“Romy and Michele” Is Still a Powerful Ode to Female Friendships

Stories about female friendship are not merely shaped by shared intimacy, but also by character study. However inseparable the women may be, each is distinguished either through broad differences or minute particulars. As viewers and readers, we typically relish this. Fictional characters provide models—generally favorable ones—through which we can interpret ourselves. As little girls, we discussed with great solemnity who among us was a Kristy Thomas or a Claudia Kishi or a Stacey McGill. And as we grew, the options accumulated, coalescing into archetypes: Are you a Daria Morgendorffer or a Jane Lane? Taystee Jefferson or Poussey Washington (R.I.P.)? Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy March?

We’re assured that we, like these characters, matter apart from our relationships—that we’re fundamentally interesting. But in 1997, the exuberant buddy comedy Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion delivered a different, less individually affirming perspective on female companionship. According to all evidence, Romy and Michele’s friendship is their most compelling attribute. The two women aren’t dullish clones, but they’re relatively unremarkable. Best friends since high school, Romy White (Mira Sorvino) and Michele Weinberger (Lisa Kudrow) share an oceanfront apartment in Venice Beach, California.

Romy works as a cashier at a Jaguar dealership, and Michele, despite being a talented designer and seamstress, has been unemployed for an indeterminate amount of time. As is often the case with white, attractive protagonists, it’s unclear how the women afford even minor extravagances—nights at the club, fitness classes and, for that matter, the material Michele uses to furnish their vast wardrobe. Their life together is most notable in its ritualized containment. Romy and Michele only detach out of necessity: They petition to take their high school senior portrait together (and are permitted to do so). As 28-year-old women, they sleep in the same bedroom, and when they embark on a night out, they’re most content dancing together. One such scene prompts a whiff of unfortunate lesbian “humor”—a reminder that the 90s nostalgia so many of us cherish is generously buttressed by fantasy.

The film also leans heavily on jokes about size and disability—Michele wears a back brace in high school—and is overwhelmingly white. One of the only actors of color delivers a few scraps of dialogue steeped in Latino stereotypes. Twenty years later, these embedded aggressions and erasures are jarring—and they should be. The film’s momentum, of course, is oriented toward the titular high school reunion that Romy and Michele decide to attend—albeit with some trepidation. A decade has passed since graduation, and Romy views the gathering as an opportunity to impress the “A Group,” the clique that took sadistic pleasure in antagonizing them. But there’s a snag: Neither Romy nor Michele has achieved much in the last 10 years. They didn’t attend college; their careers are practically nonexistent; and they are unmarried (never mind that they evince little to no interest in heteronormative romance).

Romy, who fancies herself as a schemer, determines that she and Michele should concoct new, more illustrious identities. Masquerading as the inventors of Post-it notes, the duo descends upon the reunion sporting Michele’s interpretation of business attire. Hijinks ensue—such is the custom in stories of this sort. But the film’s emotional nucleus is rooted in the certain failure of Romy and Michele’s charade. It’s only when the friends are ensconced in their plan that their harmonious equilibrium wobbles: For the first time in the film, they begin to quarrel. And after acquaintance Heather Mooney (Janeane Garofalo) harpoons their flimsy deception—Arthur Fry invented Post-it notes, duh!—the friends retreat, and Romy contemplates their mortifying circumstances. “All I ever wanted was for people to think that we were better than we were in high school,” she bemoans. “And now we’re just a stupid joke, just like we always were.”

Thus far, Michele has ceded to Romy’s directives without protest. But Romy’s collective indictment prompts her to fully speak her mind—and in so doing reveal the fallacy of Romy’s scheme. “Romy, can I tell you the truth?” she begins. “I never knew that we weren’t that great in high school. I mean, we always had so much fun together…I thought high school was a blast! And until you told me that our lives weren’t good enough, I thought everything since high school was a blast.” The movie’s message is pretty evident: Romy and Michele are the ones who determine whether their life is a good one. If they’re content, then they don’t require anyone else’s approval, especially the gaggle of snots they’ve set out to impress. On the one hand, there’s a sweet, anti-capitalist and feminist argument here that diminishes the social clout of income, professional status, and heterosexual marriage.

