‘Big Friendship’ from afar

Being a student usually means getting involved in campus life; joining clubs, attending social events, creating friendships with fellow students. That’s tough to do with an online program (like the PGDip I’m doing at the University of York), but the pandemic pushing activities online has been a tremendous boon!

I’ve joined the Graduate Students Association for Zoom with a Zoo (so much fun!), signed up for virtual pub quizzes, and become a member of the UoY Feminist Society—all without leaving home. FemSoc members are welcome to contribute to the society’s blog and I wrote a post reviewing Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. The long-distance friendship angle makes the book even more relevant, but don’t be fooled that it’s a manual for making new friends or maintaining platonic relationships. And the authors aren’t suggesting any shortcuts for the time, energy, and affection necessary to nurture good friendships, whether they’re in-person or over video chat.

Reflections on Aminatou Sow’s and Ann Friedman’s ‘Big Friendship’

Originally posted to The University of York Feminist Society website on November 5, 2020.

On the surface Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman isn’t an explicitly feminist text. It doesn’t have the overt feminist lens of Call Your Girlfriend, Sow and Friedman’s podcast about pop culture and politics. It’s less female-focused than Period, an essay collection about menstruation that both Friendman and Sow contributed to. But under the guise of examining their own relationship, Big Friendship strikes feminist gold examining how society undervalues platonic relationships (specifically between women) and encourages women to knock each other down. 

The backstory

Authors Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow met at a Gossip Girl viewing party in 2009 and quickly fell head-over-heels in friendship. After that strong initial bond blossomed into a strong friendship while living in the same city, Sow and Friedman found themselves living on opposite US coasts. In their weekly-ish chats they’d talk about current events, their own lives, whatever they each wanted to bring to the agenda—yes, their informal catch-ups had a list of stuff to cover. (I’m totally inspired to introduce agendas for my own tête-à-têtes; a great way to ensure the gabfest hits all the juicy bits.) That led them to launch ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ in 2014—which started as a weekly (sometimes wine-filled) catch-up between the two of them, recorded and edited into podcast-form. 

‘Call Your Girlfriend’ became a success. They hosted a couple of deliriously joyful Desert Ladies group vacations. Their Shine Theory concept took off (see chapter four of Big Friendship). And, as revealed in the prologue of the book, their own friendship went out of whack.

As business partners with a very public friendship, there was pressure to maintain an outwardly ‘perfect’ version of their relationship. Failing at the friendship would mean not only giving up valued emotional support and shaking up their overlapping friend circles, but also losing a key part of the ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ brand and potentially dissolving a successful business partnership.

Big Friendship follows Friedman and Sow defining their own relationship, contextualising it in a broader societal view, actively choosing to invest in their friendship—and encouraging readers to do the same.

The heart of the matter

The narrative switches between either Sow or Friedman speaking in the third person, a collective ‘we’ that includes both authors, and input from experts across many fields (communication, sociology, history, etc.). The shift can be jarring (and the third person bits a little contrived), but it’s worthwhile to get Friedman and Sow’s individual perspectives. The expert insights are frequently fascinating, especially given the rarity of academic study on friendships and the overall lack of air time given to the nitty-gritty of non-romantic, non-familial relationships.  

One of my favourites is journalist Lydia Denwork who cites a study describing the friendweb of a Virginia town back in 1938—perhaps the first mapping of a social network. It revealed the mass of inconsistencies in how people define their friendships and the unevenness that can exist between parties in a relationship. It was a total lightbulb moment for me: “just because two people are connected does not mean that they view their connection the same way” (page 104 of Big Friendships, 2020 E-reader version). While it’s quite normal to have a “Where is this relationship going?” talk with a romantic partner, it’s nearly unheard of for friends to define their relationships and explicitly outline their expectations and what they mean to each other. 

Sow and Friedman point out that the interconnectedness of platonic relationships is both relative and prone to anxieties about worlds colliding when different groups of friends meet. These friendwebs can be a source of tension and competition or they can offer amazing support—if we respect the complexity of these friendship networks and resist distilling female friendships into trite #SquadGoals. This is not a ‘rah rah’ narrative about besties, it’s a call for female friends everywhere to acknowledge the messiness of their relationships and to give these connections the weight they deserve. 

The intersections

Along the way, Friedman and Sow dip into race, class, immigration background, and gender in their own personal experiences and how they impact their shared connection. The apex comes in ‘The Trapdoor’ chapter, which details the racial dynamics of a birthday party. Sow draws attention to the challenges Black friends face calling out their white counterparts and introduces the concept of interracial intimacy. 

In relating their own not-perfectly-resolved account of the fall-out from an all-white guest list that left Sow wondering if she really knew Friedman, the pair normalises having these uncomfortable conversations. Their openness highlights how lack of acknowledgement, institutionalised indifference, and white privilege come together to create paranoia and exhaustion within a friendship. The account of the ‘stretch’ required to bridge their individual realities, contrasting childhoods (from Sow’s Nigerian-based Guinean family to Friedman’s nearly entirely white American hometown), and ongoing emotional labour is a deeply personal story with far broader meaning.

The TLDR; version

Does Big Friendship have the answers to all your platonic relationship queries?

Nope.

Is it a worthwhile read about the interplay between the two authors and how their chosen families impact their lives? Do the authors tackle feminism, racism, and classism—and deliver a few laughs? Will it encourage you to look deeper at the dynamics of your own friendships? Might it prompt you to re-evaluate how much or how little effort you put into platonic relationships? And will you want to call your BFF (or a friend-that-got-away) in the midst of reading it?

That’s a big yes to all the above!


Text adapted from my original post at UoFFemSoc.wordpress.com. Image adapted from a photo by Arièle Bonte on Unsplash.

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