Sunday, January 09, 2005

Buddy Movies

I was watching the extended edition of Return of the King last night, and Jenn popped in and we got into a discussion about what a great job Jackson & co. did sticking to the original heart of the story while boosting the believability and interest of the female characters, and ditching some of the classist bullshit Tolkien was so obsessed with.

And we started talking about these sorts of war movies, how the heart of them is about friendships forged by men, about characters who have been given this huge responsibility, and the arcs those characters take (one of my favorite character arcs is Frodo's, because he's given this one task on which the world depends - all he has to do is throw the ring away. He goes on the tremendous journey, and gets there primarily because he's got Sam, and all he has to do is this one thing: and when the shit hits the fan, when it comes down to the wire, he can't do it. And I always wonder, how would that person live, afterward? Knowing that when you were tested, when it came down to it, you ultimately failed? Great stuff).

Inevitably, we started to try and think of buddy movies about women bonding in this way, women who would carry each other up the mountain, and about all we had was Thelma & Louise, in which the protagonists, of course, die, so that one doesn't really count. Female buddy movies tend to be about women who come together over smaller, more domestic issues, and are friends because they have similiar past experiences or live in the same place. They don't bond over a great world-changing experience. Joy Luck Club, Steel Magnolias, Secrets of Ya-ya Sisterhood.

When you do get those rockin' types of women, they're either saving their children, or their love interest (which is never, of course, a woman). So you've got Linda Hamilton saving her son John Conner (though in the first Terminator movie, she does save *herself* at the end, which, believe it or not, isn't seen that often either), Drew Barrymore throwing the prince over her shoulders in Ever After, and Kate Winslet running through the corridors of the Titanic with an ax in a desperate effort to save Leo.

The reason Thelma & Louise was such a big deal is because Louise pulls out the gun and shoots the fucker trying to rape Thelma. She protects her friend. It's this huge gaping cinematic hole that people have gotten so used to that they won't even mention it when they say, "Why is it women are their own worst problem? Why do they hate each other and compete over male approval?"

Well, you know what, we don't exactly get a lot of great images about female loyalty and friendship.

The best women-bonding-in-war movie I've seen recently was Cold Mountain (Scarlett doesn't exactly bond with any women in Gone With the Wind). They totally nailed that one. Kidman has a great rant about how she's been taught to be an ornament, how she doesn't know how to *do* anything, and her frustration comes through, that idea that now that the shit's hit the fan, she doesn't have any skills whatsoever to deal with her predicament. She and Zellweger get to have a buddy-sort of friendship where a man doesn't come between them; they don't fight over him, and their situation is often a life-or-death one.

In fact, I just went and looked through my DVD collection to make sure I wasn't missing anything mainstream (indy movies tend to get more leeway with this, but I want to stick with what's up for "popular" consumption), and I couldn't find anything else. Keira Knightly goes out to save Orlando in Pirates (there's mutal saving in this movie, which I love), but her and the female pirate don't even exchange any words, let alone form a friendship.

So where are all the *women* watching each others' backs? Apparently, these sorts of movies are reserved for "chick flicks" like Under the Tuscan Sun (I like they way they left this one open-ended, which is why I can stomach it: it's not *really* a romance movie, it's about finding yourself and creating friendships and families - and doing that your own way).

I suppose war, and performing acts that are seen to impact the very Nature of the Universe or Fate of Humanity have always been seen as male preserves. And if women are involved, it must be because they're hot on the guys.

I was clicking through movie trailers at and was startled by the trailer for Miss Congeniality 2: try to ignore for a minute the fact that they feel they have to figure out a plot device for Bullock to go from snorty to hot again and look at this - the trailer makes it look like a buddy movie.

A buddy movie where the two main characters are female cops, and not only that, one of them is black.

Unfortunately, it's not Lethal Weapon with women, which would be cool; they had to play it with Bullock being prettied up, so there's lots of "female"/"feminine" jokes they can make. But shiiiiit. A female cop buddy movie? When the hell was the last time I saw that?

OK, yea, there's Charlie's Angels. But the recent Charlie's Angels movies are played so over the top as to be terribly funny. The women aren't supposed to really be able to do those things. How the hell they're doing those kinds of kicks in 3-inch heels without busting an ankle, I'd love to know (in fact, I just busted out my pair of 2 1/2 inch sensible, square heels and tried to do a roundhouse kick - it's almost possible, but if you turn that square heel into a spike, I think it's all over, and unless you were a dancer, you'd be on your ass). Women are only allowed to kick ass and be friends if they're little, pretty, and fem enough not to cause anyone to feel insecure. And the angels, though friends, don't spend much time saving each other. They tend to save their male bosses and love interests.

