As a survivor (or celebrator, or however you want to see it) of an all women’s education, I spent a lot of years getting really close to my female friends and thinking nothing of it. I mean physically close: There was a certain level of full-body contact that was a standard part of my social life.
I’m not talking about some girly stereotype of underwear-clad girls having pillow fights and making cuddle puddles and engaging in triple kisses, though. The closeness I’m talking about is the sort of sometimes-gross non-sexual intimacy that shows you really care. I’m thinking less of a prelude to girl-on-girl porn than of monkeys engaged in social grooming. And two new shows — MTV’s Faking It and USA’s Playing House — have been surprisingly successful at capturing this side of female friendships.
MTV’s latest scripted comedy, Faking It, has a premise that sounds like the lyrics of “I Kissed a Girl” were used to script a sitcom. Actually, though, it’s clever enough to transcend the cheesy fantasies of teenage boys. For those not watching, Amy and Karma are longtime best friends who feel far too invisible at their laughably ultraprogressive high school (here the apparent queen bees live at the bottom of the food chain). When mistaken for a lesbian couple, they decide to pretend it’s true. Karma sees it as an opportunity to seduce her male crush; Amy uses the gaffe as an opportunity to piss off her conservative mom (and also explore her sexuality). Both are committed to seeing the farce through.
What’s great about the female pals of Faking It isn’t that they kiss — though for plot purposes, they do — it’s that they check each other for eye boogers the morning after sleepovers. They’re used to being emotionally and physically close in such an unsexy way that mistaking their relationship for a long-term romantic one is almost believable. Amy has a peanut allergy, so Karma hasn’t eaten peanut butter in ten years. They share beds, hook arms, and, while it hasn’t been a plot point yet, probably have synced-up period tracker apps.
Playing House, which premiered earlier this month on USA, is like the slapstick grown-up counterpart to Amy and Karma’s friendship. It follows Maggie and Emma, best friends who decide to live together and raise Maggie’s soon-to-be-born child after a series of unexpected events (i.e., an internet-porn-addicted husband and a career meltdown). Although it takes a somewhat more mature form, their relationship has the same sort of physical familiarity: They pee in front of each other, share a blanket on the couch, and even after growing up and living apart, they’re still close enough to experience a pregnancy and child-rearing together — both of which require a no-fear level of comfort with another person’s body and the fluids it makes.
This wonderful sort of nonsexual intimacy is exactly what Lena Dunham showcased in the very first episode of Girls: Hannah is shown eating a cupcake in the bathtub while Marnie looks on, chatting. People were shocked — first, because who takes a baked good near bathwater, but also because there was Lena Dunham’s nudity on full display in front of her friend. Was it totally realistic? Not necessarily — but by presenting a somewhat extreme version of women dealing with each others’ bodies in a casual, affectionate way, Dunham suggested a corrective to the hypersexualized, male-gaze-filtered female bodies on display so many other places. Hannah in the bathtub with the cupcake made clear that in the universe of girl friendships, physical intimacy isn’t necessarily about competition or what boys will think.
In both Faking It and Playing House, men are fairly removed from the central action. Karma’s crush is a stereotype (the sexy high school pickup artist who is into girl-on-girl porn) while Maggie’s husband is a two-dimensional, mostly absent putz. Instead, the physical stuff and affection represent the idea of unconditional friendship — being able to be gross and weird and smack your friend on the ass instead of feeling the pressure to be cute or normal. And who would want it any other way? Because, quite honestly, if you’ve got a friend that can hang out during Sunday No Pants Movie Time, you’ve got a friend for life.