Girl Talk

For my money, the most unrealistic part of Sex and the City was always the friendship. “Friendship porn,” I once heard it described as. People fingered Carrie’s wardrobe as being truly ridiculous, but after years of working in an industry where I’ve seen an adult woman spend a day at the office wearing a dress made entirely out of ribbon, I accepted that part of the show without question. But having a group of friends I have brunch with every weekend? Where would I find that?

So I’m interested to see that part of the critique tsunami surrounding HBO’s Girls has examined the characters’ friendships. It’s brought us everything from a feminist social history of best-friendship to a zoological history of the same. In fact, there’s been a good deal of attention paid to female friendship lately, including with the number of people who linked to this essay, which made the internet rounds when it was first published at The Rumpus. I’m glad to see these conversations happening; it’s a welcome relief from tired tropes of backstabbing women bad-mouthing one another at every opportunity.

My relief is tinged with melancholy, though. I couldn’t bear to read the Rumpus essay more than once because it hit me so hard when I read it the first time. Not because it resonated, but because it didn’t. To be clear: I have many wonderful female friends, some of whom I expect to be close with for the rest of my life. And in sheer numbers, I probably have more female friends than male friends. But in terms of who I treat as confidants, it’s slanted toward men, due to a combination of serial monogamy, the fortune to have remained friendly with a handful of men I used to date, and an incidental number of male friends. Given that I’ve usually worked in female-dominant fields, perhaps this has just been my way of adding some yang to my yin.

But there’s another reason my relationships with men move more fluidly. It may sound silly coming from a feminist who writes primarily for female audiences, but I’m talking socially, not intellectually, so here goes: I feel awkward around women. Now, that’s speaking in some pretty general terms—certainly I don’t feel awkward around every woman, or comfortable around every man. It’s more that accurately or not, I have an odd sort of faith that men enjoy being around women because of our womanness, making my sex is a built-in fortification of what I offer socially to men. We as a culture have been pretty successful at spinning stories about Man + Woman=Makes Sense, and the consequence for me has been just the tiniest bit more assurance that a man has reason to want to be in my company, even when attraction doesn’t factor into it. Then it becomes a catch-22: I’m more likely to be relaxed—and therefore more pleasant, charming, and fun to be around—if I trust that whomever I’m talking with genuinely wants to be there. So generally speaking, I probably am better company to men than I am to women, which results in a different sort of friendship.

I’m not proud of this attitude. I don’t like what it implies I think about men, or about myself. But it’s also notable for what it says of my relationships with women. I heard this quote once: “Men kick friendship around like a football, but it doesn’t seem to crack. Women treat it like glass and it goes to pieces.” Treat it like glass I do: afraid to touch it, afraid to give it the sort of handling that burnishes it and makes it uniquely yours. I’ve always hated the trope that women distrust other women, or secretly hate their friends or women in general, and that’s not what I’m saying here. If anything, I’m saying the opposite: I get tongue-tied around remarkable women because I dearly want them to like me, and unlike with men, there’s no culturally assumed “reason” for them to like me. The lack of trust here is in myself, not in other women.

So I feel like I have to work a little harder to get women’s approval. But the specific ways I’ve cultivated to gain approval—laughing a little longer at someone’s jokes, asking lots of questions, letting a gaze linger—sound suspiciously like flirting. Specifically, flirting with men. So when I’m around a woman I want to get to know better, suddenly I’m left not only being a little unsure how to be my best self, but also aware that my default “like me!” antics are conventionally feminine ways of appealing to men—which means plenty of women see right through them because they themselves have deployed the same tricks. At least, at my most vulnerable, self-doubting, and insecure that’s what I fear: that women—particularly the sort of intelligent, critical, soulful women I admire—will see through my laughter and questions and smiles and decide that whatever I bring to the table, it isn’t for them. (Perhaps that’s why I feel drawn to woman-only spaces like ladymags, come to think of it—it forces me to break out of relying upon the ways I’ve learned to communicate with men.)

At some point, though, I learned one thing I can bring to the table with women: girl talk. And yes, I mean highly stereotypical girl talk. I mean: I like your earrings, That’s a great color, Your hair looks fantastic. I used to consciously stay away from beautystuffs as small talk because I wanted to feign nonchalance about such matters; somewhere along the line, though, I recognized how well I myself responded to such conversation starters. My countenance, particularly around women, is pleasant but a little serious, meaning that something frivolous can come out of my mouth and I’m fairly certain it doesn’t make me seem frivolous. It simply lightens me, desirably so.

It’s been several years since I’ve started b
eing more fluent in beautytalk, and between working at image-conscious magazines and running a blog that is specifically designed to examine women’s attitudes and feelings about beauty and being looked at, it’s second nature now. Compliments and questions related to style or appearance easily tumble out of me; if I’m meeting a woman cold, like if I’m at a party where I don’t know anyone, chances are that’s the first thing out of my mouth. I’m always sincere about it—compliments fall flat if they’re a lie—and at this point I wouldn’t even say that this line of conversation is intentional. But I know where it comes from, and I know what I’m hoping to elicit when I do it.

