Best Frenemies?: Cultural Narratives of Female Friendship in Literature and Film

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
June 21, 2021 - July 21, 20216/21 - 7/214 WeeksOnlineOpenOnlineUrszula Rutkowska
Emily Simon

Course Description

“Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses—pretty but designed to SLOW women down.” This provocative line from Roxane Gay’s “13 Rules for Female Friendship” begs the question: Why do women make the best of friends, but the worst of enemies?

In this course, we will look at how female friendship is represented in film, fiction, and television to challenge the cultural myth that women cannot be friends, instead positing friendship between women as a source of solidarity. Secondary texts in cultural, feminist, race, narrative, and queer theory will introduce students to possible lenses for considering these dynamics.

Through close reading and class discussion, we will analyze received cultural narratives of female friendship and identify the tropes, structures, and associations that seem to shape relationships between women. Why, for instance, do television shows that depict female solidarity also revolve around the heels and purses that Gay mentions above? What do we make of motifs at the heart of so many of these texts: the makeover montage, the post-breakup cry session, the dramatic falling out, the equally tearful reunion? What can we learn about culture, and ourselves, in the images, and where can we identify possible complications to such paradigms? Our course will look backwards and forwards—from the Victorian era to the present day—in order to answer these questions, and to ask new ones.

In this course, we will examine the recent spate of movies, books, and television shows in which conventional romantic plots seem to take a backseat to the dynamic between female friends. Is this sudden proliferation of media prioritizing best friends over boyfriends something new—part of a resurgent wave of female empowerment—or in fact a tale as old as time? In tracing the cultural genealogy of this dynamic, we will ask how cultural paradigms of female friendships have evolved or remained consistent, from the world of a Jane Austen novel to that of HBO’s Insecure. What common perils, conflicts, and encounters structure friendships between women? How do these friendships intersect with other relationship dynamics, especially romantic ones? From where have cultural myths about female friendships emerged, and how might critically engaging with these texts allow us to re-imagine these narratives?

Potential texts in this course will be drawn from a wide range of media, including fiction (selections from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, and Mary McCarthy’s The Group), television shows (Pretty Little Liars, Big Little Lies, and Insecure), and movies (Frances Ha, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and Bend it Like Beckham). Through engagement with these sources—and secondary readings by writers such as bell hooks and Sara Ahmed—we will ask how the dynamics of female friendship are shaped by questions of age, race, class, technology, and sexual orientation. Students will encounter these materials through out-of-class reading and film viewings, class discussions, and group activities. Assessments may include short response papers, presentations, and a final writing assignment. In the spirit of fostering collaboration and solidarity among class participants, a strong emphasis will be placed on group work and discussion. This course is designed to introduce students to a critical conversation around a culturally (and even personally) relevant topic, through which they will develop close reading and academic writing skills. In teaching this class together, we hope to offer our students a model of collaboration between women that is grounded in friendship and intellectual discussion and debate. By the end of the course, we hope that our students will emerge from the class more conscientious scholars and, we hope, friends.

This course is designed to introduce students to critical reading and writing skills, which will be useful at the university level and beyond. In and out of class, students will cultivate their capacity to engage critically with a range of media, including fiction, film, and television. Through written assignments and classroom discussions, students will practice close reading texts and learn to articulate their claims about them clearly and effectively using textual evidence and secondary sources. In the spirit of the course, group activities and conversations will encourage students to collaborate and communicate with each other in a shared academic endeavor.

Prerequisites: No prerequisites required. This course is designed to be accessible to all high school students.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEEL0931

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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