I know that I find myself writing these gaping-hole types of stories all the time. I'm in the business of fantasy sagas, and the first thing I did was create a buddy-buddy central relationship between a man and woman who, I decided wouldn't be sexually interested in each other. I was looking for some sort of "pure" unsulllied friendship that had the same feel of the Frodo/Sam or Fellowship buddy relationships. It wasn't until I got through all of book one (the third version of it), that I started to see that there were pretty much no female friendships in the book, or at least strong ones. The women were still all rotating around relationships with men, even in my egalitarian society. In my female dominated society, where everybody was expected to form close friendships with other women and the default was being attracted to women (the whole Plato idea on its head - women can only truly "love" other women, because only women and women will ever be equal: men will always be inferior), I chose to have the viewpoint character for that society be a terribly staight female fighter with what she considered a rather shameful attraction to men that she'd never really been able to push toward women, and very few friendships with anyone.

There I go, stabbing myself in the foot.

If you see these sorts of images and stories often enough, you internalize them. You make them up that that's what it's supposed to be.

Why are women clawing at each other all the time? Why, as my dad said, do so many people think "you women are your own worst problem"?

Because we aren't taught to like each other. Boys get told to go out and save each other, and women, and kids, and we get told that women are our rivals, our enemies, and that what we're really looking for is to be that lone female fighter, the "token man" who can then look down on all the women around us. That, or you're just supposed to be the usual: a love interest, a damsel in distress, etc. etc.

I want more female buddy movies.

I want women carrying each other up the goddamn mountain.

24 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Funny - you're right, but I'd never really thought about it. I read a fair amount of sci fi and fantasy, and some authors manage female friendships and ass-kicking reasonably well, but they are few and far between. Something else to think about writing, perhaps...

Posted by Wendryn

Anonymous said...

I remember Outrageous Fortune as being pretty good on female buddy-and-saving-each-other stuff, but my memory may be completely off; saw it years ago. 

Posted by jkr

Anonymous said...

One word: Buffy. 

Posted by bitchphd

Anonymous said...

You know, I thought about Buffy (which is also in my DVD cabinet), but didn't mention it because it was television and not movies. You've definately got a lot of everybody saving Willow, and Willow saving Tara, and Buffy saving her sister, and some really strong female relationships, though I'd argue that the core Willow/Buffy relationship became of lesser and lesser imporatance once Buffy came back from the dead (the second time) - then it all seemed to be about Buffy and Spike, or Buffy and her sister (who was for the most part recast as Buffy's child once Joyce died).

Not inherently bad, and Willow got to get some good lovin' on with other women, but much of the audience's voyerism was still aimed at the young girl and Old Male Vampire relationships....

It is probably the best example of a recent women-saving-women buddy-buddy show, though.  

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...

I don't know whether this is quite what you are looking for, but it is certainly one of my favorite indie films: Girls' Town, starring Lili Taylor, Bruklin Harris, and Anna Grace as three young women trying to cope with the suicide of their friend. Talking about it, they come together, and in memory of their friend bond with each other, stand up for each other, and save each other a time or two, in the course of confronting controlling mothers, date rapists, and abusive deadbeat exes.

Posted by Rad Geek

Anonymous said...

Um, hello! I am de-lurking.

I have to say Buffy, too. I don't see the Young Girl and Old Male Vampire thing as having quite so much weight (and especially not if you're talking about Spike). What is very cool to me about most of Buffy's interaction with men is how, at some point, they always get it that she's the Slayer; she's the leader, the one who always runs into the building when everyone else is running out screaming. Even Riley gets it in the end. Spike certainly does. He'll do anything for her, and not just because he's love-struck. He gets past that and mostly sees her for the one-of-kind leader she is.

But throughout the series, there are incidents - too many to count - that turn the girl-in-jeopardy cliche upside down. For example, in an early episode that most people hate (and of course I love it), "Reptile Boy", the opening scene shows a young woman trying to escape a group of men. There is no "ooh, I twisted my ankle" scene here: this girl runs as fast as she can, climbs a wall, jumps down, scrambles away. She doesn't get away, but she doesn't stop trying. (Toward the end of the episode, after Buffy and Cordelia are both captured too, we see the girl chained up, and then Buffy busts them all out of the chains and kills the reptile god and all the boys go to prison.)

