Women in the Media: the “Stay Away from Your Friends” Trope

There’s a “category” of women on television and in the movies, typically contrasted with another “category” of (the good kind) of woman, whose sole depiction of being “wrong” for the male lead involves her behavior toward his male friends: she’s cold, distant, isn’t enthusiastic about his spending time with them, in general appears to disapprove of them, and may even obstruct him from being with them. Inevitably, another female character (the good version) will be introduced, and she will be depicted as “right” for him–because she not only tolerates his friends, but shouts at the tv during football games, doesn’t ask them to move their feet off her coffee table, and laughs at all their sexist jokes. Oh, and she’s somehow still a classy lady.

When I was in middle school, one of the boys attending decided he was interested in me. (He’d only ever seen me and had never spoken to me in his life.) Rather than, you know, act normal, he evidently decided it was a good idea to send each one of his friends, all eleven of them, over to me to “convince” me to go out with him. I had no interest in going out with anyone, and after the first episode of this preposterous plan, certainly not with him. All of these friends were women, but in the coming years, I’d experience the aggravation of similar strategies from groups of male friends. It always went like this: a man decides he’s romantically interested in me. He makes his feelings clear to me. When I don’t return them, his friends continue to badger me about it. “Are you going to said event with him?” “You should go with him!” “Did you talk to him last night? You should call him!” “You would be so great together!”

Men are scary enough alone–they’re something else in packs. We are meant, as television sitcoms and movies are written, to sympathize with the poor guy whose girlfriend doesn’t get along with his friends, supposedly because she’s a judgmental jerk who thinks they’re all losers. Of course, on screen we can see how disproportionately socially inept these friends are: we see them come over to an otherwise quiet house, pile into the living room, make a mess with popcorn on the couch (who do you think actually cleans that up after that scene plays out in real life?), yell obscenities at the television, make fun of each other for living with their mothers or not “getting laid” or not having a job, yet when the soon-to-be-replaced-with-a-male-approved-version of the female lead is hostile toward them, we’re supposed to think it’s because she just doesn’t “get” it and doesn’t “deserve” the male lead.

There’s an old joke (that I hate) that goes something like this: the difference between men and women (enlighten me) is that when a man, suspecting infidelity, calls each of his woman’s friends to ask if she was over at any of their homes last night, they all tell the truth and say they hadn’t seen her. When a woman calls each of her man’s friends to ask the same question, not only do each one of them claim that he was there, but two of them insist that he still is. This joke is supposed to exemplify male “loyalty” as the very truest kind.

Of course, what the joke doesn’t tell you is that the women are telling the truth because, when my friend’s significant other calls asking if I’d seen her, my immediate thought is not that she’s cheating–it’s that she might be missing. She might have been kidnapped. She might have been drugged, raped, murdered–why would I lie about having been with her last night when it only delays the rescue? The law needs to know immediately. In a world where our fears aren’t the same, actions can’t be judged according to the same criteria.

But instead, this joke is supposed to illustrate an (imaginary) manifestation of how women have a reputation of being disloyal and “catty” with each other. And how we always hate our lovers’ friends.

You know that other old trope that is associated with this one–when there’s a group of “typically douchey” college-level male friends, and one of them, one of them is “different.” He falls in love with some girl who says something like, “Remember there was that one time, your friend was really douchey,” when they first meet, and he responds in a dreamy tone of voice, “I’m not really like them,” and we’re supposed to think oh my God, what a special little diamond in the rough you are? I roll my eyes every time I see a scene like this. And it’s pathetic how many.

I don’t ever claim to preemptively “know” anyone’s friends, but when a man’s friends create an environment where I feel unsafe–where it’s clear they’re being sexist, racist, inconsiderate of my space, or attempting to pressure me to go out with him, it’s a red flag that I’m not going to ignore. You don’t get to be different. If your friends make a bad impression on me before we’ve even spoken, you can rest assured that you don’t have a chance.

I’m perfectly capable with warming up to someone’s friends–if they aren’t oppressive, if they aren’t wholly inconsiderate, if they’re not under the impression that they can tell me how to behave around our mutual friend who’s interested in me; this amicable consideration, warmth, this knowing when to stop, are characteristics of my friends, who are actually–you know, good friends–and just because these new people you’re introducing are your friends doesn’t mean they don’t have earn the trust of the woman you’re dating simply because they’ve earned yours.

And it’s not that men (who write sitcoms) don’t know this. When the inversion is the plot of the show, when a woman’s friends are hostile toward the new man she’s dating, he’s never the one depicted as needing to adapt to their standards. Instead, it’s the female friends who are shown as catty, judgmental, and unwilling to accept someone new into their circle. The male lead is either depicted as trying (and failing) to “satisfy” this “horrible” group of women or backstabbing them and it’s supposed to be funny to the audience. (Imagine that reversed?)

While I understand realistically that friends are formed over several years, that they grow differently, that a bond cannot be broken as easily as an oppressive comment (believe me, I know), this double standard in attitude toward women who are critical of their lovers’ friends and men who are outright oppressive toward their lovers’ friends is only a delineation of a dangerous facet of patriarchy. In the culture of patriarchy and its media depiction, a woman’s reasons for not getting along with a man, whether that man is the friend of her lover or the lover of her friend, is always illegitimized. It’s always because she’s judgmental, catty, and over-critical, and never because she’s feeling unsafe, pressured, disconcerted, or protective.