Of voyeurism, selfies and feminism in friendship

Trigger Warning: Discusses suicide and depression. If you need help, please reach out to Lifeline Australia on 131114 or an appropriate service provider in your home country. 

Lately, I’ve been contemplating the changing ways in which our world is shaping and presenting lady friendships (I talk lady friendships as that is my lived experience and I can’t really know what being inside a male friendship is like*). It strikes me, that there are two perhaps linked social trends that impact the way people are now conceptualising friendship:

  1. Our friendships are now performative, with people posting where they are, who they are with and what they ate. This is enabled by technology platforms. Gone are the pop-ins or the mundane activities of our grandmothers, we must be seen to be performing our friendships for the voyeuristic peeping toms of social media. We edit out the dull and mundane, or the deep and meaningful for the fun photo in a unique locale eating something rainbow coloured. #guiltyascharged
  2. Others have written how high profile celebrity female friendship is providing an alternative to the celebrity couple. The issue there, is not just that we continue to idolise a narrow group of people (which tend to drawn from a narrow homogeneous pool of the privileged, wealthy and beautiful), but also that we are conceptualising friendship as though it should be a romance, that one person will complete your needs in a deliberately exclusive club of two.

I think that the latter is powerful as it provides an alternative to the notion that women cannot be friends, that we are competitors for the love of men (pffft! What a prize). However the idolisation of celebrity, who are humans who ultimately have the same foibles and failures as the rest of us less manicured types, inevitably leads to analysis of this friendship through pop culture tropes of green eyed monster breakups (they’re jealous women!), competitors for love, frenemies and squads (which are exclusive and often replicate narrow social strata with the exception sometimes of the minority hire).

I’ve written before about the myriad benefits of friendship so I’m not going to rehash that here (health, well-being, networks etc). What I’m concerned with here are how these two trends are intersecting in changing the ways in which women (and men) relate to each other and the messages that the commodified version of friendship, where friendship is now on the market, as we ostentatiously consume for the viewing of others, and also (sometimes unwittingly) sell our data and relationships to services.

friendship 1

I think what troubles me is the commodification of something that is infinitely more complex than six dozen selfies with your #bestie would suggest. Although I think it’s positive that women are taking back friendship we should also remain critical of social trends that would reduce us to a series of check-ins and hashtags. Doing so plays into the trope that we are frivolous and without depth, and that is not the lived experience of women. (My favourite phrase lately is “that is the lived experience of women which is discounted by the patriarchy”. I offer you this for any time a mansplainer gets up your nose.)

Long held beliefs were that friendship was the domain of men, to discuss important matters and perform social rituals outside of the home, which improved ones chances of economic, social and even political success.  I read a great book lately called “Text Me When You Get Home” which observed, that historically friendship was conceived as the sole purview of men (let us be clear we mean wealthy, land-owning men), to discuss high minded ideas. It was suggested that women would have bonds of a type suitable for their role in society, within the home. They might be able to enjoy an afternoon of sewing in someone’s home, but the things they would discuss would be on the home front, rather than ideas or kinship of a grander nature. This placing of women in the less important and intelligent home domain, for those playing along at home, is not unique or surprising.

This notion of friendship is influenced by the gender and class understandings of leisure time. As women and men performed their roles in more gendered spaces with industrialisation, the typical reliance on community and the more flexible understanding of the roles of people in the community changed. With industrialisation, we moved away from conceiving our roles as with the seasons where the roles of men and women may have been more elastic, where gender was less important than the intensity and timeliness of completing the task e.g. planting and cropping. Industrialisation made our roles and the gendered domains of home and work more inelastic. For the lower classes it encouraged the gendering of workforces and industries. Class and gender, during this time solidified who had access to leisure time. Compounding this, is the segregation of domains and activities.

friendship 2

This pervasive set of ideas that informs our notions of friendship today. Compare the prototypes of women shopping, gossiping, swapping recipes, to prototypes of men, out in the world, doing stuff, building stuff we still see on advertising, the content of magazines and television shows. Stereotypes of gossiping, bitchy women, have their genesis in these ideas of women being small minded and lacking intelligence, concerned with interpersonal rather than larger issues. Furthermore, on online platforms and micro-websites/blogs, lifestyle, home, cooking and fashion is dominated by women, who are performing both their gendered roles, but also are participating in a commodification of relationships (again the woman’s game) with each blogger seeking to make their brand authentic and working hard to capture the attention (and therefore ad revenue) of readers by being “internet friends”, with chatty prose. I love a couple of these sorts of blogs and this is not a critique of them but the system that they operate in.

Beyond this, reclaiming friendship as a source of power, support and networks in a system not designed for their needs is a positive trend. Using the internet to enhance and expand these links is also beneficial. But thinking that this is some sort of “girl power” all grown up, hides a myriad problems, principally that women’s access to leisure is seriously impeded, with most women doing the majority of unpaid care and housework globally. Enhanced online presence has given many people the ability to connect, to create and to build networks for support. However, often it results in mindless scrolling and passive updating in our friends lives with little nourishment or actual connection. With the limited leisure time women have, me time is shoved at the end of the day and relegated to voyeuristic looking into others lives rather than connecting with friends over cups of tea (which I believe is where the good, intimate meaty stuff happens).

