By Laura Matheson
On the surface ‘Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close’ by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman isn’t an explicitly feminist text. It doesn’t have the overt feminist lens of ‘Call Your Girlfriend’; Sow and Friedman’s podcast about pop culture and politics. It also has less of a female-focus than ‘Period’, an essay collection about menstruation that both Friedman and Sow contributed to. But under the guise of examining their own relationship, ‘Big Friendship’ strikes feminist gold examining how society undervalues platonic relationships, specifically between women, and encourages women to knock each other down.
Authors Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow met at a ‘Gossip Girl’ viewing party in 2009 and quickly fell head-over-heels in friendship. After a strong initial bond that blossomed into a tight friendship while living in the same city, Sow and Friedman found themselves living on opposite coasts of the US. In their weekly-ish chats they’d talk about current events, their own lives and whatever they each wanted to bring to the agenda; yes, their informal catch-ups had a list of stuff to cover. I’m totally inspired to introduce agendas for my own tete-tetes! These conversations led them to launch ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ in 2014; which started as a weekly, sometimes wine-filled, catch-up between the two of them which was recorded and edited into podcast-form.
‘Call Your Girlfriend’ became a great success. They hosted a couple of deliriously joyful Desert Ladies group vacations. Their Shine Theory concept took off (see chapter four of ‘Big Friendship’). And, as revealed in the prologue of the book, their own friendship went out of whack.
As business partners with a very public friendship, there was pressure to maintain an outwardly “perfect” version of their relationship. Failing at the friendship would mean not only giving up valued emotional support and shaking up their overlapping friend circles, but also losing a key part of the ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ brand and potentially dissolving a successful business partnership.
‘Big Friendship’ follows Friedman and Sow defining their own relationship, contextualising it in a broader societal view, actively choosing to invest in their friendship, and encouraging readers to do the same.
The heart of the matter
The narrative switches between either Sow or Friedman speaking in the third person, a collective “we” that includes both authors, and input from experts across many fields including communication, sociology and history. The shift can be jarring, and the third person bits a little contrived, but it’s a worthwhile technique to get Friedman and Sow’s individual perspectives. Additionally, the expert insights are frequently fascinating, especially given the rarity of academic study on friendships and the overall lack of air time given to the nitty-gritty of non-romantic, non-familial relationships.
One of my favourite inputs is journalist Lydia Denwork, who cites a study describing the friendweb of a Virginia town back in 1938 which is perhaps the first mapping of a social network. It revealed the mass of inconsistencies in how people define their friendships and the unevenness that can exist between parties in a relationship. It was a total lightbulb moment for me: “just because two people are connected does not mean that they view their connection the same way”. While it’s quite normal to have a “Where is this relationship going?” talk with a romantic partner, it’s nearly unheard of for friends to define their relationships and explicitly outline their expectations of what they mean to each other.
Sow and Friedman point out that the interconnectedness of platonic relationships is both relative and prone to anxieties about worlds colliding when different groups of friends meet. These friendwebs can be a source of tension and competition or they can offer amazing support if we respect the complexity of these friendship networks and resist distilling female friendships into trite “#SquadGoals”. This is not a ‘rah rah’ narrative about besties, it’s a call for female friends everywhere to acknowledge the messiness of their relationships and to give these connections the weight they deserve.
Along the way, Friedman and Sow dip into race, class, immigration background, and gender in their own personal experiences and how they impact their shared connection. The apex comes in “The Trapdoor” chapter, which details the racial dynamics of a birthday party. Sow draws attention to the challenges black friends face calling out their white counterparts and introduces the concept of interracial intimacy.
In relating their own not-perfectly-resolved account of the fall-out from an all-white guest list that left Sow wondering if she really knew Friedman, the pair normalises having these uncomfortable conversations. Their openness highlights how lack of acknowledgement, institutionalised indifference, and white privilege come together to create paranoia and exhaustion within a friendship. The account of the “stretch” required to bridge their individual realities, contrasting childhoods from Sow’s Nigerian-based Guinean family to Friedman’s nearly entirely white American hometown, and ongoing emotional labour is a deeply personal story with far broader meaning.
The TL;DR version
Does ‘Big Friendship’ have the answers to all your platonic relationship queries?
Is it a worthwhile read about the interplay between the two authors and how their chosen families impact their lives? Do the authors tackle feminism, racism, and classism as well as deliver a few laughs? Will it encourage you to look deeper at the dynamics of your own friendships? Might it prompt you to re-evaluate how much or how little effort you put into platonic relationships? And will you want to call your BFF or a friend-that-got-away in the midst of reading it?
That’s a big yes to all the above!