Cinema Femme will be bringing you essays written by women and non-binary people about films that are cult classics and how they are impacting our world today. Today we feature an essay by contributor Robyn Bacon (The Light Leaks, Film Daze).
For women, close female friendships are usually the first type of relationship — outside of familial ones — that create a foundation in which strong values and distinct behaviour of mutual respect, trust, love, and intimacy are learned and expressed. These values are expressed through contemporary female buddy films and often illude to varying degrees of ambiguous queerness that strengthen the story and friendship between the two female protagonists. Some of these films in recent years include “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” (2021), “Booksmart” (2019), “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” (1997), and “Thelma & Louise” (1991). These buddy films explore how female friendship challenges heteronormative conventions of traditional platonic friendships between women. In film and television women are often taught to value their romantic relationships over their friendships with women and at times encouraged to isolate themselves from the women in their life to create extensive space for romantic relationships with men. These four female buddy films inherently challenge this idea by having not one, but two female leads whose platonic partnership and co-dependency are motivated by each other’s friendship instead of driven by the attention or intentions of a male character.
These female duos make their motivations clear as they mutually decide to embark on a life changing adventure together. In “”Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” Barb and Star travel to the fictional Florida vacation spot Vista Del Mar and treat themselves to their first ever vacation away from their midwestern hometown of Soft Rock, Nebraska (also fictional). In “Booksmart” high-achieving best friends Amy and Molly decide to attend their very first and last house party before graduating high school. “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” follows blonde besties Romy and Michele who accept an invitation to their ten-year high school reunion with the goal of impressing their former classmates. In “Thelma & Louise” thick as thieves Thelma and Louise embark on a wild weekend road trip to escape their oppressive domestic responsibilities and dysfunctional home lives. These women go outside of their comfort zones to experience new life voyages together much like romantic couples would.
Further subtextual evidence in the dialogue suggests ambiguous queerness in the relationship between these female duos that fluctuates on a spectrum between platonic and romantic. In “Barb and Star”, Barb and Star meet a handsome man named Edgar at a hotel bar at their resort in Vista Del Mar. The three spark up a conversation and collectively drink a large alcoholic beverage called the Buried Treasure — a drink that has three mystery pills at the bottom of the glass. The following morning the three wake up sandwiched together in bed, Star on the bottom, Edgar in the middle, and Barb on top. Soon it becomes clear that the group engaged in a sexual threesome the night before. After Edgar leaves Barb and Star’s shared hotel room, Barb asks…”Did we all?” to which Star replies “Yes, a lot of times”. Both admit to their bodies hurting after engaging in many zany sexual positions. Although to more comedic effect, it’s apparent that Barb and Star do not object to involving themselves in communally intimate situations together.
In a similar comedic nature “Booksmart” characters Amy and Molly have an openly affectionate and committed relationship that is indicative of high-achieving best gal pals who spend nearly every high school class together. Amy is an out lesbian while Molly whom is heterosexual is excessively enthusiastic and involved in Amy’s love and sex life. While getting ready for a party at Amy’s house, Molly and Amy enter the topic of masturbation. Molly’s nosiness eventually leads Amy to admit how she masturbates — by using a stuffed panda toy from her childhood bedroom. Molly is extremely amused by this embarrassing admission from Amy, but calmly reassures her about their newly shared secret: “It’s exhilarating. I thought I knew everything about you. I think it’s healthy for a relationship to have secrets, and now we have one”. In the film, Amy’s parents Doug and Charmaine are convinced that Amy is hiding a secret love affair with Molly due to the nature of their close friendship. While Amy finds this exceptionally awkward, Molly gets a kick out of teasing Amy and pretends that the two are amid a secret romantic relationship. While Molly does not physically insert herself in Amy’s love life, she is equally as socially and emotionally invested. This is most emphasized in one of the most awkwardly funny and scenes in which Molly encourages Amy to watch lesbian pornography with her in their taxi on the way to the party. Molly’s motivation is to help educate and build Amy’s confidence before her first potential lesbian sexual experience. In a hilarious mishap, Molly takes what she thinks is a phone charger and plugs her cell phone in, only to quickly realize that it is the AUX chord. The sounds of squelching sex noises fill the taxicab until Molly immediately turns off her phone frozen with paralyzing mortification. These ambiguously queer and highly comedic scenes demonstrate Molly and Amy’s mutual obsession, fierce commitment, and fervent involvement with each other’s social lives and post-secondary futures that elapses conventional companionship.
