks entertaining the possibility.

The knee-jerk assumption that people like Almonte make about selfies is that they are simply about appearance. Since we raise our female children to believe that their appearance is the single most important thing about them; even if this is not what they hear at home, you can bet your last dollar that it’s what they see everywhere else they look. And once they go to school, they’re making friends who also hear it at home. So the assumption that teenage girls’ selfies are only about how they look is a plausible working hypothesis.

It just doesn’t hold up.

When we listen to teenagers about selfie culture (as Ira Glass makes easy), we find out that selfies are, in large part, about finding your place in your world. Being thrown into puberty, where your body changes and your reactions to your body change, is extremely confusing and disorienting. Most teens are inevitably (and appropriately!) going to look to their peers as at least one resource to find a path through the confusion.

Teenage girls, living in new bodies, changing schools, making (or afraid of not making) new friends, have to develop their own norms, signals, and ways of understanding each other. All social groups do this–we make complex, detailed systems which are private to ourselves and which no one else can completely understand. That’s part of how we know who is “us.” We do it with the tools and techniques of our time and place, because that’s the water we swim in.

Combine the need to build friendship networks and understand your place in your culture with a centuries-old pattern of women developing our own friendship and support circles as a buffer against misogynist culture,  and suddenly, we have a fine, clear, understandable explanation of selfie culture which has nothing to do with narcissism and little, if anything, to do with vanity.

Not all teenage girls are part of this pattern. If you happen not to care much about how you look, not to be interested in taking selfies, to be taking a different path through your own adolescence, the same people who call your classmates names like narcissist will undoubtedly call you names like “troublemaker” or “misfit.” It’s not like these name-callers want anyone (except themselves) to come out unscathed.

Both of us grew up in different times than these teenagers, but the stereotyping was horrifying then, and are  horrifying now. What doesn’t change is the adult world’s insistence on dismissing and trivializing teenagers–especially teenage girls.