One of the virtues of the current television renaissance (which kicked off in the late '90s with The Sopranos) is the varied and complex portrayals of female characters that contemporary TV regularly serves up. We sit fascinated by Peggy Olson's burgeoning professional, sexual and creative independence in the misogynistic world of 1960s Madison Avenue on Mad Men; by Daenerys' acceptance of her role as a draconian monarch on Game of Thrones; and even by the absurd foibles of vain, selfish Deandra "Sweet Dee" Reynolds on It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
However, there's one crucial element of the average woman's life that's woefully underrepresented on TV. Where are all the nuanced, honest depictions of female friendships?
Turn on most quality (or less-than-quality, for that matter) prime-time drama or comedy, and from the way that women are generally portrayed, it would be easy to believe that the most important interpersonal connection a woman has in her life is to a man, usually in the form of a love interest, husband or partner. Their interactions with other women are typically based on spiteful competition and social "one-upsmanship," on their mutual connection to a man, or, worst of all, are sparing or nonexistent.
In reality, a woman's romantic relationships with men can be fraught and inconstant, while her friendships with other women are often some of the most central bonds in her life.
This isn't to say, of course, that every woman experiences her female friendships the same way, or even necessarily forms deep connections with other women. However, in my experience, women's friendships can be some the most abiding and intimate relationships they will ever forge.
And although most of us don't find ourselves in the extraordinary or stylized situations that our televisual counterparts do, it's important to see sincere reflections of human relationships in any story, including on TV.
An easy and well-known benchmark to test the strength of fictional women's interactions is the Bechdel Test, which helps indicate if female characters have lives and relationships that don't primarily deal with the men around them. The Bechdel Test asks the following: does the narrative being tested have two or more women who have a conversation that isn't about a man?
This sounds like some pretty damn easy criteria to meet, but you'd be surprised how few on-screen narratives actually satisfy them. Granted, television -- the medium for which the Bechdel test was originally conceived -- is a much more long-form style of storytelling than movies, so it is easier for TV shows to pass the test than a two-odd hour movie.
There's an undeniably enormous gap, however, between the number of shows with female characters whose lives revolve primarily around men and shows that work the other way around, and that's just not true to reality.
Now that the ladies of Sex and the City have been off the air for seven years, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's demon-slaying dream team of Buffy and Willow for nearly a decade, you'd think that there would be a veritable profusion of nuanced lady-friendships on TV. But even this season, which was ostensibly going to be the year of female-centric TV with new shows like Whitney, Two Broke Girls and New Girl, the pickings remain slim. (Judging from the promotional material, mumblecore darling Lena Dunham's upcoming Girls on HBO seems like it may be the exception to this rule.)
The only female friendship in the current popular culture I have ever felt reflected my own friendships, is the partnership between the high-strung, indomitably perky Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her grounded, kind best friend Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) in Parks and Recreation. The two are unabashed in their love and trust for one another, which is reinforced in nearly every episode. (In a recent installment, Leslie delightfully and fondly sighs, "Oh Ann. You beautiful tropical fish.)
And the true beauty of Leslie and Ann's friendship comes because it's not perfect: It's messy! It's silly! And sometimes they get drunk and fight about boys and their career choices in the ladies' room of a trashy club! Their relationship isn't defined by petty backstabbing and competitive cattiness like so many others (switch over to the CW for that particular brand of "sisterhood"). Rather, it's strengthened by their occasional squabbles, and made all the more genuine for them.
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