It's hard to explain why incidents like these are, in aggregate, so vitally important to me about "Buffy".

There's no baseline assumption of girliness. In fact, there's a thematic constant of women helping other women, for no other reason than because (1) you can, (2) there's a need, and (3) it's simply understood that this is what you do for each other.

Have you watched the entire series? 'Cause I don't want to spoil you for anything.

....spoiler space....

And the ultimate outcome - Buffy's choice with Willow's agency - presages the ultimate female buddy concept. Look at Faith and Buffy's reconciliation. It's guarded, but it's powerful and sincere. Women aren't supposed to do that on TV and in movies. Not only do they accept each other as heroic and powerful, but they willingly share the power with other women and girls around the globe.

The series ends, but in my head, there are a zillion buddy stories that want to be told.

So - I second your suggestion that it's the best recent example of a women-buddy show. And here endeth my speech. 

Posted by larkspur

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip, Rad - I'll check that one out.

Lark - oh, you better bet I've seen the whole series... isn't it weird, though, that the only really feminist/buddy-buddy woman show we have is Buffy? And that we're having trouble getting mainstream movies to Take the Hint?

I remember that after the Titanic phenomenon, I was waiting for movie moguls to jump all over the "weak/repressed woman becomes strong through relationship with a man she doesn't end up with at the end" movies... and got... nothing in return (I was 17 when this came out, and continued watching it for about 6 months in the theatre, into 18. I was one of those women who saw it 11 times in the theater - it was a big help toward giving me the courage to end a shitty relationship. The movie's total cheese, but there's something in it that really spoke to teen girls, and it wasn't Leo diCaprio).

I was waiting for a thousand knockoffs of that theme: a woman finding her own voice, her own agency, by being sort of thunked awake by a guy (better, I think, would be through a friendship with a woman, but let's take baby steps here. This is Hollywood, afterall). You can do powerful things with that theme, too. The "wake up, woman, you're totally cool!" theme.  

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...

Plus, although one could argue that in seasons 6 & 7 (spoiler)

Buffy made a lot of speeches about being "alone" and the plot turned away from the women buddy thing, one could argue (and I do) that the show was really exploring the different models and possibilities of feminism: do we support women because they are our sisters, or is there a place for women to be independent and solitary? Heroism, it seems to me, usually involves, sooner or later, a sense of solitude in one's mission--or at least, it has, traditionally. Is women's heroism qualitatively different from men's heroism? Are women (must we be) always team players, or is there a place for us to be selfish and defy the wills even of our loved ones?

I loved that fucking show. 

Posted by bitchphd

Anonymous said...

The one movie that came to my mind reading your post was "A League of their Own". It's not a hero movie it all, but there's definitely female friendship and solidarity there.

We're definitely missing out on a lot. 

Posted by Tara

Anonymous said...

Tara - that's a good example of a buddy-movie, but I think what I'm going for with the "what I'd like to see" thing is women buddying up to save the world/their people/their village/foil a sinister plot type of movies, the sorts that would create those incredibly close friendships of honor and loyalty and love that you see among men in war movies...  

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...

Levaing Normal is a good women-buddy movie, in my opinion. Similar to T & L, but better in a lot of ways. 

Posted by rorschach

Anonymous said...

This was great! We were trying to talk about this on a mailing list of mine recently. You said it so eloquently I shall send them your way to read this.

Posted by Beverly

Anonymous said...

How did you miss _Bound_?
All right, maybe foiling a sinister plot and taking over a sinister plot aren't exactly synonymous, but the whole theme of the movie is of mutual respect and loyalty forged through fire between two women from very different backgrounds and ethics.

Then there was _So Close_, from China-- two mastermind criminal sisters out to avenge their parents' death and incidentally bonding with the female cop out to stop them.

_Ginger Snaps_, the werewolf movie from Canada, may be a love it or hate it opus, but it takes the question of sisterhood head on and goes right through it to the other side, questioning how far it can go.

There was _Nomads_ in the eighties; it takes most of the movie to get there, but you end up with two women bound to each other for life on the run.

Female compatriots abound in Japanese animation, where default characters are more likely to be female for a variety of sociological reasons. The quiet breakthrough moment of human contact at the climax of _Lain_ must be my favorite of these, as truly the fate of the world spins is determined by simple adolescent friendliness.

