Lucky (& Radical) in Love: A first read of Anahit Behrooz's BFFs
There's something truly powerful about female friendships – the intimacy, the joy, the romance. 404 Ink's BFFs by our very own Anahit Behrooz explores all this and more
I have always been unlucky in romance, and lucky in friendship. I almost wrote ‘unlucky in love’, but this is not true; yet the instinct exists – to pour all our experience of love into one particular vessel. The friendships in my life have been vast and structuring, framing all the important and unimportant moments in my life. There have been friends at parties and as neighbours and in hospitals and running errands and holding my hand, screaming off the edge of a sharp cliff. I don’t really think of them as family, because this implies that family is the only way to practise such strong bonds of care. They are just, in every way, crucial to my life: to the everyday and the grand future and everything in between.
They are also something that I wanted very badly, even in the extreme shyness of my childhood. There was probably an element of idealism in that desire – I grew up on the boarding school novels of British children’s literature, and I just desperately wanted to belong. But I think I understood, even in that distracted childhood state where everything is taken at face value, that there was something vital in expanding where we find intimacy and community. There is, here, a line from the Hugh Grant comedy About A Boy that I return to often. In it, a small Nicholas Hoult looks around at his tiny traditional family, his mentally unwell mother and his complete lack of support systems and has a revelation. "That’s when I realised: two people isn’t enough," he says. "You’ve got to have backup. If there are only two people, and one of you drops off the edge, you’re on your own." There were, granted, more than two of us in my very loving family, but there still existed an always looming potential for isolation – we were a small, first-generation family, had very few relatives nearby, and no community beyond ourselves. I understood this need for backup, the security it represented but also the richness; bright new threads pulled through an existing tapestry.
Yet as I have aged and as these backups have passed through the charm of youthful friendship, their security in my life has become increasingly fraught. We have a tendency in our society to assign female friendships to childhood, and once we are past that point, there exist very few public structures in which to contain or mediate them. As critical theorist Lauren Berlant explains:
"Desires for intimacy that bypass the couple or the life narrative it generates have no alternative plots, let alone few laws and stable spaces of culture in which to clarify and to cultivate them. What happens to the energy of attachment when it has no designated space? To the glances, gestures, encounters, collaborations, or fantasies that have no canon?"
Love and attachment need somewhere to go, people to be poured into, a home to spread out and thrive. I think of Fleabag, heartbroken after her mother’s funeral.
"I don’t know what to do with it," she sobs. "With all the love I have for her. I don’t know where to put it now."
"I’ll take it," her best friend tells her.
We need a wealth of people to absorb the sheer depths of our desires, and fixed spaces of culture to understand these intimacies. When these spaces are limited to only one kind of narrative, the people who live their lives according to other intimacies can become, as Berlant argues, "unimaginable, even often to themselves."
Female intimacy has always been bound up in the patriarchy, and in particular the heteronormative, monogamous structures of relation that have kept the patriarchy afloat, tying women’s interior and intimate lives to the entrenchment of male social, financial, and legal power. The horrifying chattel roots of marriage, in which women were passed between families to solidify political and economic contracts, are well known; yet marriage and the nuclear family – even in our ostensible golden age of modernity where women can keep their surnames and governments can still force them into childbirth and domesticity – continue to act in the service of maintaining patriarchal and capitalist forms of power. There is, even to my own ears, something cynical about this claim, but this is perhaps the point: the careful rehabilitation of marriage and the nuclear family in the past century has worked hard to obfuscate their continued use as tools of power.
As Tom Rasmussen explains in First Comes Love: On Marriage and Other Ways of Being Together, "[m]arriage remains a tool of the state: a way of keeping society in recognisable shape." Marriage, monogamy, and the nuclear family, Rasmussen argues, have become, at least in Western society, an abdication of responsibility on the part of the government to care for its citizens; an extension in many ways of the slow decay of the welfare state; "a system that demands we prioritise one another so that the state doesn’t have to prioritise us." The stress placed on marriage and the nuclear family, from the dominance of heterosexual stories on screen to the absence of safe and diverse sex education, is largely a means of ensuring free childcare, healthcare, and elder care from individuals in society, typically women. Romantic relationships should not necessarily rely on doing away with other forms of intimacy but, in a society where women continue to be seen as potential sources of free and unlimited domestic labour, they do. Keeping female intimacy tied to these structures is profoundly necessary for the maintenance of the patriarchal capitalist state and, by the same stroke, liberating it is profoundly radical.
How can we have a more expansive understanding of female intimacy and interiority – our capacities for community and desire and disappointment and attachment – if we resist the patriarchal modes of relation through which these have always been mediated? What kind of connections and systems of care might be allowed to thrive? How can we represent our interior lives with the depth and complexity they contain, and in doing so, see ourselves anew?
I think of Berlant, about what can be made imaginable, when my two best friends and I pass amongst each other, like furtive digital contraband, a viral AITA (Am I the Asshole?) Reddit post about three friends who live on neighbouring farms, with dogs and goats and chickens running between their enclosures. In this post, one of the women frets about her other friends’ outraged responses when she prioritises the ones she lives with. "If she’s expected to put her husband first before her friends," she asks, "then what’s wrong with me saying I need to put my friends who I essentially live with and share most of my life with?" Underlying her frustration is a crucial point about the types of relationships we are allowed to centralise; within it is also a glimpse of something now imaginable that my friends and I whisper to each other whenever we are sad, lonely, tired, or miss each other. "Just think of the chickens," we tell each other, a strange shibboleth of our yearning for attachment and togetherness. "One day that’ll be us." It likely won’t be, but there is a language of precedence now for the entanglement of our lives.
BFFs: The Radical Potential of Female Friendship by Anahit Behrooz is available from 404 Ink in March
Anahit Behrooz has curated two seasons of films on female friendship at Glasgow Film Theatre (30 Mar-6 Apr) and the Cameo, Edinburgh (17 Mar-5 Apr), full details at the GFT and Cameo websites