These are, in some ways, very good times for the Bechdel test. Recent movies have offered up nuanced, celebratory portrayals of women’s friendship. Recent TV shows have provided pairings of friends—Abbi and Ilana, Meredith and Cristina, Lucca and Maia, Leslie and Ann, Hannah and Jessa, Pennsatucky and Big Boo—whose friendships have taken on the tensions that Hollywood has traditionally reserved for romantic couplings. Books, too, in both fiction and nonfiction, have considered—and in many ways re-considered—the female friendship. Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies, Kate Bolick’s Spinster, and Jill Filipovic’s The H-Spot have all made cases that American culture, and indeed American politics, should find ways to institutionalize the female friendship, giving good friends the same kinds of benefits that have traditionally come with marriage.
Their arguments are politically complicated, but otherwise extremely elegant. After all, as Deborah Tannen puts it in her new book You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, “Having a friend means feeling less alone in the world.”
Tannen, a professor at Georgetown University, is a linguist (specifically, she is an expert in the field of interactional sociolinguistics, which emphasizes the case-study method to study language as it’s used in real-life contexts), and her latest book functions in one way as a language-oriented supplement to all these other current explorations of women’s friendship. The book is by turns fascinated with friendship and frustrated by it. (As to the latter, Tannen points out that, according to a Carnegie Mellon study, negative social encounters with their friends raised women’s blood pressures, while leaving men’s unaffected.)