Last month, after reading a number of books and articles both about the use of data, but also the physiological impacts of technology addiction, I made the decision to deactivate one of my social media accounts. I haven’t yet deactivated the second platform, but I take regular breaks now, deleting the app off my phone for days at a time, or only installing it to upload something. There has been a few interesting observations about the quality and nature of my friendships.

Have you defriended me?

People have thought I have “defriended” them, despite not messaging or interacting with me on the platform in a really long time. Passive friendship isn’t quality friendship. It’s not enough to consume other people’s data and throw a like at it. This doesn’t provide the meaningful support or human interactions that we crave. The people I speak to regularly are the ones that I’m more likely to be vulnerable with, share the mundane with and feel a genuine sense of connectedness with. Regularity is really a level determined by the two people in that friendship and the nature of their friendship, as I’ve got friends who I hear from every few hours, to others that I’ll only hear from once every few years. There is room in life for all sorts of friends but its important that there is a common understanding of the role you have in each others lives and what you can reasonably bring to a friendship.

Your algorithm is broken dude

I don’t miss it and I realise how frustrated I had become with being constantly being the target of misshapen advertising (how hard is it to get the algorithm right, show me PhD programs not tedious advertisements for fertility treatments). I realised how much of the platform had tricked me into sharing over the years and had created a picture of me, and my friends, that could be used by advertisers. As a more conscious consumer, with increasingly strong views on where my money goes, I was becoming increasingly frustrated by this (poorly) targeted advertising.

Improved quality of life and connections

I feel less stressed, and I can return to enjoying quality time with people who do make an active effort to be in my life, or doing activities like reading or writing. Talking about wanting to, but not being able to write (or a myriad other hobbies that I find enjoyable) whilst whiling away time online was profoundly inconsistent.  Furthermore, I’m more present in my relationships, whether it be in person, on the phone or online. I am better at reaching out, being present and asking quality questions with people. #presentnotperfect

Some people have fallen off the radar

There have been people, where we’ve been in a voyeuristic loop where our only connection is online and it’s very passive. Whilst I would always want to keep in touch with people who I like, the effort of doing so must be to a certain extent, be reciprocal. I am becoming clearer who only really engaged in my online life as just another feed, or only when I reach out. Good friendship needs a certain amount of reciprocity, and unfortunately I’m now at this age where people’s priorities have shifted towards babies and home lives, and there is simply only so many times where I can extend an invitation, call or message without any reciprocity. Just a simple response, which shows a modicum of interest is now the minimum standard for friendship. I get it, that it’s hard to relate to someone who makes different choices than you, but it’s impolite to not respond or fail to do the basic levels of welfare checks. There’s excellent studies (that I’ll analyse next) on the social isolation of childfree women between 25-50 who make up only about 11% of the population. If I’m reaching out to you, it’s because I care about your welfare (not to say that I speak to every single person all the time) and I would always try and respond in a timely way, in a way that would be authentic to my relationship with that person and their interests.

friendship 3

Bringing it back to my original two observations I think that social media makes it too easy to be passive in our relationships, but also quite ostentatious in our public declarations of friendship and love, which can only serve to make us feel disconnected as “everyone else” is out there loving each other. This is further compounded by the treatment of celebrity women friendship, the lifestyles of whom, regular joelettes cannot hope to attain, without a major injection of funds and free leisure time. Our consumption of these friendships and their brands, is part of a clever branding strategy aligned with the interest to consume products and services in the hope that we would achieve the level of glamour and beauty that is part of fame. By mimicking their behaviour online, with duck faces, filters and poses we ape the branding in the hope that its glamorous sheen will make our friendships and lives more enticing and clickable. But for what end?  My observation is, that in an increasingly connected world, more and more people are lonely, and this feeling of loneliness and isolation, has been shown to be made worse by social media, which shows others highlights, whether they be famous others or your friends you wish you were with. We need to reclaim friendship and use these tools, as tools for enhancing our relationships, rather than being the defining feature of our relationships.  Like everything in life we need to be active participants rather than passive recipients.


*Note: I will make a general statement however, that studies do show that boys and young men are taught to view each other as competitors and also conceptualise friendship in relation to activities done together, whereas girls are often taught to monitor the feelings of others, and are encouraged to cooperatively play in modes emulating the women in their lives. Generally women are socialised to have skills that help them connect more deeply and process difficult emotions with others, whereas forms of masculine friendship trap men into an ideal of friendship that leaves them socially and emotionally isolated.

Anecdotally, the men I know have less friends than the women I know and it seems the quality of those conversations can be difficult around touchy subjects, as neither has been socialised towards processing emotions and embracing vulnerability.  A study by Beyond Blue found that men have more difficulty connecting  to each other at an emotional level than women, and that 25% of Australian men between 30 and 65 had noone outside their immediate family that they could rely on and that 37% of survey participants were not satisfied with the quality of their relationships, often feeling they were not emotionally connected or supported.

Deprived of the physical and mental benefits and social inclusion offered by friendship, it is one of the factors leading to the very high rates of male suicide in Australia. According to Lifeline, three times as many Australian men die by suicide than women. In 2016, there were on average 41 male deaths by suicide each week. That’s six in a day, or one every four hours. Studies note, that the high rates of Australian men who suicide is also partly linked to tightly held beliefs and attitudes about masculinity, the “Australian man” prototype and social reinforcement of the tough guy. We need a society that encourages boys and men to also be freed from gender roles and stereotypes than can harm them*


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