Green Women & Their Relationships
An Essay By Sarah Adler
The green of her skin was the kind to suggest that she perhaps had eaten something spoiled for lunch. Her pinched up lips insinuated it as well; perhaps behind that porpoise-like pout was a woman struggling desperately with nausea.
Yet, as I traversed the elaborately cluttered rooms of Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, entranced in a glamorous array of pink-bellied Renoirs and googly-eyed Modiglianis, I found that he had painted nearly every on of his woman in this Wicked Witch tint. Were all the women in Cezanne’s paintings suffering from acute food poisoning? If so, then why they participating in the local forest’s communal bathing hour? Isn't’ food poisoning antithetical to leisurely communal nakedness?
Despite a dip into the online well of knowledge, my color query remained unanswered . In defeat, I asked myself to think about the green women in my own life. Green like plants; the women in my life blooming into our world’s thinkers and creatives. Green like rebirth; the women I had seen both shamelessly and boldly reinvent themselves with the passing of our younger years. But mostly, I thought of dark green, like the dark green of venomous jealousy that tainted many of my adolescent female friendships.
Until my understanding of relationships matured in this precarious stage of adulthood in which I now inhabit, I felt that female friendships would always be tinged in an insidious green nausea. Partly to blame for this is the way cis-women are socialized – catapulted from womb into a Hunger Games of beauty, intelligence, and athleticism, we are taught we inhabit an amorphous apple orchard in which the ripening of one friend inherently means the rotting of our own sweetness. Like indistinguishable amoebas, we women are taught both in reality and on television that other’s blossoming comes at the cost of our own.
Yet, there have been two accounts of female friendship in recent cinema that I believe have truly subverted this detrimental paradigm: Terence Davies’ biopic A Quiet Passion – which explores the life of poet Emily Dickinson, as well as Issa Rae’s outstanding television series showcasing a powerful nearly all-Black cast, Insecure. In each, female friendship is not perfect: the main characters are twisted up in a cacophony of disagreements and friendship discontent, but at the centerfold of each a truly radical concept throbs: female friendship can, and should be, inherently benevolent. Other women are not our destruction; they are our scaffolding.
In A Quiet Passion, Emily Dickinson (played by Cynthia Nixon, a member of a classic girl team) is delighted by the arrival of her brother’s fiancee. She marvels at the notion of having “another sister” – and when this fiancee-cum-wife later reveals that perhaps she doesn’t like Dickinson’s brother, that the sex is bearable but not enjoyable, Dickinson soothes her with the conciliatory promise that although she may have“gained” a husband, she really was gifted with the two female confidantes that are her sister-in-laws. While Dickinson’s sister-in-law is perhaps expressing queerness in whatever lexicon she can muster, Dickinson consoles her with the fortitude of platonic female companionship. To me, this illuminates the ways in which, in an era of complete suppression of queerness, female friendship once served as a bolster and reprieve.
Similarly, Dickinson spurns the advances of most men and clings to a friendship with a spunky Vryling Buffam. She openly marvels at her wit and honesty, begging Buffam to avoid marriage so that their friendship never has to end. Although for some this is a nod to Dickinson’s potential homosexuality (and it very well might be), I felt constantly awed by the openness in which Dickinson admired another woman.
To me, Issa Rae’s Insecure also perfectly pinnaclizes female friendship. Throughout its brilliant two seasons (with a promising season coming in August), Issa flip flops like a recently caught fish on a seaman’s boat between men. Yet, heartbreak is always more on the verge when she’s fighting with her best friend Molly. Two of my favorite moments from the show come from places in which their relationship supersedes that of theirs with men: in the first episode, Issa impulsively breaks up with her boyfriend, setting off a domino effect that includes a messy hookup with another man and also accidentally insulting Molly. The episode refuses to end though with a classic marriage plot, which would be Issa coming to terms with either men. Instead, she stands at the door of her true love, Molly, holding up flaming hot Cheetos and dip as sacrificial friendship totems, asking, “Bitch, you still mad?”
The second of my favorite moments occurs in the second season, when Issa and Molly engage in what I believe is a ritual of many female friendships: concocting a covert plan to get intel on an ex. Although this may seem like yet another case in which women devote their full attention to men, I love how dedicated and invested each are in each other’s relationships. The potentiality of being in one doesn’t threaten the friendship of Issa and Molly; rather, the two scheme up ways for each other’s happiness. There’s none of that Blair/Serena fighting that happens when one is with a boy, where just the looming threat of a male can cause female friendship to come crashing down in blustering parade of lies and insults.
I could give several other examples of positive female friendship portrayals in the media – like HBO’s limited series Big Little Lies, of whose intense and controversial female friendship I could write a whole other article –but, what I want to emphasize is that there aren’t many shows or movies like this . Very few hierarchize female friendship and portray female friendship in both its most stunningly supportive as well as depressingly difficult moments. And honestly, until that happens, I think we will all remain just as green as Cezanne’s women. And who wants to be painted by a man?