So this is what friendship at 30 is supposed to look like! You link arms with the
beautiful people who’ve seen you through your twenties, casually balancing a champagne glass or an orchid in your hand while someone kindly carries your shoes for you. Phew – and I was so worried about having to get a mortgage, progress in my career and decide whether or not to have children. As long as you’ve got a nice blow dry and Ross Geller is there to carry your shoes, it’ll all be OK, right?
It’s fair to say that the film and television I grew up with was rammed with sweet, idealised notions of thirty-something friendships. Whether it’s Chandler and Joey’s bromance, Bridget Jones’s circle of sharp-tongued but (mostly) supportive single friends, or friendly sex talk at brunch with Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda – I was pretty sold on the idea that your 30s involves just as much goofing around as adolescence. I never gave much thought to the socialisation process kick-started by these fictitious role models. I just assumed that I too would link arms with my BFFs well into my kidulthood.
I turned thirty a few weeks ago. Just as TV told me I would, I celebrated with a bunch of lovely friends over a delicious meal, and a fun but rather polite and grown-up house party (well, polite until Cards Against Humanity was brought into the mix). These were the same people I grew up with, give or take the addition of various partners and husbands. As I said in my wedding speech (yes, I was that sort of bride), I probably know them better and like them more now than when we used to copy each other’s homework or hang out in the Wimpy.
My friends are a really important part of my life. We all live in disparate parts of the country now, but I know my lovely girlfriends are only a phone call away. I might not see them every day, but that makes it more fun and special when we do meet up: it’s an occasion, so we’re allowed to order expensive cocktails, order all three courses and wear something a bit fancy.
Of course, it’s easier for us to stay in touch than it was for our parents’ generation. Facebook means we’re constantly in contact, browsing each other’s travel snaps, group-chatting to organise each other’s hen parties or just sharing silly in-jokes about Poldark. I could criticise the false optimism of social media, the annoying Californian perkiness of Facebook – but staying in touch this way really does lessen the effect of the physical distance between us.
Perhaps there’s something else, though: perhaps we place greater importance on friendship because of the narratives we grew up with. Jennifer Aniston et al told us they’d be there for us – and damn it, we believed it. So I thought it’d be pretty interesting to reflect on those key moments in TV and film from my teens and 20s, to reflect on what they taught me about friendship.
Well, it makes sense to start with the obvious. I could be cynical and suggest that Friends taught me that New York is full of cliques of skinny white people who hang out in coffee shops all somehow afford prime Manhattan apartments. But I think that complaint is pretty well trodden ground by now: besides, I do tend to leave my thirty-something scorn behind whenever I catch an episode. It makes me feel 14 again, as if it’s a Sunday T4 omnibus, and I’m half-watching while doing my homework.
At school we’d discuss at length whether you were a Monica, a Phoebe or a Rachel. As I belonged to a girly clique of three until I was about 15, this suited us well. I was usually pigeon-holed as Monica, as I had dark hair and was fastidious about homework (yet probably had the most untidy teenage bedroom on the planet). Sometimes I was a bit kooky like Pheobe, what with my penchant for tie-dye in the late 90s. I think I might have owned a deck of tarot cards at some point. I was never a Rachel, though – to be a Rachel, you had to be a bit sexy. You had to have good hair.
Maybe the best thing about the Friends characters is they’re so goofy – they don’t try to be cool. I loved it when Monica put her turkey on her head, or Chandler and Joey sat in a canoe with the chick and duck. Ross was possibly the best at uncool loveable goofiness: getting stuck in his leather trousers, over-bleaching his teeth and failing to move his sofa up the stairs (PIVOT!). It was reassuring, seeing grown-ups getting stuff wrong.
Friends showed me that you can make new buddies, but you’ll always go back to the mates you had in high school. Rachel and Monica’s awful prom dresses were symbolic of the importance of shared history in friendship. When you’ve known each other since your teens, there’s no explaining to do, no pretences: it’s easy and comfortable, like family. Ross and Rachel were always going to find their way back to each other for that very reason. Known as ‘pulling a Ross and Rachel’, how many of your friends have got it together, years after going to the same school? It’s quite a common phenomenon in my experience, and again, that shared history makes strong roots for a relationship.
