Lately, it feels as though I am standing on the sun, so hot and furious the energy around me burns. It’s a positive energy. I am lit by it. I catch alight and pass the spark onwards. I have been set ablaze by realising the incredible power my friendships with women give me.
This championing of sisterly bonds is new. I was one of those girls who was not ‘one of those girls’. I would say this smugly. ‘Getting along with guys better’ was a lofty compliment – awarded only by the guys of course – that differentiated me from ‘most’ girls. Girls, said with a sneer. Girls, and their associations with vanity, bitchiness, vapidness. To not like other girls was to be not like other girls.
‘Getting along with guys better’ was code for being able to take a joke, being ‘chill’ – not getting emotional like ‘most’ girls who let menstruation get to their heads, being able to banter about cool music and sports results. I could be trusted to get close to the guys without swooning, unlike those ‘other’ needy, weak girls.
Starry-eyed that I’d been given the part I’d tried so hard for, I dutifully played the role through high-school: the girl who brushed misogyny away like crumbs. I think I did this because I subconsciously knew that being friends with the guys was one route to the safety and power that my gender deprived me of. I’d look across to the girls who were friends with girls and it all seemed precarious and dangerous. Difficult. So easy to be wrong-footed and punished with gossip and exile.
It seemed a strategic error, then, that I chose to move into a women’s residential college. Ahead of my move from a dry, isolated piece of Queensland to the overwhelming size and complexity of Brisbane, I inspected the various on-campus options. I was determined to live co-ed of course, I didn’t even get along with girls. But then I smelt the co-ed colleges – an unforgettable tang of stale sweat, unwashed clothes, cheap deodorant and stale beer – and compared the state of the bathrooms to those in the women’s college. It appeared that, for the sake of my comfort, I would have to start getting along with girls better.
By the time I’d finished at university, I’d forgotten about the infantile and simplistic divisions created by superficial assumptions of gender. I’d spent three years holed up in an incredible environment of women who nurtured and celebrated one another. I had moved to a new city, made friends with new people, built a wonderful, gender-diverse friendship group, but secretly still thought guys were a little less complicated than girls.
The truth hit me when I was watching Big Little Lies (the television drama adapted from Australian author Liane Moriaty’s book of the same name, with an incredible cast led by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, where a death at a primary school trivia night ignites rumour and suspicion amongst a glittering yet competitive social set). I happened upon the first episode and stayed to roll my eyes at another depiction of the lengths to which women will apparently go to compete (secretly enjoying the all too familiar biting social commentary we will provide on one another). Well, that’s what I thought the show was about. I think it’s spoiler-safe to say I was incredibly wrong. The murder becomes a side show for the exploration of each woman’s relationship with themselves, with each other and with the men – portrayed as pale, petty or predatory – who encircle them. By the end of the series, I realised that the apparent pettiness of women (which I knew was a side-effect of the stupid expectations and contradictions of a patriarchal society) by which we are so often distracted was no match for the gravity and resilience of the bond between women.
From this moment of awakening, examples of these bonds exploded in all around me. I found myself drunkenly clutching two friends in my hallway, red wine slipping from my hand, as we each affirmed our gratitude for one another and revealed we didn’t know how we could survive without each other’s support. I knew I felt nothing but love for their strength, beauty and talent. I quieted with awe when a friend asked me for help of the most serious kind, so grateful for her vulnerability, honesty, trust and bravery. So grateful for her. I cradled a sobbing friend to my heart knowing I was barely scratching the debt I owed to her for the same support. I blossomed with pride when I nervously sketched out a dream to a friend who listened with compassion and encouragement and incredibly intelligent advice, again thinking, wow – the women around me are amazing.
The friends who celebrate my achievements as though they were their own. Who see me and believe in me more than I can myself. I look around and saw that the foundations of my happiness and my strength are my female friendships.
I also think of the automatic embrace women will provide a female stranger, so bonded by our shared but unspoken stories of survival, protecting our bodies, dealing with being a freaking woman.
Women’s bathrooms become back stage dressing rooms where we let the costumes and makeup slip, revealing the actor behind the character. We cease coolly comparing ourselves in front of scanning male eyes. Instead, we create a sanctity of warmth and protection. I know from so many experiences the instant help that will be offered if you meekly ask strangers in a ladies’ bathroom for a tampon (given with an understanding and sympathetic smile), help with a tricky item of clothing, help getting away from a creepy guy, help getting over a humiliation, help getting home safely. I’ve asked for it as often as I’ve given it.
I realise that what seemed difficult when I was a teenager was precisely what could become complexity and depth by the time we became adults. I see now that groups of women vibrate an incredible power that was terrifying in its promise – something realised by men through history who have feared the spells or gossip (which is worse?) that these women could cast upon them.
I thought I was rejecting something superficial when I said I got along with guys better, but in fact I was just blindly following the tropes set up for me, tropes designed to break down our power by teaching us to distrust, compete and judge.
And so it is now that, with the wisdom gleaned from experience and awareness, I am finding my women. Quietly, stealthily. A resistance group reforming ancient connections that we abandoned when we began to twist ourselves into something men were comfortable with. In these spaces we create, we spark the most wonderful electricity. I’ve stopped defining myself as a woman in terms of how I am seen by men. I’m definitely not that ‘cool girl’ anymore who gets along with guys better. And because of it, I’ve found my power: my warrior women.
Image: Ben White
Naomi Barnbaum is a Canberra-based public servant, having fled more humid climes in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and International Relations (First Class Honours) from the University of Queensland. Naomi’s writing has appeared in Feminartsy, and she musters her musings on www.naomibarnbaum.com. Outside of writing, Naomi loves dogs, books, music (both as performer and spectator), and truly terrible television.