That Romy is a cashier, and that the two women cannot afford to live separately shouldn’t matter, especially if, as the movie heavily implies, Romy and Michele prefer this arrangement. And there’s no moral imperative for Michele to work outside of the home as long as she and Romy determine that it’s unnecessary. But as Romy intimates in the midst of their argument, it would be useful for Michele to earn a paycheck. Moreover, the life the two women lead—lackadaisical, pleasure-driven, insular—belies the sort of privilege exclusive to white women. Romy and Michele are ignorant because they’re not imperiled by lack of knowledge. When legislation is not a matter of life and death, there’s less incentive to read the news. If the women have families, they evidently are unburdened with financially assisting them. That we’re asked to laugh indulgently at Romy and Michele as they revel in arrested development is a marker of racism, one Hollywood projects without intention or awareness.

Since the bodies of attractive, able-bodied white women function as American shorthand for wholesomeness (see: Ivanka Trump), Michele’s comments to Romy are framed as insightful and a necessary shift in perspective. She’s not condoning laziness or small-mindedness—she’s claiming her right to live without answering to anyone but the person she loves most. There’s meager evidence that audiences would tolerate this narrative if it weren’t so thoroughly whitewashed. Women-led buddy comedies are a rare breed in and of themselves, and they’re almost exclusively dominated by white Saturday Night Live alums like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (think Baby Mama in 2008 and Sisters in 2015). After her turn in the Ghostbusters reboot, Leslie Jones attained some much deserved recognition, but the film’s characters were quite motivated in their de-ghosting initiative. (That said, please don’t misunderstand me: The movie rocks.) If Romy and Michele were women of color, their lack of ambition and productivity would render them morally suspect from the beginning. The looming question would not be whether they could impress their high school classmates, but whether they could convince the audience that they were decent American capitalists.

Twenty years later, enjoying Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion requires several intersectional caveats—but unfortunately, we could say the same for most films being made today. What the film does offer, albeit hesitatingly, is a love story between two women. The “no homo” joke that serves to delineate the friendship as strictly platonic is disappointing, but not surprising. And I would argue that Michele’s sexuality could be interpreted as more fluid (she offers to have sex with Romy to help the latter discern whether she is lesbian). A less blinkered film would explore that possibility and the ways potential queerness could shape the friendship. Then again, a less blinkered film would not refer to lesbian sex as “creepy” as this one does. And yet, without Romy and Michele, perhaps we would not have Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins, or Annie and Lillian from Bridesmaids, or the film Mean Girls. Often we begin in places we’re forced to abandon if we are to be better.

When Romy and Michele perform their interpretive dance to Cyndi Lauper at the end of the film, it’s a jubilant expression of both mutual and self-love. Sandy Frick (Alan Cumming), the classmate who has long harbored a torch for Michele, participates, but mostly as an accessory. In fact, his supplemental role in the women’s dance foreshadows his future position in their lives: as startup capital. Romy and Michele do stumble into a career in business after Sandy provides them with a loan to open their own clothing boutique. As for his somewhat obsessive devotion to Michele—that plot point remains vague. What we know is that Romy and Michele have—at last—created something remarkable, and that they could not have done so without each other.

It’s telling that what makes each woman most interesting—their passion for sartorial flair—is inextricably tied up in their shared affection. As luck would have it, the high school reunion provokes a revelation: Together, Romy and Michele possess everything they need. It’s that confidence in emotional sustenance that ultimately inspires and motivates the pair to be more than they have ever attempted to be. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the character Paul D tells the protagonist, his lover, “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” We are—or we can be. But quite often, if we’re fortunate, we become our best things in the luster of someone else’s love. And sometimes—if we’re very fortunate—our best things combine to beget something spectacular. 

by Rachel Vorona Cote
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Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer in Washington, D.C. Her first book, TOO MUCH: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Us Today, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing. Find her on Twitter here.

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