Sex and the City (1998-2004)
I was always more interested in the female friendships than the sexcapades in Sex and the City. I was too young to catch this show on television, but bought a box set in one of the great closing down sales of the 2008 credit crunch (anyone remember Zavvi?). For that reason, it’s always had a dated kitsch quality for me. After the gloss of the movies, it’s easy to forget Carrie’s almost orange hair, the weird fur trim on Samantha’s worst outfits, and how provocatively masculine Miranda was with her wet look hair and loose-cut suits. The Season 1 monologues to camera are reminiscent of 70s Woody Allen and while they might have been arresting and ground-breaking at the time, they now seem dated and cheesy. Still, the girlfriend-to-girlfriend phone calls, the four-way dialogue over cocktails – that still seems fresh. Well, mostly. When Kim Cattrall’s not overworking it.
Sex and the City taught me to look after my girlfriends. Be tolerant, even when she’s got a new a bloke, and she ignores your Facebook messages. Be kind, though she’s still procrastinating over the precise shade of eggshell blue for her wedding invites. Yes, she might have that crazy new friend with the buzz cut and plugs, and at the moment she might like the crazy more than you – but if you remain kind, it’ll probably pass. Female friendship is about years of kindness – being tolerant and forgiving, telling her what she needs to hear, being a good confidant. Because you’ll know she’ll do the same for you. And that was the heart and wisdom of Sex and the City. It wasn’t all about the shoes.
“Maybe we can be each other’s soul mates and then we can let men be just these great, nice guys to have fun with.” – Carrie
Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2001 and 2004)
If these films were made in 2016, I think Bridget would be rather different. I’m not saying that Bridget is not a feminist – of course she is, in her own way – but she’s not a very enlightened portrayal of a single woman. She comes across as unintelligent, foolish and overly concerned with being a bit fat. A 90s neurotic (Ally McBeal is of this ilk, too). Although I still find the films fun, I wish Bridget would have a bit more attitude! It would be nice to laugh along with her, rather than at her expense because her hair’s gone wrong, or she’s parachuted into a pig pen.
Not all of Bridget’s friends have the best of intentions. It’s no wonder she’s waiting for Mr Darcy when her friends can be so cruel. Shazza and co are so busy sticking their noses in Bridget’s relationships, hang around with drug dealers or stinging Bridget with backhanded insults. It’s not exactly a glowing portrayal of supportive friendship. Still, they rally for her in the end:
Tom: Well done Bridge, four hours of careful cooking and a feast of blue soup, omelette and marmalade. I think that deserves a toast, don’t you? To Bridget, who cannot cook, but who we love
[in an undertone]
Tom: just as she is.
Notice that Tom is still telling Bridget she’s a bit rubbish. But maybe that’s OK. Sometimes. In the right context. It’s OK to tell your friend that they’re no good at remembering the titles of songs, or that they should really wear socks that match. It’s probably not the best idea to tell her she’s crap at running if she’s trying to lose weight, or to insult her grammar when she’s qualified to teach English (fortunately this hasn’t happened to me, but that wouldn’t go down well).
Bridget is always moaning about married people. Is this a real social phenomena? Not in my experience. I’m at the age where lots of my friends are getting hitched, and I sense no bitterness from ones who are not. Maybe I’m too smug in my own married status to notice this. Still, even when I was 16 and reading Helen Fielding’s books for the first time, I sensed there isn’t really anything wrong with married people. They are happy, not smug – and a good friend should see this as a very good thing.
Perhaps I’m being harsh on Bridget and her friends. Maybe the sarcasm, bitchiness and brutal honesty is healthy. The sunshine optimism of friendship in American TV can be a little too saccharine at times, but not always.
At the moment, my new favourite show is Girls. It’s a bit different this time, because I’m the same age as Lena Denham – so I’m not growing up and being influenced by her version of the young friendship narrative. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a realistic portrayal, but there’s a grittiness and emotional honesty there. Oh, and Instagram.