Why Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert’s message on the power of female friendship is important
At a time of year when the emphasis is usually always on festive activities for loved-up couples, Jennifer McShane ponders why female friendships continually aren’t given the gravitas that romantic relationships get.
It struck me this week that I’ve read more pieces on female friendships than almost anything else; an agony aunt column where one reader laments her lack of female friends, words on a TV programme that celebrates them in all their glory and Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert’s moving post on why she has found solace in such friends throughout the highs and lows of her life.
It was this post that really struck me.
The bestselling author was by the side of her soulmate and best friend, Syrian author Rayya Elias, earlier this year. Since then, she has used social media to express her grieving period.
“Last week I was feeling sick and sad, which can often happen in November in the Northeast of these United States,” Gilbert wrote. “So I got in my car with my dog and we drove to my friend Martha Beck’s house so that we could take refuge on her couch. As soon as I dropped my head into Martha’s lap, I started to heal.”
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In the image, Gilbert is seen resting with her friend, the author Martha Beck. It’s the kind of image that requires no words, but the author said that it was such friendships that gave her a sense of home.
“I love this photo because it reminds me that I’m lucky enough to have friends who will always take me in, no matter what my condition may be. I’ve bounced around the world so much, and lived in so many places, and changed my life so many times. Over the years, I’ve come to realise that ‘home’ is not a geographical place for me, but – more often – a person. My friends are my home… I am deeply, heartbreakingly grateful ”
We all know the value of our female friends; they are among the most powerful relationships you’ll have in your lifetime. We see it in programmes that are ingrained in popular culture, read about it in books. The familiarity, solace and way in which they can enhance your lives is second-to-none. But as Gilbert’s words remind us, it can be easy to forget that.
But Gilbert’s words struck a particular chord because I recently found myself having a conversation on this very topic. A friend of mine was bemoaning her single status – it felt more tangible at this time of year – because she’d have no plus one to bring to a Christmas party. Bring a friend, I advised. You’ll have more fun that way. My friend, whom I adore dearly, lamented that this should be her second option. Not because, I stress, that she didn’t want to bring a friend. Rather that, when she had voiced this opinion in a work setting, the reaction of some put her off the idea entirely. She neglected to tell me the exact phrasing, but drawing on my own experiences, it went something like this: “Well, it’ll really all be couples, you know, couples,” says one, clucking her tongue in sympathy. Or “Oh, great idea! And don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll have met someone special by next year,” chimes another.
Patriarchal society frequently ingraines this ideology in us; we’re told to see women as competitors, even those Disney films we loved growing up always had the woman as the villain to defeat – and they were always created by men. I always remember Thelma’s husband in Thelma & Louise, him fearing her presence and “bad influence” over the wife he wanted to be kept under his thumb.
In as many ways that we’re taught girl power should be what rules the world, we’re told in the same breath, not to break the mould; husband first, female friendships – and the rest – second.
We’re even taught to prioritise romantic relationships over personal goals – even in this case, to bring a best friend to a Christmas party doesn’t feel entirely normal. Or at least, that was the fear, that this choice is deemed an unnatural one. Is it a fear factor? Women are strong and mighty when they band together, and this is usually perceived as a threat for certain men who fear that we might overpower their inherently misogynistic thinking.
In as many ways that we’re taught girl power should be what rules the world, we’re told in the same breath, not to break the mould; husband first, female friendships – and the rest – second. Even earlier this year, Love Island’s Megan opted to proudly express that the situation she found herself in – essentially, pursuing the romantic partners of her ‘friends’ – meant that she had never been able to maintain friendships with girls. She said this with pride, as if she should be profoundly be rewarded by her male love interests for such an achievement.
Even today, my female friends have largely dispersed; they are in different countries, they have different responsibilities that I don’t get know, they have babies and weddings. But they are still the centre of my universe – what I’d do without them, I have no idea. But I know I can put them on the back-burner. So, rather than lamenting my own lack of a plus one this Christmas, I am going to heed advice from Elizabeth Gilbert and spend more time with mine, and take them to many parties instead.
And I always remember the words of Alice Adams who said: “I think women know how to be friends. That’s what saves our lives.”