During a 1985 interview about The Golden Girls, Rue McClanahan, one of the show’s stars, compared herself to her character: “the truth is, we all still have our child, our adolescent, and our young woman in us.” The truth of her statement is the same as the truth of her show’s title. These women in their fifties and sixties might be in their golden years, but they are still girls.
Television’s tendency, even in 1985, to envision intimacy between women through girlhood was nothing new. Already there was The Girls, from the early fifties, The Roller Girls, from the late seventies, and Goodtime Girls, from the early eighties. It is a habit that persists today, with 2021 bringing us a series of shows that use girlhood to depict intense relationships between women. In May, there was Girls5eva, a Tina Fey produced show on NBC about the revival of an early aughts girl group; the fifth season of Good Girls — a show about a group of friends and mothers turned criminals — ran from March to June on Netflix; Run the World, a Starz show about four best friends whose title gestures toward Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls),” spanned May through July. What is with all of these shows about adult friendship that frame their characters as girls?
Rendering women as girls makes friendship recognizable in a culture where successful adulthood often means sustaining a primary romantic relationship. Take Laverne and Shirley, an ABC show that premiered in the 1970s about two white women, roommates and best friends — one Irish, one Italian — who work as bottle cappers at a brewery named Shotz. Marketing materials emphasize their childish nature. “Next week on Laverne and Shirley, the girls…” the standard promo announces; photos of the two on DVD sets on sale today feature them clutching stuffed animals. But perhaps most striking is the opening credit sequence, which shows Laverne (Penny Marshall) and Shirley (Cindy Williams) skipping through the Milwaukee streets, arms clasped, singing a Yiddish-American hopscotch chant from Marshall’s childhood. For the credits in the show’s final season — which occurred after Williams left to have a baby, a move the show addressed by sending Shirley overseas with her new husband — the chant appears again. But this time, Laverne watches on as a group of children perform it. Gazing at them but not partaking, it as though she is both looking back on her own childhood and remembering her time with Shirley. Now that the two are separate, they are finally adults.
The content of the show, too, associates girlhood with their friendship. When Shirley’s mother Lily (Pat Carroll) comes to visit, she bemoans the fact that Shirley is still living with her best friend in a basement apartment. In an attempt to feign proper adulthood, Laverne and Shirley throw a party, but their true nature comes through: the pair serve appetizers of Oreos and whipped cream, and their friends, Lily is disappointed to discover, are sewage workers. (The show suggests a connection between their status and Laverne’s when Laverne runs around the party with a plunger after dropping a can of Bab-O down the toilet.) Finally, Lily states her disappointment, suggesting that Shirley’s relationship with Laverne prevents her from moving up in the world. Speaking of a woman Shirley went to school with, Lily says, “she could have helped you marry a college man anyway, she could have found one for you but you wanted to stay with your friends.” Lily finally connects growing up with moving up in society:
I mean I’m supposed to go back to California and say to my friends, “Oh! Shirley lives in a cellar, she works in a brewery, she has no ambition.” Is that what I’m supposed to say? Why can’t I go back and say, “Oh Shirley has found a wonderful man, and they have a lovely house in the suburbs, and her life is going up! Up!” Well Shirl, what’s it gonna be?
Over and over, Lily learns that Shirley is beneath where she wants her to be: living in a cellar with her best friend rather than in a house with a college-educated man, surrounded by friends who work in an actual sewer. Throughout the ordeal, Shirley pulls out clumps of her hair, and when Laverne overhears Shirley’s mother reprimanding her, she steps in and says, “You’re driving that girl crazy, do you think any prince wants to marry a little bald girl?” To achieve upward mobility, Lily suggests, Shirley must trade Laverne out for a college man, friendship for romance. In other words, Shirley needs to grow up. No prince wants to marry a little girl — and friendship is only for girls.
There are moments, though, when Laverne or Shirley appears to grow up and is contrasted with the friend who gets left behind. During the course of the show, both characters fall under the impression they are about to get married, only to decide they either aren’t ready or realize that they misinterpreted signals from a suitor. In these cases, the character who previously thought she was going to become a bride suddenly falls back into girlhood with her best friend: talking in baby voices, tending to stuffed animals. Many of these interactions take place in the women’s shared bedroom, a retreat decorated with crooked posters of male heartthrobs on the walls, stuffed animals on the twin beds, and dolls on their vanities and dressers. It is a setting that echoes Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber’s study of bedroom culture, which shows how girls in postwar Britain carved out a sanctuary for bonding privately and engaging with pop culture. The bedroom was a place for “experimenting with make-up, listening to records, reading the mags, sizing up the boyfriends, chatting, jiving.” Girl culture, in musicologist Simon Frith’s words, “starts and finishes in the bedroom.”
