Merging commonsensical prose, sardonic wit and a broad knowledge of science, Natalie Angier writes smart, delightful essays about science. Like Brainstorm’s David Barash, she likes to connect the dots between animal and human behavior. In a recent column in The New York Times, “The Spirit of Sisterhood Is in the Air and on the Air,” Angier argues that when it comes to sisterly camaraderie, the young women on HBO’s new hit series Girls behave, in essentials, exactly like female elephants, chimps, baboons, and monkeys.
Angier points to a number of scientific studies demonstrating that girlfriends are hardly unique to Homo sapiens. Adult females in many other parts of the animal kingdom bond together in tight social units where they help out one another, hang out with one another, and most importantly, lend emotional support to one another. The young highly educated post-grads on Girls, with lives defined by enduring internships instead of jobs, unstable living arrangements and wretched sex, survive the emotional fragility of their young lives only because they lend mutual emotional support and comfort to one another.
At first glance, it might seem as if female friendships are a defense against unwanted male aggressors, but Angier’s point is that a closer look shows this is not what’s going on. Even within the lowly world of mice, for example, mouse girlfriends help out one another in handling the daily stress of mouse life, regardless of whether or not any mouse fellows are hanging around. Plain and simple, women just plain need one another.
Yet how to make sense of a pattern of behavior that’s apparently unique to female friendship—the vicious fight followed by a frenzy of intense grooming. Angier describes how adult female monkeys from opposing groups frequently engage in violent treetop battles while the adult males watch from afar. (Whether they’re watching for entertainment—like men watching women’s fake wrestling—or merely to keep out of the way, isn’t clear.) Meanwhile, the young monkeys keep out of the way by remaining on the ground, romping around and paying no attention to the hissy-fit high up in the trees. Angier writes that the adult female monkeys “scream, lunge, bite, rip the flesh of an enemy’s calf down to a bloody frill round the ankle. And when the battle ends, the salon sessions begin.” It seems that no matter how brutal the fight, the ladies eventually settle down and calmly go about grooming one another.
As Angier puts it, “Through grooming, the monkeys decompress, and remind one another that their fates are still linked. After all, should a group of blue monkeys grow too large it will split into factions, and the sisterly comrades of today may be flaying you a new pair of anklets tomorrow. Shall we groom?”
It’s hard to come up with a male equivalent to any of this. The best I can do—and it’s hardly equivalent—is Spartans helping one another prepare their long hair before battle.
Yet for all the interesting examples of “animal girlfriends” Angier offers, what do we learn from them about the core nature of human friendship? That girlfriends are different from guy friends in have grooming sessions after they fight, where they yak it up and rub one another’s backs, is a lovely female attribute, but it’s no more than a trivial footnote to the meaning of friendship.
What about profounder questions: Why do some friendships last a lifetime, while others last only a few months? Why do some friendships collapse all of a sudden? Why do some friendships happen instantaneously, while others develop only over time? Why do we long for and need friends even when we have families at hand? In what ways are friends superior to lovers, or sometimes, even spouses? What makes for the most loyal and loving friend—the kind of friend who delivers the truth in a way that lands softly enough to be heard? These are the sorts of questions novels have been addressing for years.
Aristotle, who was interested strictly in male friendship, has more to say about the core, universal attributes of friendship—even friendships among women, if we are willing to do a little imaginative projection—than scientific studies about how females like to groom one another after fighting. As to the many TV shows about girlfriends, they are like jazz coming up the Mississippi River and landing in Chicago. Each new generation of women comes up with its own version of girlfriends that finds its place in popular culture. More than anything else, they tell us about the never-ending morphing of feminism.