I don’t watch Love Island, but round at a friend’s last week, I caught a bit of it and frankly, it just caused me considerable distress. I’m perfectly capable of mustering up enough heartbreak in my own life; I have no desire to watch other people being hurt in the name of entertainment.
But while I’m not actually watching the show, I do spend most of my life on Twitter, where it’s literally all anyone can talk about. A few weeks ago, the Love Island chatter was centred around the old ‘girls with mostly male friends can’t be trusted’ chestnut – contestant Lucie Donlan had claimed she didn’t have female friends at home and preferred having male friends. And people did not like this. There were hundreds of tweets pointing out what a red flag it is when a woman says this, and columnists leapt on it, calling Lucie’s comments problematic and stupid.
It doesn’t take Poirot to realise that the reason I’m protesting about this – possibly too much – is because I was that girl. I was a Lucie; I spent my late teens and early twenties feeling much more comfortable with male friends than female friends. Why? Because I’d had a shit time with women (duh).
A tempestuous relationship with my mum and a few awful years at an all-girls secondary school were convincing enough evidence that other women would hurt me and could not be trusted. When you’re 13, your friends are everything, and when you find yourself being frozen out almost overnight – being asked to move seats in Geography so that a more favoured girl can sit nearer the Queen Bee of your group, so trivial and yet so utterly wounding – you figure out how to build walls. You gain your spikes. And you do not forget the tears you cried in the Science block loos before morning registration, a cold tide of fear rising in your stomach. So trivial and yet so utterly scarring.
(Don’t worry, this one has a happy ending.)
In fairness, a lot of the commentary identified Lucie’s stance as being the product of internalised misogyny – but it’s frustrating that the wisdom stopped there. Because if you correctly diagnose the cause of a problem as being “society’s deeply ingrained hatred of women”, the cure cannot and will not ever be “damning the woman further”. This stuff is such an own goal, and the otherwise smart, feminist, articulate journalists who criticised Lucie for what she said should employ better tactics. Having a go at someone for not being sisterly enough for your liking is not the way to convince them to try being more sisterly.
What’s more, we do not police men’s friendships in the same way. We love men who have loads of female friends – “oh, he’s so good with women” – and while guys have their own impossible standards to try and meet, they’re not subjected to the same criticism and vilification that women are. And aside from anything else, I get wonderful things from my friendships with men. I have several very close male friends who I adore and who I can tell pretty much anything, and from whom I get wisdom and slightly different takes on things. And do we think that having female friends isn’t good for men too? Because that’s another thing missing here: having at least one female friend is a great thing for a guy, particularly if they don’t have sisters or a female partner. Experiences shared are experiences demystified, so crack on, guys’ girls and girls’ guys.
And yes, I know it’s nauseating when a woman calls herself a ‘guys’ girl’. I know it means she just hasn’t found her best women yet. But give her time, she’ll come round. We all do eventually.
But let’s be honest, female friendships can be more demanding than friendships with men, which tend to be slightly lower-maintenance (though none of what I say here is intended to be a set of hard and fast rules). You have to really show up for your female friends, and if you’ve had a bad time in big groups of women – if you’ve always felt like the odd one out, if you’ve always wondered if you’re just a bit too weird to have a girl gang – it’s not easy. But then you try it, and it’s alright. And you open up a bit more, you try being vulnerable around them, and it warms your blood like nothing else. You find that they like you just as you are, it’s OK – they’re women, they’re open and forgiving and wise. They know exactly what to do when your eyes fill with tears and they know exactly how to make you laugh so hard you can’t speak.
I have come late to this. Spending most of my twenties in a serious relationship with a man meant I didn’t have to work quite so hard at friendships as I do now I’m single. It’s unavoidable – when you’ve got someone at home to cry on after a bad day at work, to vent to after a phone call with your mother, to develop a repertoire of in-jokes with, you don’t necessarily need to get it elsewhere. You obviously should have a network of support outside your romantic relationship, don’t get me wrong, but we all wrap ourselves in our couple cocoon a little, and that’s fine, it’s just life. But now, my female friends understand me, and I understand them, in a way that my male friends (mostly) don’t. Again, it’s something that’s completely unavoidable – when you’re the smaller, weaker, underpaid, more tired sex, you’ve got some serious shit in common. You bond like soulmates, you feel each other’s joy and pain and tears and anger right down in your bones.
And when you’re the smaller, weaker, underpaid, more tired sex, you tell each other, “I love you”, and you mean it with every fucking fibre of you.
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