‘Loneliness is one of the most frightening certainties of the human experience. Very few people are immune, and those who claim never to have experienced it are most likely unwilling or unsure how to identify it.’
In her recent book, The Friendship Cure, Kate Leaver argues modern society is making us lonelier, putting stress on our mental health and separating us from real human connection. Moreover, we are ignoring our own loneliness. How could we possibly be lonely when global connectivity literally lies at our fingertips?
This is not a new line of argument; think pieces on the detrimental effect of social media on our health – somewhat ironically – manage to go viral more than almost any other topic. It is understandable, then, that in this climate of anxiety around loneliness we would want to combat being alone with having as many friendship connections as we can.
Female friendship groups have a long history. Modern slang and hashtags are simply new labels for an old phenomenon which can be traced back to the 17th Century; philosopher Mary Astell wrote that connections between women were purer and more authentic than bonds between men because women were in general “less concern’d in the affairs of the World”. Wives, supposedly, formed friendships with neighbours to replace the bonds they had with mothers and sisters in the households of their childhood and adolescence.
In the late 20th and 21st centuries, modern female friendship is driven by image. Instagram snaps of club nights out are hash tagged with #squad and #tribe. These clichés arrive on t-shirts, making a commodity out of human connection. The iconic visual of Taylor Swift and her clique of supermodels helped to cement the image of the ideal squad – beautiful, badass girls who would walk, fashionably, through fire for each other – that is, until they fall out and go to war. What was that about building each other up?
Modern pop culture has been saturated by both good and bad representations of female friendship, although, disappointingly, these have all too often championed the lives of rich white women devoid of problems beyond extramarital affairs, sex and career progression. Almost every woman in their twenties has been asked which Sex and the City character they identify with and met with derision if they can’t identify themselves as either of the four. Younger millennials will perhaps be more familiar with inquiries into which character they are closest to out of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Broad City, Friends or Girls.
The problem with this is that it implies that a personality type of a fictional character can be easily mapped on to a woman in an attempt to understand her. Women, once again, are reduced to archetypes devoid of real complexity. I have been lonely in squads before simply because groups, whether they’re in fiction or the real world, often eschew individuality. In fact, if you’re a typical introvert, or like to keep things private from all but one or two close people, it’s often difficult to find yourself part of a tight-knit friendship group. This is particularly true if you come into a friendship group after it’s formed. As such, we might move between groups or stick to cultivating meaningful relationships with separate and unrelated people. Jilly Ganon of ELLE Magazine calls this person a ‘floater’ – never committing to a single group.
Social convention might label this behaviour as fickle or flighty, but, in reality, it can be healthy to diversify your friendship groups. In the same way that spending all your time with a partner and their friends can be limiting, it can be similarly limiting to spend your time with the same group of women. Your worldview narrows, you become closed off to making new friends and you can exclude other women from joining the group. It is the real-life version of an echo chamber.
Squads are, by nature, exclusive. Defined by inside jokes, shared experiences and old gossip, they’re not always easy to join, or indeed, be a part of. By nature, the terms ‘squad’ and ‘tribe’ imply an ‘us’ to a vague ‘them’. Squads are marketed as a place to simultaneously bitch about others while remaining ‘non-judgemental’ – a mindboggling contradiction plays into widely circulated stereotypes of womanhood. In reality, squads sometimes achieve little more than a friendship with one or two close friends, aside from cultivating an image of exclusivity.
This is not to attack female friendships which are, of course, incredibly important. There is perhaps nothing more cringe-worthy than hearing the claim “I’m only friends with guys because there’s less drama’ (a note to my past self). In a culture which so often tries to pit women against each other in terms of career success, image and dating, it is a triumph to see women supporting each other, building each other up, and offering comfort when things are hard. Where there are shared experiences of female life, it often feels necessary to talk to your female friends over wine, at the gym or during a cheeky visit to Five Guys.
Yet, hashtag culture, and the pop culture that drives it, is dissociative. It embeds in us an image of what female friendship should look like but misses the complex reality of making friendship last. This matters because the most engaged female consumers of hashtags and trending pop culture tend to be teenagers and women in their early twenties who often follow examples of how to be successful adults through the images they consume of success and happiness. The idea that we might not have a squad can be troubling when it seems everybody else does. As such, we can feel left out, strange, and unsuccessful; these feelings drive down our confidence when really, any attempt to connect to another person is a worthy one. While we choose to try to fit the cultural ideal, we only make ourselves lonelier.
So perhaps the lesson is to diversify – meet new women in different circumstances, and don’t be afraid if they don’t hang out with the other people you know. Look outside your group of Carries and Samanthas. Look to celebrate your individuality. I promise: you don’t need a squad for success.
Written by Ellen Macpherson
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