One of my least favorite tropes is the one where there’s a kickass heroine – some kind of superpowerful baddie who fights evil – who gets into a Big Fight with her BFF (best female friend). The first time I noticed it was in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Spoilers ahead, but really – the show is over twenty years old now.) After Buffy makes the heart-rending decision to send Angel – the vampire she loves – to hell, to protect the world, Buffy goes away. It’s a well-done fugue sequence, where she works as a waitress in a big city and submerges herself in mind-numbing anonymity. She’s grieving, and it’s what she needs to do.
(As an aside, I know Buffy the Vampire Slayer hasn’t held up all that well. I tried a rewatch and didn’t get far, so I’m pulling on memories from the late 90s. But, at the time, we were so starved for kickass, powerful and yet relatable heroines of this kind that we gobbled it up. It was mind-blowingly awesome. Remember that we’d been having shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, also great, but for female representation we had Deanna Troi – who wore a low-cut uniform to reveal her cleavage while she talked about feelings and everyone else kicked ass – or a doctor or a bartender. (Though thank all the stars they brought Whoopi on board, because she really changed that tone.))
ANYWAY, Buffy has been grieving – the kind of heartbreak + emotional trauma that can wreck a person – and when she finally returns home, her BFF Willow lays into her. Willow is pissed Buffy left, and she’s all, “I needed you. I had things going on in my life.” (Like she broke up with her boyfriend, OH NOES.) “And you abandoned me.” And though Buffy stutteringly tries to explain how truly and utterly wrecked she’d been, Willow just keeps weeping and being pissed until Buffy apologizes.
Maybe Willow apologizes, too. I don’t remember that part.
I was terribly annoyed. (Not nearly so much as when Spike supposedly raped Buffy, but that’s another rant.) And I frankly didn’t give a hoot about Willow’s character after that.
I know we talk a lot about the Bechdel Test for female representation in media. ((1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.) It’s a low bar – though it’s astonishing how many shows fail to reach it – and many people have discussed all the levels above that. This “Fight with the BFF” trope is one of them. Clearly this scene with Buffy and Willow meets the Bechdel Test. (Though barely, since the emotional pivots do involve emotional relationships with men.) But it’s a pretty shitty representation of female friendship.
I get why this trope is employed – and I just read a book where it was used, which is why it’s fresh in my mind. It’s a way of getting at the human side of the Badass Heroine. It reveals her soft underbelly without the emotional conflict being about a man/love relationship. The BFF Big Fight upsets the Badass Heroine and puts her off her game, increasing conflict for her upcoming battle.
It’s also bullshit.
I mean, whose true bestie would pull this kind of selfish rant?? “Oh, you lied to me for really good reasons about this super important thing that had to do with saving the world and not my business anyway.” “How dare you bury yourself in grief, embracing anonymity to keep your sanity, when you knew I’d miss you?”
The BFF Big Fight elevates cliché female squabbles, giving them the same weight as soul-searing decisions about saving the world and the state of our immortal souls. Which just makes the women look silly, one level above hair pulling.
A good way to check this trope for its inherent misogyny is to ask: do we see this happen with male characters? Does the hero’s sidekick or loyal buddy get pissed when the hero is gone for a while or keeps a secret from him? If so – maybe there are some examples? -how do they resolve the conflict. I dunno – I feel like we get so many examples of the male sidekick/buddy who proves his loyalty repeatedly. Brothers in arms. The friend who makes the ultimate sacrifice.
I’d like to see more of that kind of thing in the female friendships. And if they’re going to fight, let’s make it about something worth fighting for.