Reflections on Gendered Friendships

Late in high school, I was known for being friends with almost exclusively boys. Because of this, my friends and classmates dubbed me “ferda,” or “for the boys.” There was hardly any malice in this term, but beneath it was a certain element of tension that I couldn’t decode: resentment, jealousy, or disdain… I wasn’t sure. 

Our confinement within a boarding school campus in some ways hardened gendered divides; dormitories and athletic teams, which dominated daily commitments, were almost completely divided into girls and boys (with hardly any accommodations in place for non-binary students). Even things like senior class presidents were divided, though implicitly, into two girls and two boys rather than simply four students.

Within this somewhat split environment I sometimes put myself on a pedestal for breaking the unspoken rule that girls should be friends primarily with girls, and boys with boys. I bought into the retrospectively reductive notion that I was “not like other girls” because I crossed the divide into the vastly disparate and enigmatic territory that was the world of boys and their friendship. 

I also felt special, being the odd one out in my friend group. Amidst boys who were my close friends, I usually appreciated being singled out when we made jokes or discussed arbitrary subjects; I enjoyed having an extra sprinkle of attention for being the only girl in the group. Being a girl meant I tended to—or appeared to—know more about the other gender’s perspective, and that my experiences and even opinions could diverge wholly from theirs in a noteworthy way.

Now a year into college, where the majority of my close friends are instead girls, I’ve begun to take note of the differences—expected and unexpected—between girl-to-girl and girl-to-boy friendships. In my experience the two relationships can seriously differ, even if these distinctions play into a restrictively heteronormative and gender-binary outlook.

Recently, when one of my close guy friends was going through an especially tough time, I couldn’t be there for him in the same way I usually could with my close friends. A big part of it was his reluctance to open up to his friends, which led to the bottling and boiling up of his problems for several months. When I finally learned of his endured suffering, I couldn’t help but wonder if I could have prevented his silence. Had I put more effort into encouraging his vulnerability with me, perhaps he would have felt less afraid to seek support from his friends, and perhaps he might be in a better place now. 

It can take more effort to connect on a deeper emotional level with boys than with girls—societal expectations have ingrained in most boys a defensive instinct to stifle their feelings rather than be vulnerable and open about them. Sometimes I feel I must, in being friends with boys, take extra steps encouraging them to recognize and combat the role that toxic masculinity plays in their lives.

Simultaneously, girls are taught to be perfectionists and take fewer risks, and when this pervades social spaces it can lead to overly superficial interactions in which girls are afraid to too quickly expose their authentic selves. I spent my first two years of high school over-investing my time and energy in friendships I felt obliged to make despite how forced or one-sided they often felt.

I know many girls who felt the same way. Their strongest friendships sprouted in inefficient ways; they required time, patience, mishaps, and little serendipities before they could actually manifest. On the other hand, and unsurprisingly, more of my guy friends agree that they’ve stuck with the same cluster of boys they met and clicked with at the onset of high school. In this sense, it’s sometimes easier to connect among boys than girls. Boys may have their guard down more.

Throughout middle and high school, I’ve seen boys cultivate a sort of intra-gender safety net, reasoned or not; boys support and nod to one another as a means of expressing and affirming some understood fraternal identity. Though in recent years girls have been encouraged to shift toward a similar framework (through cultural movements such as girl squads and the uplifting of oft-stigmatized female friendship), there still are vast differences between the way society expects men to collaborate with one another as women grapple in each other’s company.

In observing my male friends interact with one another, sometimes their agreement and unanimity in arbitrary things are almost too unflappable—as if disagreeing with the other boys might rupture some unspoken, gendered bond. This occasionally leaves me feeling like my voice, as a girl’s among boys’, is quieter in group discussion, my opinion less valid and less heard.

The concept of brotherhood and boys uncritically accepting other boys also manifests itself in the content people consume. I’ve noticed that a few of my guy friends almost always prefer to watch more conventionally masculine or male-created media, from movies to books to music. Even my dad admits to listening almost exclusively to podcasts by men (and he is a huge podcast fan). Girls, on the other hand, unless intentionally trying to reverse male-dominated industries and spaces, are more likely to seek out the art and intellect of both men and women. Their intake covers a broader range of perspectives and flavors.

Around my male friends, then, I sometimes feel pressure to accept their preferences, and consequently their perspectives, over mine. My say is more dismissable, or less valid, than theirs because it’s silly, unserious, and girlish. I find myself passively compromising on decisions that should really be 50-50, as I chuckle at yet another rejection of my own interests. Sometimes shrugging it off is easier than tackling the real thing.

Finally, there are some things that many straight white cis guys, however decent or empathetic, are unable to understand as fully as a girl friend might—things such as the acute fear of walking alone at night, the pressure of wanting to impress others and validate our bodies on Instagram, the aggravatingly painful and persistent phenomenon that is mansplaining… The list goes on. Having close friends who are girls is simply irreplaceable, in this sense.

I don’t know exactly what the solution is for these traditionally-ingrained gender divides. Presently, I’m working on treating my girl and boy friends with more intentional compassion, so that they might feel less bent by gender constructs when in the company of others. More importantly, I’m working on expressing myself wholeheartedly, with an awareness of and—when necessary—resistance against the long-learned habits that separate us.

By Becky Zhang

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