What the VMAs Taught Us About Female Friendship
On Sunday night, Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” a song about friends-turned-enemies, won Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards. The video features a parade of female celebrities (Lena Dunham, Karlie Kloss, Ellen Pompeo, Jessica Alba, Cindy Crawford, Cara Delevingne) that highlights Swift’s “squad,” her group of female friends she has been promoting on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #squad, #squadgoals, and #girlsquad. Swift isn’t the only one using these hashtags. squad hashtags have become ubiquitous (The Atlantic declared it “The Summer of the #Squad”) in a spate of posts that revel in the camaraderie and solidarity of women.
Women’s coteries aren’t new, of course, though they have gained greater visibility than ever before. According to Literature professors Albrecht Classen and Marilyn Sandidge in “Friendship in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age,” female friendship was mostly omitted from history and only really began to emerge in communities of nuns in the twelfth century. By the modern period, female friendships became a fixture in history and literature, with important depictions by authors like Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters. For Austen and her contemporaries, the ultimate impregnability of female friendship stands in the face of men, whom women depended on financially and socially. And it is a mark of strength when women’s friendships can withstand the pressures of marriage and domestic life. Austen says this outright in “Northanger Abbey” when she writes that “Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love,” pitting romance and friendship against one another.
In Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,” an exploration of the social and sexual lives of eight Vassar graduates, the threat to female friendship is the same – alluring men, who offer these searching young women domestic stability. McCarthy’s novel launched a whole culture of modern-day female bonds and became the basis for the hit TV show “Sex and the City,” whose focus was the indelibility of female friendship in the face of career goals, children, and especially men.
The contemporary girl squad also faces a threat, but it’s not from men. As Swift’s “Bad Blood” makes clear, the threat to female friendship is women themselves, who tear each other down at the drop of a hat. In the music video for the hit song, which features a host of famous women with alternately macho and sexist super-hero names (Catastrophe, Headmistress, Mother Chucker, Cut-Throat), Catastrophe and Arsyn begin by fighting blindfolded business-suit clad men in an ultra-corporate office space. Catastrophe (played by Swift) and Arsyn (played by Selena Gomez) successfully beat the men, but just as they’ve won, Arsyn turns on Catastrophe, and with one well-placed kick pushes her out the window of a skyscraper to claim her own victory. It is then that Catastrophe is joined by her girl squad to take revenge against Arsyn and her own squad. What begins as a fight for female friendship in defiance of obstructive, and here violent, men is transformed into the fight for female friendship against the real threat of the moment, female aggression.
So, the girl squad is not just a celebration of women backing women, but a reaction to female-to-female hatred, which stands in the backdrop. This is why although #girlsquad has gained currency, it is only in proportion to the increase in put-downs and the ultimate insult of “throwing shade.” In the weeks leading up to the MTV Video Music Awards, the show’s host, pop star Miley Cyrus, argued over mainstream media with rapper Nicki Minaj. Minaj paid it back ten fold, when she finished her acceptance speech at the VMAs saying, “And now…back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me in the press. Miley, what’s good?”
Swift, for her part, has attempted to quell these female feuds, in which she is often at the center. Over the last year, her squabbles with Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj have taken place publicly over Twitter. When Minaj intimated that her video for “Anaconda” was neglected because of videos like Swift’s “Shake It Off,” which “celebrates women with very slim bodies,” Swift lashed back with a tweet meant to replace female-to-female hatred with its proper predecessor, female-to-male hatred. “@NICKIMINAJ I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.”
But on Sunday night, Swift’s sincere attempts went out the window. Minaj and Cyrus feuded and “Bad Blood” won, which was a win not only for female friendship but also for the destructive female feuds it responds to.