This has all come to a head in post-recession shows that feature best friendship between women in their twenties — a group that includes 2 Broke Girls, Broad City, Girls, and Brown Girls, to name a few. In both Girls (HBO, 2012-2017) and Brown Girls (an OpenTV webseries from 2017 that was supposedly picked up by HBO shortly after), the pairs are first shown lying together in one of their bedrooms. In Girls, Marnie (Allison Williams) wears a retainer; Hannah (Lena Dunham) wears a t-shirt with Mickey Mouse on the front. In Brown Girls, Leila (Nabila Hossain) wears a shirt with pink cartoon flowers, and Patricia (Sonia Denis) wears a t-shirt with a cartoon of an alien on it. “Single girls club forever?” Patricia asks, after the two discuss a complicated hookup of Leila’s. Soon that question appears like an assertion — “Single Girls Club” — on a banner in Patricia’s room, a mantra the series returns to again and again. But Leila and Patricia repeat that initial question, often in the bedroom, with increasing ambivalence, as they negotiate growing pains that threaten the centrality of their bond: Patricia’s mother pressures her to get back with an ex, and Leila solidifies a romantic relationship. To resist couplehood’s inevitability, the show suggests, they need to remain girls forever. For Leila and Patricia, unlike Hannah and Marnie, sustaining romantic relationships corresponds with respectability politics. In other words, Hannah and Marnie are given license to maintain their friendship at the expense of their romantic prospects that Leila and Patricia are not.
Rebecca Wanzo has dubbed a group of these post-recession shows “precarious-girl comedies.” The protagonists of these shows, she observes, “seem to be experiencing arrested development” in both an economic and a psychological sense, which she attributes to the post-2008 economic climate. Many of these protagonists are also played by showrunners — a choice that imbues these stories with a sense of looking backward in time. But another shared characteristic of these shows is that they often feature an intense friendship between women. Unlike Laverne and Shirley, the protagonists of precarious-girl comedies often have college degrees and work jobs that they feel are beneath them. If two markers of adulthood are job stability and a primary romantic partner, these characters fail at both. The friendships at the center of these shows are intimately connected with an overall sense of botched adulthood.
Pen15, meanwhile, avoids the trap that these post-recession shows fall into. The Hulu series — which premiered in 2019 and has new episodes dropping in December — is created by Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle: best friends in their thirties who play middle-school versions of themselves. Like Girls and Brown Girls, the show depicts them together for the first time in the bedroom — a place of fantasy. Mandy Moore’s “Candy” scores the scene, and like Laverne and Shirley’s bedroom, we see photos of pop-culture crushes on the walls and stuffed animals propped up on surfaces. There are lots of cartoon flowers. Extreme close-ups feature Anna’s braces and Maya’s retainer. The two are on the phone before their first day of seventh grade, and the scene mirrors them in their separate bedrooms. First they are on the floor — Anna marking up her yearbook from the year prior, Maya cutting out photos from magazines and decorating her binder — and then they move to their beds as they discuss their dreams for the coming year. But, as Naomi Fry points out, “the trials of growing up constantly threaten this togetherness.” A major threat is the romantic relationship, which often takes the place of friendship as one grows up — an omen that hangs over most shows about female friendship. Perhaps one way of looking at the choice for these actresses to play younger versions of themselves is that acting as tweens allows them to be intensely together in a way that isn’t possible during womanhood.
All four of these shows — Laverne and Shirley, Girls, Brown Girls, and Pen15 — deploy girlhood to celebrate friendship, revealing what kinds of relationships are considered normal or healthy at different points in life. In using this strategy to center friendship, though, they also imply that friendship is not legitimate, or enough, on its own. All four, too, bring forth the slippery historical underpinnings of girlhood. Since 1400, the term “girl” has referred to female subjects, both young and old, but applications of the term to women imply, in the words of the OED, “social inferiority,” as it has historically been used to refer to sex workers, domestic servants, and enslaved women. Beginning in 1562, “girl” became associated with intimacy or friendship: “Girlfriends,” for instance, might use “girl” as a term of address, a use that stems from Black English, and “my girl” is a frequent indication of romantic partnership. Even as these shows go to great lengths to honor friendship between women, most of them rely on mobilizing a history of girlhood that limits the power of these relationships.
Alex Doty has shown another complementary history, one in which gossip about feuds between actresses who play close women friends often tempers the intensity of their relationships onscreen. Coverage like this followed Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams decades after the finale of Laverne and Shirley. Many rumors latched onto a supposed quarrel between the two that transpired when Williams left the show. A series of interviews conducted in 2013, before Penny Marshall’s death in 2018, however, indicate the longevity of their relationship. Williams and Marshall frequently finish each other’s sentences, and Williams asserts that they had telepathy, saying, “You couldn’t slip a playing card between the two of us.” Though both women had marriages earlier in their lives, they are single at the time of the interview. And as I watched it, the ending of Laverne and Shirley seemed more and more like a distraction from the longer span of Williams and Marshall’s story. In the end, these friends — Laverne DeFazio, Shirley Feeney, Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams — are finally together, but as women this time.
I would like to express my gratitude to Cara Dickason for her insight and friendship.