Friendship as Resistance to Patriarchy
by Niamh Vlahakis
Through film, the overflowing supply of romance novels in the “women’s section” in every bookshop, romantic love is cast as the centrepiece of a woman’s world; it is where all her aspirations eventually converge. The attainment of romantic love satisfies many essential human needs. It offers emotional and financial support in the form of tax-cuts, and validation from family, the church and the state. Most importantly, it is enshrined as the most appropriate way to channel sexuality, through civil partnership and reproduction. In the love story of heterosexuality, the successful heterosexual woman (always a cis woman) will succeed in romantic love by securing a wealthy and respectable male counterpart. But who gets to be the woman and why; and what happens when women fail the social scripts of heterosexual love?
"romantic love is cast as the centrepiece of a woman’s world"
Defined along the binary of slut/virgin, only the woman that preserves and behaves herself may be rewarded romance. The socialisation of a good straight cis-woman starts early on during girlhood, a site of heightened repression where she learns to deny her sexuality and desires. Girls come into being by being pitted against each other, and as such, a system of internal regulation is created. Under these conditions, friendships between women are suffused with a competitive and toxic character. This system of valuing women rumbles silently, politely and violently though the most banal moments they share with each other. It is extremely pernicious because it asserts and reinforces very narrow definitions of feminine sexuality, a vision of female sexuality that depends on recognition solely through male validation and always at the expense of other women. In the glaring light of constant regulation women receive from the male gaze as well as other women, how can a woman resist the slut/virgin dialectic and wield her sexuality as a source of pleasure and power whilst also satisfying her human needs of emotional support, validation and belonging?
"My recourse, under the stark conditions of patriarchy, is to reimagine the role friendships play and the position they hold in society."
My recourse, under the stark conditions of patriarchy, is to reimagine the role friendships play and the position they hold in society. Despite their lack of social currency, friendships are sometimes the only life-lines cast to people that defy heteronormative social scripts. While friendships play an important role in everybody’s life, they are essential to the survival of women that fail these scripts. They offer a way out from structures of heterosexuality, domesticity and marriage. They offer the support needed to explore, affirm and assert feminine sexuality. They offer the space for re-imagining femininity as relational instead of hierarchical and desire defined by curiosity instead of lack. Cultivating and centering friendships as sufficient in and of themselves renders irrelevant the power dynamic that values women through their relationships to men. Supportive feminine relationships offer a cure to the toxic narrative of competitive (bitchy) female relationships. It dethrones the male figure as the locus/source of power.
we must elevate friendship to the holy status of romantic love, because we cannot resist the patriarchy alone.
But what does it actually mean to be a good friend? It is sometimes very boring, making sure they are taking their meds, helping them pay their bills and always keeping open lines of communication. Friendship is a delicate and rare thing that is built up overtime and is predicated on mutual trust, mutual respect, reciprocal interests and shared commitments. It is a relation that ultimately is lived out as if it were chosen; not assumed in advance. It’s something that has to be renegotiated at every step and reinvigorated, not demanded unconditionally. In this case, the shared commitments of all women should be supporting each other’s choices, encouraging the pursuit of their desires, eroding the patriarchy and getting money.
Most of the emotional labor of the world falls onto the shoulders of femmes, mothers, sisters. As an approach to subverting patriarchal power dynamics, we must elevate friendship to the holy status of romantic love, because we cannot resist the patriarchy alone. We need to create value through our friendships that don't depend on the validation of the male gaze. The western canon of philosophers mused on the power of platonic love. The female subject holding such low status in those societies has never been included in these dialectics. So, in response to a social fabric that demands women’s compliance to restrictive romantic rituals, we must take the romance out of heterosexual love and offer it at the altar of feminine and queer friendships.
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