by Scott Shields
Buddy stories date back to the beginning of literature, and they are a fantastic vehicle for writers to display their characters’ personalities. Whether it is Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Frodo and Sam, Butch Cassidy and Sundance, or “The Dude” Lebowski and Walter Sobchak, countless male examples abound in all story genres. Yet when looking for female versions of the classic buddy story archetype, the list becomes substantially shorter and the characters’ roles are often different than those of their male counterparts.
The first thing to consider is the moniker, “buddy story.” The term “buddy” typically carries male connotations, yet there is really no other word in English to describe close female friendships in this way. Women often use words like “girlfriend” or “sister” in this way, but these words are not exclusive to describing friendships, and they can carry very different connotations in other contexts. In recent years, the abbreviation “BFF” (Best Friends Forever) has come into vogue, and this seems to be used primarily by females. Still, no one currently talks about experiencing a “BFF story” in print or on film. So for lack of a better term, I will stick with “buddy story” in describing tales involving two female characters on a fictional journey.
Very often, female buddies appear in comic roles. Mistresses Ford and Page from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor set the precedent for female friends who get themselves in and out of trouble together for the sake of a good laugh. These character types would later appear as Lucy and Ethel in the 1950s and two decades later as Laverne and Shirley.
What is interesting here is the roles these female comics play compared to their male counterparts. In comic roles, the male buddies usually have two roles: the straight man and the fool. The fool is often brunt of the straight man’s jokes or the victim of other characters’ actions. There is also a hierarchical structure to these relationships; one of the guys is clearly in charge, whereas the other follows orders.
This dichotomy of roles seldom exists to this extent in female buddy stories. Instead, the women are either equal in their foolishness or they are the normal “everywoman” characters trying to overcome the foolishness of those around them (more often the idiotic men around them). Does this suggest that audiences are uncomfortable with the notion of witnessing a woman being victimized in this way or being made to look foolish? Or is it simply easier or more natural to cheer on female underdogs as they navigate a foolish and oppressive society together as equals (perhaps a more realistic scenario for women, historically speaking)?
Sometimes female comic roles dabble in the dramatic sphere and depict the various life stages of women. For example, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell portray good friends who navigate the minefields of men and romance together in the comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams explore teenage friendship in the history-spoofing film Dick. Likewise, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion features two lifelong friends who have supported each other through the travails of adolescence and adulthood. Cultural differences are bridged in the comedy-drama Bend It Like Beckham, as are the realities of domestic abuse in Fried Green Tomatoes.
Law enforcement, a long-standing platform for male buddy stories, has its feminine counterparts as well. The television series Cagney and Lacey broke new ground in its portrayal of women detectives, and in the comedy The Heat, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy play a female odd couple waging a battle against crime. In this female cop version of The Odd Couple, Bullock’s character plays the straight role while McCarthy plays the uncouth fool.
When surveying women’s roles in dramatic films, none conjure the female buddy archetype better than Thelma and Louise. In a picaresque story reminiscent of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (a story that mirrors many elements of Twain’s novel), two friends are brought closer together as they race west while dodging the law. While they are on the highway, life is good. But with every stop along the way, they find themselves getting deeper into trouble until they run out of road and there is nowhere for them to go but down. Truly, they are BFFs to the end (or at least to the end of their steep downward journey).
The buddy story archetype has long been rich ground for writers, particularly where male characters are concerned. Nevertheless, the list of female examples is rather sparse, comparatively speaking. In thinking about the roles that women have in these narratives, it is striking how many films depict the female buddy archetype not so much in pairs—as is most common when the characters are male—but rather as an ensemble of female characters. Is this because close female friendships do not exist in pairs very often in real life, or are there other factors at play? Perhaps this will be the topic I explore in my next article.