Although not as overly enthusiastic as Amy and Molly, Romy White and Michele Weinberger have been roommates living in Los Angeles for ten years in “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion”. At the beginning of the film the two visit their local dance club hoping to meet eligible bachelors. When they look around and realize there are no attractive men at the club, they decide to dance together anyway. As the two dance Romy says: “Swear to God, sometimes I wish I were a lesbian”. Michele responds: “Do you wanna try to have sex some time, just to see if we are?” Michele denies her request then thinks on it again before answering “But if we’re not married by the time we’re thirty, ask me again”. To which Michele responds “Okay”. Although the two are not a couple, they are extremely co-dependent on one another both socially and economically. They have been sharing a living space for nearly a decade and attend nearly every social event together. When the two decide to attend their ten-year reunion at Sagebrush High School in Tucson, Arizona as a unit. However, just before the reunion the two get into a fight and decide to attend separately leaving their classmates to immediately wonder and worry why Romy and Michele are not together. Romy and Michele’s identities are socially bound by their peers and by each other — a nearly inseparable unit.
Another inseparable unit and arguably the most iconic duo Thelma and Louise examines ideas of gender roles and pushes the boundaries of how far friends will go to protect each other from dangerous men and patriarchal institutions. “Thelma & Louise” begins with Thelma calling Louise at the diner Louise waitresses at. When a coworker picks up the phone and tries to hit on Thelma, Louise takes the phone back and answers: “Not this weekend sweetie, she’s runnin’ away with me”. Thelma asks Louise questions regarding the logistics and details of their upcoming road trip, and the banter between the two ladies mimics the subtle flirtatious energy of a first date. In the film Thelma attracts the attention of many men, while Louise remains extremely protective — almost possessive — of Thelma during these encounters. Louise’s protectiveness illudes to behaviour associated with gender roles in heteronormative relationships namely a husband being overly protective of his wife.
This embodiment of gender roles is linked visually through Thelma & Louise’s fashion — Thelma wearing conventionally feminine outfits and Louise donning masculine attire. At the beginning of their road trip Thelma wears a frilly white dress that signifies innocence and naivety whilst Thelma wears jeans and cowboy boots that illude to traditional male clothes in the Southern United States. By the end of the film, Thelma’s clothes mirror Louise’s as both women sport ripped up tank tops, dirty jeans, cowboy boots, bandanas, and trucker hats. An intrinsic transition from feminine to masculine and from dames to outlaws. The development from feminine to masculine attire supports the idea of an ambiguousness queerness existing between Thelma and Louise.
Furthermore, their ambiguous queerness is arguably the most explicit in one of the most famous endings in film history. After Louise shoots and kills a man who tried to sexually assault Thelma at roadside bar, the two become fugitives and are chased by a dozen police vehicles and a helicopter to the edge of the Grand Canyon where Thelma urges Louise to “keep going” referring to the cliff ahead. In a momentously emotional and passionate moment, Louise grabs Thelma’s face and kisses her. The two allies speed ahead holding each other’s hand as their green Thunderbird flies into the abyss of the Grand Canyon and the film fades to white. “Thelma & Louise” gives literal meaning to the term “ride or die” in any relationship. “Thelma & Louise” is so much of a cult classic that female characters in film and television often reference the film when describing their friendship with another woman saying things like: “She’s the Thelma to my Louise”. Undoubtedly, Thelma and Louise pose powerful and dramatic ethical questions about how far one would go to protect their friend — or in Thelma and Louise’s case their soulmate.
These female buddy films embrace an enigmatic queer sensibility and challenge conventional heteronormative notions about love, affection, and commitment in platonic female friendships in Hollywood cinema. These four films collectively explore issues like stereotypes about middle-aged women, power dynamics, social class, gender roles, and patriarchal institutions within the framework of female friendship. Ultimately, female buddy films demonstrate the vital importance friendships have in the healthy social, emotional, and psychological fulfillment of women. Female buddy films remind women like me that female friendships are my sustaining life force and are equally important to romantic relationships — and in some cases even more so. In fact, they remind me that I do not need a man to validate or help me tell my own story because I can do that all by myself — or with a best friend by my side.