Lady business: Female friendship deserves mainstream focus

Lately—quite embarrassingly, I’ll admit—I’ve been watching a lot of “Grey’s Anatomy.” A lot. Too much, a chorus of my friends and co-workers and conscience would say. But almost like clockwork, every night I tap open my glowing iPad’s Netflix app and return to a world of on-call rooms and appendectomies, scrubs and scalpels.

Whatever I was watching between 2005 and 2009—arguably when the show was at the height of its powers—wasn’t “Grey’s Anatomy,” so the medical drama and its zany, divisive cast is completely new to me. And even though I feel like a late-in-the-game interloper in this world, the familiarity that keeps the show at just the right blend of sharp, charming, and ShondaLand is clear: the friendship between Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang.

In the time since I grew up wanting to be a Cheetah Girl—“growl power” and all—our culture has become anchored in bromances, rooted in a false idea that men have the most fun and are the only ones capable of smart, crass, goofy humor. Buddy-cop bro comedies with the same tired gags cycle their way through movie theaters again and again; how will we sit through one more class discussion without shared references of Key and Peele, or Stewart and Colbert?

No matter how tightly controlled Beyoncé’s 2013 HBO documentary “Life is But a Dream” was, there was at least one moment of real female truth: “I love my husband,” Beyoncé says in an interview for the film. “But [there] is nothing like a conversation with a woman that understands you. I grow so much from those conversations.” This is the ascribed value we get from watching female friendships like Cristina and Meredith’s and really buying into them, really believing in equitable, deeply felt partnerships between women not as competitors, but as soulmates. Grey’s at its best was Grey’s as a living record of one of those great female friendships that the rise of raunchy, masculine humor no longer allows us to aspire to.

This isn’t a call for some kind of blanket hyper-feminist sisterhood. As long as white feminism gives Meryl Streep a free pass for wearing a shirt that says “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” and lets Miley Cyrus get away with tone-policing Nicki Minaj’s legitimate critiques of the blond-loving annals of popular music, that’s not a sisterhood my black female identity is interested in. I’m just pointing out whatever prevailing myth it is that makes it acceptable to overhear girls slur out the regurgitated patriarchal reasoning that “girls are too catty” and “it’s just easier to get along with guys.” Until we start sidestepping that narrative, we, as women, are being cheated out of the holistic friendships that allow us to give and receive love and power from other women.

Cristina and Meredith were each other’s “people.” The people you call in a crisis, who will cut you out of your wedding dress after you’ve been left at the altar, who get drunk and dance to T-Pain songs, who’ll cheer you on through brain surgery and broken hearts, who’ll scowl at your ex-boyfriend and know the difference between needing a hug and requiring a beer. 

It’s a shame that it’s so hard to just turn on TV or open a magazine and see women appreciating one another in a friendship so deep and unique that it’s nothing short of romantic. Even Shonda Rhimes, who has made a business of writing complex, vulnerable roles for powerful actresses of color, has always come short of recreating this magic with her other shows. Friendships between women shouldn’t be a rarity abandoned after grade school; these important relationships ought to be recognized as some of the most uplifting and rewarding of our adult female lives.