Here is my trouble: I fear that I am forgetting how to connect with women in any other way. I found myself at a dinner party a while ago with a woman whose manner intrigues me; she’s one of those people whose words seem to matter more than other people’s, so wisely does she choose them. I was seated next to her, and my first words to her were something about her shoes (which were gorgeous, so I’m not entirely to blame here). She smiled and said Thank you, as one does, and after we had each nodded acceptance of the compliment and ensuing gratitude, neither of us had anything further to say to one another. Rather, I didn’t know how to get to that further point—at least not without her doing some of the heavy lifting along with me.

I’d expected her to help me out, which isn’t an outrageous expectation on my part; that is, after all, how conversations work. But in expecting her to help me out by saying anything other than the logical, polite response—thank you—I was actually attempting to direct her attitude. Toward herself, toward me, toward womanhood itself. I was expecting her to play along—to tell me, say, some story of where she’d gotten the shoes so I could then riff off a detail of that story, and in the course of that we would have each revealed something personal that could serve as a launching point for the conversation I actually wanted to have with her. I was expecting her to speak some code of womanhood right along with me—a code that as a feminist I know better than to think is actually how women communicate. I lobbed exactly one volley in her direction and expected her to return it.

And when she didn’t, I found that I didn’t have a backup plan. The code I’d been speaking in wasn’t code at all; it had become my native tongue, at least when attempting to make small talk. For it wasn’t just that laconic seatmate and her response that’s troubling me. It’s also the times when it works too well and I find I don’t know how to better anchor the conversation; it’s the times when I see exactly how moored I feel by “girl talk” with women and I wonder how deep my own feminist blood can run if this has become the primary way I know to reach out to other women. My approach has assumed that women in my path are eager to talk about their appearance, and not only that, but that they are eager to talk about their appearance with me because we are both women. Small talk works because we presume all the small talkers share a common condition. While I believe that all women have a unique relationship to presence, style, and visibility, the route I’ve been taking to get to that relationship isn’t helping me establish better friendships with women. And that’s because of another characteristic of getting-to-know-you chatter: Small talk is, by its nature and nomenclature, unimportant. And the very thing I value about beauty talk is what it reveals about us—that is, the stuff that is important. And yes, sometimes beauty talk gets there quickly and directly; that’s exactly why I defend it and work hard in my writing to not have it be written off as cotton candy. Yet in relying so heavily upon beauty talk as a conversation starter, I’ve been failing in my central mission. I know that you can’t just jump into a conversation by asking the really meaty stuff, sure. But if I truly believe in “girl talk” as a portal to that meat, to treat it in practice as fluff is a disservice to my goal.

Perhaps that became clearest to me when I was the recipient, not the instigator, of this sort of exchange. Some time ago, I found myself having a drink with a friend of a friend. The person who introduced us was doing most of the talking, so we were both able to quietly get used to the rhythm of the other before our mutual friend departed and left us on our own. We continued the conversation to its logical point, and it was clear that we each had a good deal to say to one another, but that we were perhaps too much alike in our being better responders than presenters. The conversation was good but not fluent. During one of our fumbling, strained pauses, she looked down and said, “I like your shoes.” The only thing remarkable about these sneakers is how unremarkable they are: Cheap, several years old, a faded olive color, scuffed and beaten, I’d only worn them because the weather was in flux and they were the single “shoulder season” pair I could fine.

I knew enough secondhand about this woman and her somewhat turbulent life to know that I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to talk with her about art and expression, about motherhood and madness. I wanted to know if what she saw every day in her appointment book, her mirror, her life was what she’d envisioned for herself; I wanted to know about disappointment and relief, and where the two might meet. I didn’t ask those questions, of course; you can’t just go in and ask those sorts of things. Sometimes chatter of shoes and mascara is a portal to the questions we really want answers to; sometimes the words that don’t matter are the only way to the words that do. But sometimes those words—where did you get that and I had a pair like that once and what a great color—form a Mobius strip of the words we know don’t matter, with no apparent outlet to what we want to say but don’t know how to articulate. I am trying to step off that neverending loop. But I am not sure how.

I felt that ache, that frustration that comes when I dance around intimacy, a dance only made more frantic when I sense the other person is there with me in our pas de deux. I felt it—I saw it—but I am still unpracticed in saying whatever one would need to say to get to what comes next.

And so I looked at her and said what we both knew you’re supposed to say upon receiving a compliment, the words that, with luck and effort, could lead to chatter of other cross-weather shoes, which could lead to climate, which could lead to where we grew up, which could lead to how we each define the word home. That is, I said Thank you.

What I didn’t say—but what I hope she heard—was I like you too.