The power of—and power in—female friendships is making headlines of late due in part to another kind of power: the power of celebrity. There’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, Oprah and Gail and even Taylor Swift’s Girl Squad. Supportive, mutually respectful and collaborative, these friendships are a refreshing and welcome rebuke to the long held stereotype that women and girls are in constant competition and jockeying for power and attention at one another’s expense.
The absence of toxic competition, it turns out, is one of the hallmarks of power friendships. “In healthy power duos, each partner has the ability to fully embrace and stand in her benevolent power without slipping into exploitative power (borne from insecurity) when the going gets tough,” explains Sioux Messinger, CEO of executive training and coaching firm Cream of the Crop Leaders. “These women are mature, self-aware and are established enough in their own benevolent power that they have the capacity to truly champion one another, and can then enjoy the transformative experience of a mutually-supportive relationship,” she says.
Psychotherapist and relationship expert Stacy Kaiser agrees. “Instead of breaking each other down so that either one or both end up weak, these women support and nurture one another so that they can both be strong. This type of friendship is about the greater good for all and not just the good for one.”
Focus on friendship
While some reality shows continue to revel in cattiness, pettiness and other negative interpretations of female relationships, the increased focus on celebrating positive power friendships reflects “a broader cultural conversation and changes already brewing in society,” says Christopher Ferguson, Associate Professor of Psychology at Stetson University (Florida) who studies the influence of media on culture. “I think media is responding to [those changes],” he says, adding “We see this trend even in action films where more women are starring in lead roles and commanding the screen. It’s a breaking of this damsel in distress trope that’s been more common in the past.” From damsels in distress to Katniss Everdeen is a significant change that defies the earlier stereotypes.
“Stereotypes thrive off repetition and lack of challenges,” says Ferguson. “So the more we present counter examples and call out the stereotypes, the more we can facilitate change.” Hearing an icon like Tina Fey proclaim that Amy Poehler is an amazing friend and collaborator, that they treat each other with respect and champion each other’s success is encouraging and inspiring and helps move society in a positive direction.
Power friendships, social media and influencers
Companies have already discovered the power of social media “influencers” to move product, be it makeup, clothes or video games in a “positive” direction. That same power can be used to motivate girls to rethink their social interactions and ultimately to create their own power friendships. On December 28, 2015 Canadian YouTube star Lilly Singh posted a video announcing the launch of the #GirlLove Challenge to combat what Singh describes as an epidemic of “girl on girl hate.” Singh asks her 6 million plus female viewers to post a message of support or to compliment a girl or woman they admire on social media. “Together we can show the world how lame girl-on-girl hate is and how awesome it is to support one another and build each other up.” As of January 8, 2016, the video has received over 1,230,000 views. By modelling and encouraging kindness and respect, Singh may have paved a path to future power friendships.
Stress and sisterhood
Because there are so many areas of life where women are in the one down position to men, it becomes extremely important for women to support one another, says Stacy Kaiser. Aside from the societal benefits, “women who work well together and who support each other are more successful in reaching their goals.” For women, having friends also reduces stress. In a 2002 study, researchers described gender differences in stress response. Men often responded to stress-induced “fight-or-flight” by fleeing. Women’s responses to stress “are more marked by a pattern of ‘tend and befriend,’” a response influenced by the release of a higher dose of oxytocin, a stress-buffering hormone that dampens the psychological effects of stress. Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process. In other words, friends are the antidote to stress and distress.
The power in—and power of—female friendships is far reaching. “I’m thrilled to see the female friendship finally getting positive media exposure — and I strongly believe that these kinds of role models are essential to women’s progress as collaborators…in the workplace,” says Nancy A. Shenker, Founder & CEO of marketing and digital strategy firm.
At a TED Talk in May of 2015, role model and icon Jane Fonda described her close friendship with Lily Tomlin and the importance of her female friends. “I don’t know what I would do without my women friends,” she said. “They make me stronger, smarter, braver.”
A powerful statement about the power of friendship.