Crime, horror, science-fiction-- maybe female buddies just aren't inclined to act on behalf of a traditional mainstream greater good! 

Posted by treebyleaf

Anonymous said...

It's kinda out there and a bit of a stretch, but Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress" has elements of female friendship and mutual reliance in it in the relationship between the princess and her retainer picked up during the movie. Kurosawa certainly couldn't be called a feminist filmmaker and the relationship is both highly stylized and seen through male eyes on two levels (filmmaker's and other characters'), but it is there in places. Which really does just serve to underline how rare that sort of depiction is, I suppose. 

Posted by Brendan

Anonymous said...

If we're going to focus on more mainstream stuff, there was 9 to 5 with Lilly Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda. They got together to protect both each other and the other women they worked with (I'm guessing, if you graduated in 2000, you're waaaaaay too young to remember that one!).

And what about Clarice in Silence of the Lambs? Okay, she worked on her own, but, to me at least, it seemed pretty clear that her motivation was to fight for the women who'd been killed, as well as trying to save the kidnapped woman who was still alive.

And there was a film I saw ages and ages ago about British women in a Japanese concentration camp during WWII (can't remember the title, but maybe someone else does?). I'm sure if I saw it today, I'd find all kinds of disgusting examples of racism, but at the time I watched it, I found the female relationships pretty cool.

And, returning to Peter Jackson, there was Heavenly Creatures, which I guess would be an anti-hero sort of thing, because the girls end up murdering one of their mothers. But in a funny way I at least found that, while they were in no way excused of the murder, I still maintained a level of sympathy for them. And didn't feel they were portrayed as monsters--the way young girls usually are. Probably a lot of people will disagree strongly about that one, but I really like it. 

Posted by Crys T

Anonymous said...

Crys-T - I do remember 9-5, actually. Didn't see it, but I've heard of it - and I think I'd put it in the same category with something like First Wives Club, where they help themselves, and then other women, but it's framed as comedy (read: non-threatening), and it's still not women going out to save the world in that huge, epic sense.

Heavenly Creatures is another good buddy movie in the anti-sense, but not in that "women saving the world" way that I think I was looking for...

And, dude, Silence of the Lambs may be a lot of things, but I'd have to say it's sooo *not* a female buddy movie. ;)

I've watched that one about a zillion times: it's got everything: the petite female FBI agenty trying to prove herself, the male psycho killer who kills "fat" women (size 14 ::snicker::), and those awesome things the director does with the male gaze, the way men look at Clarice, the overt sexism ("I'd prefer not to talk about this in front of a woman"), her stepping into the elevator with a bunch of big guys, her walking into the morgue and standing with a bunch of big police guys... the set pieces the director placed in there throughout the movie, framing *her* as the lamb when she ends up being the protector, is absolutely great... but, again, the big relationship in this movie isn't between Clarice and her fellow FBI cadet friend, or between Clarice and the woman she saved, but ultimately, between Clarice and Hannibal.

Treeby - I just looked up "Bound" at IMDB. Holy crap, the Wachowski brothers did a lesbian heist movie? Sweeeet, I need to check this out.  

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...

i know you said you were focussing on movies, but since Buffy's been discussed would it be inappropriate to bring up the greatest female-buddy series of all time?

Xena Warrior Princess!

the series had a terrible ending, but for most of it the friendship between Xena & Gabrielle is the main theme of the entire show. they ditch every love interest, every other possibility in life, go to hell & back, sacrifice everything they have & then some, over and over and over again (yes, the series was a little repetitive), just to be with each other.

aww... now i'm getting all choked up. bye!

Posted by jam

Anonymous said...

Ah. Xena.

Warrior woman extraordinaire. Great stuff. 

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...

I had this whole response thought out in my head this morning but all my eloquence is used up. I just wanted to comment on your frustration with the book you wrote that did not contain strong female relationships.

You said "In my female dominated society, where everybody was expected to form close friendships with other women and the default was being attracted to women (the whole Plato idea on its head - women can only truly "love" other women, because only women and women will ever be equal: men will always be inferior), I chose to have the viewpoint character for that society be a terribly staight female fighter with what she considered a rather shameful attraction to men that she'd never really been able to push toward women, and very few friendships with anyone."

