Mara Brock Akil’s iconic sitcom Girlfriends, which premiered in 2000, began streaming on Netflix in September 2020. The series, which aired for eight seasons and starred a splendidly funny Tracee Ellis Ross in one of her first roles, has brought many of us joy and relief during what feels like a never-ending pandemic compounded with rampant election anxiety. Beyond its ability to comfort, Girlfriends spotlights a kind of love story that doesn’t get celebrated enough: Four friends—Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross), Toni (Jill Marie Jones), Lynn (Persia White), and Maya (Golden Brooks)—navigate career successes and disappointments, good and bad sex and relationships, and the ins and outs of narcissism and competition. As I rewatch the show at 44, I’m astounded both by how well it holds up and by how relatable the storylines are for Black women finding their way.
When I first watched the show, I was so grateful to see Toni struggling to settle into motherhood, as she transitioned from being the go-to “It Girl” to being Morgan’s mom. I was a new mom when Season 5 aired in 2004, and I remember feeling guilty because I wasn’t adjusting to my new role as primary caregiver as well as I thought I should. Seeing another Black woman wrestling with motherhood made me feel less alone, less sad, and less like a failure. Akil’s characters also taught a generation of Black women about the impact of HIV/AIDS crisis on our community; how devastating a miscarriage can be for parents, including fathers; how emotional cheating can ruin marriages; and that our girlfriends are sometimes responsible for our biggest heartbreaks. Girlfriends was one of the first shows I’d ever watched where two friends, Joan and Toni, went to therapy to heal their friendship. I was, and continue to be, deeply touched that Toni realized through therapy that she was capable of loving people because she loved Joan.
Our first love stories—and deepest love experiences—often involve our girlfriends, a reality I was happy to see portrayed onscreen. Not all friendships have a happy ending though: Toni and Joan have a weirdly competitive, codependent, and sometimes downright toxic relationship, though they often find their way back to each other after conflict. However, in Season 6, Toni completely cuts Joan out of her life after Joan fails to show up to her child-custody hearing. It’s not the first time their friendship seemingly falls apart, but this time their separation seems permanent. Joan’s left to mourn her longest and most substantial relationship without a goodbye, any closure, or an opportunity to atone for her mistakes. These fallouts are relatable: Toni and Joan’s relationship resembles many of our friendships.
Given the often consistent and supportive nature of our relationships with our girlfriends, it’s unsurprising that we sometimes have issues with them. It’s only when we don’t acknowledge those problems that we fail to heal them. Yet while we often fully commit to repairing our romantic relationships, we rarely put in the same kind of work to fix what isn’t working in our platonic relationships. Take, for instance, HBO’s Insecure, another series that revolves around a complicated friendship: Like Toni and Joan, Molly (Yvonne Orji) and Issa (Issa Rae) have a deep, meaningful, and loving relationship that was almost ruined by their inability to communicate their frustrations. The show’s fourth season centered around their friendship breakup, which I chronicled in a weekly sip and chat with Dr. Lawanda Hill. As I began researching how to heal platonic friendships between women, I found very little information on the topic, which shocked me though I should’ve expected it.
Our first love stories—and deepest love experiences—often involve our girlfriends.
There are literally thousands of books, articles, and talks about how to repair romantic relationships because women are supposed to be endlessly interested and invested in making their romantic relationships work. We’ve been socialized to believe that the failure or success of romantic relationships is our responsibility, but we’re offered much less guidance and support when it comes to healing our friendships. That doesn’t mean that repairing a broken friendship is impossible. So how do we prevent friendship breakdowns like Toni and Joan’s or Molly and Issa’s? It begins by being vulnerable, effectively communicating, and being honest. Our best communicative experiences happen when we choose to be open about our truest, deepest feelings, which sometimes include hurt, frustration, and disappointment. We also have to accept that certain feelings we have about our girlfriends make us uncomfortable, and as a result it might feel difficult to admit them.
There are many different circumstances that can feel triggering in friendships: friends advancing in ways we seem unable to, feeling abandoned when our friends find romantic partners, life changes that are hard to adjust to. Often these triggers have nothing to do with our friends, and we should dig into our own traumas to evaluate why we’re struggling. Vulnerable and compassionate honesty means being able to admit to our girlfriends that we love them but that we are struggling with how they are changing and growing. Hopefully, they can make room for our moment of envy or selfishness. Of course, we should always examine what’s at the root of those feelings, and we should consider ending relationships if those feelings are regularly displayed or experienced. Hill said that we should also look for guidance from elder women who have long-standing relationships with their female friends. “Ask an elder, mentor, or friend who has navigated the process and benefited from it,” she said. She also suggests asking questions about how to navigate difficult relationships on safe community forums like the Therapy for Black Girls Facebook Group or tuning in to Dr. Joy Harden’s Therapy for Black Girls podcast.
“Find a group online (after vetting) that holds space and community for modeling and vulnerability,” Hill said. “That space can equip you with tools and insights to navigate your own interpersonal challenges.” We have to push back against the idea that we can’t share our “business” with others, and that includes sharing our struggles with our girls. Toni had the right idea about friend therapy; licensed therapists and counselors are trained to facilitate healing in every kind of relationship, including a broken friendship. Every single meaningful relationship we have requires us to fully invest and work hard. Love is a verb and requires action—and that goes for our friendships too. How do you work to heal your relationships with your girlfriends? Meet me on Twitter, and let’s talk about it; I’m @jonubian there.