Female Friendships on Film (We Need More)

April 3, 2017

My boyfriend’s hand hovered menacingly near the small, red alarm clock on my dresser.

No, he was not trying to hit snooze. Or check the time. Or anything one might normally do with a clock while waiting for someone to unpack their books before heading out to dinner.

“Who is this?” he asked, pushing the alarm clock toward me. I dropped my backpack to the floor to grab the clock from him before it fell to the ground.

I laughed. Not hah-hah, but uncomfortably. “It’s Ewan McGregor. You know, the guy from Trainspotting. K. got it for me.”

During a summer internship in NYC a few years earlier, my friend K. and I bonded over journalism, finding the cheapest restaurants in the city, and Ewan McGregor. K. and I had other things in common, including a bunch of mutual friends in New Orleans, where she’d grown up and where I went to college. But somehow Ewan McGregor rose to the top of our list of occupations. Hence the clock.

My boyfriend placed the clock back on the dresser, and some of the tension left his hand as he realized I did not have a chance with the handsome, married Scottish actor and so he had nothing to worry about.

“You two are so juvenile. And weird. Let’s go eat.”

Suddenly, the conversation ended. He didn’t want to talk about K., and I was just glad that Ewan McClock had escaped unscathed.

More than fifteen years later, I refuse to believe that I’m weird or juvenile compared to a guy who felt threatened by an alarm clock. But back then, instead of anger or disbelief, I only felt relief that he dropped the topic and not the clock. Sure, he was also jealous of the time I spent with K., but our friendship didn’t threaten his masculinity like a hot Scot on a clock did.

***

The incident did teach me something, though. Many men have no interest in women’s friendships. My terrible ex-boyfriend may have been an extreme example, but plenty of other men and boys have the same reaction: a zoning out, a changing of the subject, a dismissal of female friendships as less interesting than their own exploits. Women are into shopping and gossip, amirite?[1]

And while men get their own gross characterizations—that their relationships are mono-syllabic, sports-oriented affairs—a large swath of pop culture counters that Totino’s Pizza Rolls version of life. The films of Judd Apatow (and his circle of protégées) created a comedic style where men’s friendships, humorous but spiked with real emotions, became central to the plot.[2]

The backlash against Ghostbusters (2016), or statistics that point to the lack of speaking roles for women in mainstream Hollywood movies, or the fact that the Bechdel Test even exists all point toward a Hollywood culture disinterested in female friendships. And while there are exceptions to every rule, the overall picture (drawing again on the statistics at that link above) is one where women’s activities are for women, while men’s are for everyone.

***

So, as I watched T2: Trainspotting, all I could think was, “They would never make this film about a group of women.” T2: Trainspotting is all about friendship—fucked up friendships between men, mending friendships in middle age, and figuring out what you’re going to do with life when maybe it has already passed by.

In Trainspotting, the central relationship was with heroin. Friendship—and Renton’s crush on Diane (Kelly McDonald)—fell in line behind heroin. Without heroin (though it’s always in the background, especially for Spud), the focus sharpens on Renton’s big rip-off at the end of Trainspotting and he betrayal his friends felt as a result: Spud, whose addiction to heroin defined his life; Sick Boy, who blames his failure in life on Renton; and Begbie, who wants revenge.

Surprisingly, the film works better than it ever should. A sequel to a zeitgeist-infused film like Trainspotting could easily turn into a giant dumpster fire. (In fact, one could say that Irvine Welsh’s 2002 sequel, Porno, is at least a small dumpster fire.)

But in the past 20 years, the cast of Trainspotting have grown as actors, and their performances in T2 build on the flaws as well as the redeeming qualities of the characters. Renton is still a little smug, but brought down by the breakup of his marriage. Sick Boy reeks of failure, but also a strange ability to forgive even when he doesn’t want to. Spud has his addiction, but his still sweet personality remains. And Begbie—well, Begbie is a monster, but Robert Carlyle is so fantastic at nuanced monsters.

***

T2 features middle-aged men, all of them huge fuck-ups in their own individual way, but all—even Begbie!—sympathetic and human despite those fuckups (or even homicidal tendencies). They are pathetic; they are failures; their wrinkles are on full display.

Women in movies don’t get to age. Renton’s former underage girlfriend Diane makes a cameo appearance when Sick Boy needs a lawyer. Renton visits Diane with Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), a prostitute in her 20s most accurately described as Sick Boy’s business girlfriend. As he leaves, Diane tells Renton that “she’s too young for you.”

Diane looks frumpy and old, a bossy, serious version of the school girl who once blackmailed Renton into sleeping with her a second time.

Diane vanishes from the film, aside from one glance before Renton launches into T2’s version of the “choose life” speech, and Renton ends up sleeping with Veronika.

It’s a real possibility, I suppose. Lots of women in their 20s sleep with middle-aged dudes, especially when they think they can get something out of them.

***

They won’t make this film about women, because they can’t make this film about women. I loved T2 and its flawed group of friends, but there’s another huge problem (or rather, series of problems) with making a film as nuanced about female friendship.

The first is that no female version of Trainspotting exists. Trainspotting captured the zeitgeist both in story and in its soundtrack; T2 uniquely takes the characters and actors from the first film and meets up with them 20 years later. As of now, no female-oriented film provides an equivalent group of fucked-up characters who somehow manage to be compelling.[3]

But even if there were a source film, the further complication of age arises. In a large study of Hollywood scripts, women spoke fewer and fewer words (that is, they had fewer opportunities and smaller roles) in movies as they age. The inverse was true for men.

If a film about a fucked-up group of women were made today, and became a film about friendship 20 years later, what would it look like? And what are the odds that it would be able to keep the cast from one film to the next?

[1] Television—rather than film—has recently been a place to illustrate more complex female relationships. From Orange Is the New Black to Big Little Lies, women have greater and more complex representation on prestige TV than most anywhere else.

[2] It’s not surprising that Apatow produced Bridesmaids, one of the few films about female friendships in recent years, or that Ghostbusters drew on some of the same cast.

[3] Again, there’s a disparity between television and film. For example, both Sex and the City and Absolutely Fabulous revisited their characters in film after several years’ absence, but they did not originate as movies.

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