The problem with setting up a fantasy novel with an alternative reality such as the one you described is that both as writers and as readers we assume that any society with such an inequity at its structure is bad. When you have women in power they become the bad guys. This is exacerbated by the fact that (again both as writers and as readers) we assume that protaganists will be somehow different or outcast from an unfamiliar social structure - and we tend to root for the protaganist. So if you combine a society in which women are in power and oppress men (read evil women) and you have an outcast protaganist (who is therefore not like the evil women) you have a novel which displays women and women in power as a negative.

If you start out from an egalitarian society or even a patriarchal one you can write a story in which women triumph by working together. But it would be going against reader expectations to set up a dystopian female controlled society as a backdrop for a feminist novel.

I was lucky, I spent my college years at Barnard - four years of feminine bonding. We all carried each other up the mountain. Female frienships evolve naturally in my writing (poor as it is on other levels) because they are such a huge part of my life. I tend to default to the idea that any two women portrayed together will get along and all main female characters will become close friends. Not realistic, I know, but then again I write farce - angst and isolation need not apply.

I wish you had your way and women were portrayed, in books, TV and film, as heroes. An author I recently stumbled across, Tamora Pierce, writes explicitely feminist fantasy novels. They're young adult but I like them anyway. Especially the last two (Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen) that sets up a few strong female friendships. Not only does Tamora Pierce set up her female protaganists as the heroes of her stories, she also draws male-female relationships well and she takes a healthy view of sex. Not movies, I know, but I really like her. And the only way for more books and TV shows and movies to come out with strong female heroes and relationships are for people to write them. So keep on trucking.

Oh, there's a site that you might be interested in.  

Posted by Rebecca

Anonymous said...

Rebecca - I know. I'm kinda screwed, because I set up this whole world when I was 12, and I've been kicking around in it since then. There were evil queens and scullery maids who became queens and stable boys who were really princes and... and... well, not much of that has changed. Only there aren't any stables anymore...

Yea. It's a constant struggle against my "default" cultural mode that goes "of course X would be this way" and my "question everything" mode that goes, "WTF? Why does it have to be that way?"

Watch me war with myself...

Thanks for the link.  

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...


Re: Tamora Pierce is my fuckin' hero.

One word: Alanna.

Alanna the cross-dressing squire who pulled off becoming a knight and fighting guys bigger than she was, while being better than them at some things, not as good at others. You know, just like a "real person". Reading the Alanna books when I was ten or so, I think, was what first got me going, "Shit, *I* can write books like this. Like, whole books, not just stories."

For the girls who read Potter, try passing off Alanna on them. Hell, pass it off to the boys, too. 

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...

...and as long as everybody is mentioning Buffy, I have to also recommend Firefly (on DVD, movie coming out soon)--there Mr. Wheadon gives ya at least three different 'sorts' of strong women, and they all pretty much have each others' backs in a way that is (ahem, no offense anybody) slightly more complex than what I've seen go on in Buffy (but I haven't seen every episode). Granted, Firefly is even more of an ensemble cast, so the women in the show aren't the only centers of attention.

And I second the League of Their Own nomination, even given some obvious problems, mostly because, damn, true story of some women who did some big changing of the world (I know, not 'epic quest' in the traditional fantasy/historical fiction sense, but pretty epic anyway).  

Posted by jp

Anonymous said...

Okay, I got offtrack with the other ones--I think because of reading some of the replies which made me start thinking of films in which women were shown as friends, fighting against some obstacle and without a romantic interest dominating (or even present). But I still have to disagree about 9 to 5: I've (I'm ashamed to admit) actually seen First Wives Club, and there is, IMO, NO point of comparison between the 2. In fact, if I had to choose between 9 to 5 and League of Their Own in terms of feminist message, I'd choose 9 to 5, hands down.

Maybe its being comedy doesn't fit the "buddy" bill, fair enough, but I don't think all male buddy movies are dramas about world-scale events, either, are they? I think most people consider Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid a "buddy" flick, and I don't recall them doing anything on a world-changing scale, or bonding because of their exposure to same (though I haven't seen it in ages, so if I'm wrong, sorry). To be honest, the way I've always understood the definition of the "buddy flick" genre, it includes lots of movies with 2 guys cruising around in a car (or on other appropriate type of manly transport) and getting into pretty small-scale, often pretty random "adventures". 

Posted by Crys T

Anonymous said...

Well, Read or Die has Fan Service Girl and Yomiko Readman. But that doesn't seem like a perfect example. Bizarrely enough, Alan Moore's Promethea has a lot of female friendship. You know you're in trouble when Thelema looks relatively feminist. 

Posted by Omar K. Ravenhurst