'Frenemies' and 'Bromances': Who Gendered Friendship?

Consumers of pop culture will find it hard to argue that there's not a strong undercurrent of formulaic and unflattering portrayals of women's relationships with other women.
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During the recent "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" reunion show, I watched six heavily-botoxed women hurl insults back and forth for an hour.

"She needs to learn some manners," Taylor said, pointing at Kim. "You bully me all the time!" Camille yelled at Kyle. "You say things that aren't true, Camille," Kyle shot back. "You've done this to yourself."

The show got me thinking about the parade of female villains produced by reality TV in recent years, all notorious for their bad treatment of other women. And I wondered: what ever happened to the positive portrayals of female friendship that used to pervade pop culture?

It used to be that girlfriends were celebrated. Shows like "Sex and the City" orbited around tightly-bonded groups of women with radically divergent personalities who loved each other for those differences. At the turn of the millennium, "girl power" was thriving and girlfriends were big business (See: The Spice Girls, and other proponents of feminine ferocity), hardly in need of defending.

But in popular culture today, women are frequently portrayed as catty backstabbers who "aren't here to make friends," let alone celebrate girl power. Obviously the preponderance of "mean girls" (or mean women) in entertainment doesn't prove that any truly substantive change in the nature of female friendships is occurring, but it seems a growing cultural backlash against female friendships is afoot. Meanwhile, scrutiny of men's friendships with each other is practically nonexistent.

Reality TV, a form where human caricatures are de rigueur, seems to thrive on the mean girl prototype, intent on convincing us that women have little loyalty or allegiance to their female friends. Women, neatly edited to conform to this stereotype, seem to be co-conspirators in their own character assassinations, often playing the role of backstabber as if they'd been cast by Jerry Springer. Whether fighting over the attention and affection of a man on dating shows like "The Bachelor" or mercilessly judging and mocking each other on any installment of the "Real Housewives" franchise, disloyal female friends are abundant and new ones crop up every season and are a staple of each new show.

Of course not all images of female-friendship-gone-awry are so extreme; there are certainly some shows that portray female friendships as supportive and nuanced, like Liz Lemon and Jenna Maroney on "30 Rock." Still, consumers of pop culture will find it hard to argue that there's not a strong undercurrent of formulaic and unflattering portrayals of women's relationships with other women. Bad girlfriends are one-dimensional and come in only a few models: backstabbing, jealous, and selfish (and often, all three). In pop culture, they're called "frenemies."

The term frenemy appeared in print as early as 1953, but gained huge popularity in the past few years. A portmanteau of "friend" and "enemy," it refers to an enemy pretending to be a friend to one's face (but who is actually a competitor or rival) and has become part of the popular lexicon for younger generations. Though the term frenemy is not gender-specific, there is something troubling about the fact that it is overwhelmingly applied to women.

Meanwhile, in the world of entertainment and pop culture, men's friendships seem to be experiencing a renaissance. In fact, as mean girls and frenemies gained prominence, so did the "bromance." A bromance -- the close friendship between (typically straight) men -- is a genre that has expanded in recent years, perhaps best exemplified by "I Love You, Man," a 2009 comedy about a burgeoning friendship between two men (one seeking a Best Man for his wedding). There was even a short-lived MTV show hosted by Brody Jenner called "Bromance" (though despite my appetite for bad reality TV I never managed to watch a full episode).

But despite the beating they take on television, female friendships are actually still thriving in real life. As an executive at a youth research and polling firm who was interviewed for a recent article on mean girls cautioned, the mean girl phenomenon is clearly hyped, and the fact that mean girls are getting more exposure doesn't indicate that there are actually more mean girls or women than there used to be. So why is pop culture creating the impression that behind every girlfriend is a mean girl just waiting to be triggered? Or as Laura Sessions Stepp, the author of the aforementioned article asks: "In our current obsession with mean females, do we risk perpetuating the sexist image of the shrew? And what does that do to all females?"

The irony is that research suggests there is actually something inherently soothing -- not fraught -- about female friendships. According to a 2000 landmark UCLA study published in Psychology Review, friendships between women are quite special. Scientists believe that hanging out with our girlfriends can actually be an antidote to our daily stress. The study suggested that women respond to stress with the release of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women. At the time, it was a stunning finding that turned five decades of stress research -- most of it on men -- on its head. Apparently, when women engage in what the researchers refer to as "tending" and "befriending," more oxytocin is released, which further offsets stress and produces a calming effect. Perhaps most interestingly, this calming response does not occur in men. I'm not arguing that this proves that women's friendships with each other are better (or worse) than men's friendships, but according to the science, they do appear more mutually beneficial.

The extraordinary benefit of having close girlfriends has never been in doubt in my life. My girlfriends are precious to me, like close girlfriends are to most women I know. They're not backstabbers or liars or any of the other nonsense we pin on women when we pretend that friendship is gendered, rather than admitting that some people aren't great friends, male and female alike.

When pop culture pits women against each other, and tries to convince women that "our kind" can't be trusted, I can't help but be offended. But I also question who this type of divide-and-conquer benefits. Women are, and have always been, stronger together, and we're at our best when we empathize with and support each other. So please, lay off the bad girlfriend stereotypes, would you? I'm looking directly at you, reality TV.

Or, as my mother (much to my embarrassment) still says: You go girl(s).