This guest post by Emanuela Betti appears as part of our theme week on Female Friendship.
Can women be friends? Or, most importantly, can two women who share the same man be friends? The depiction of genuinely loving and caring female friends has found its way onto many movies and TV shows, but when it comes to the idea of a more complex situation—the “frenemies”—it’s harder to find characters that do it justice. There is a shallow notion that when two women want the same man, they turn into hair-pulling, catfighting brats. Some movies, such as Mean Girls, present a world of two-faced friendships and passive-aggressive competitiveness, and although girls and women that act that way do exist, it’s refreshing to see a different take on the “frenemies” trope.
Female characters gain more depth when we realize that, despite their hatred for each other, they are still capable of maintaining a glimmer of respect for their enemy. In the past years, Scandal has been building up two of the most interesting frenemies on TV—Olivia Pope and Mellie Grant. Both women want the same man (President Grant), and both women have a different type of relationship with him—but Mr. President aside, throughout the show the two women develop a complex rapport with one another: one which undoubtedly has many instances of resentment and bitterness, but also a slowly developing sense of respect for the other person. It’s startling to watch Mellie’s resilient self-dignity—yet also vulnerability—when she asks Olivia to help with her husband’s campaign; there is also a sense of empathy on Olivia’s side when she discovers that Mellie was assaulted. If we really have to watch two women fight over the same man, it’s at least a relief when the two women are smart, self-reliant, and civilized beings.
The idea of complex female frenemies is not exactly new to cinema. Two superb foreign thrillers have managed to portray women who are sharing or have shared the same man, but they don’t succumb to the stereotype of the hair-pulling, backstabbing brats. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) and Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960) present a world in which women are not squealing for a man’s affection, but develop an interesting and emotionally complex alliance with the “other woman.”
Les Diaboliques is a French movie about a wife (Christina) and her husband’s mistress (Nicole) teaming up to murder the husband (Michel). Christina owns and runs a boarding school where Nicole teaches, and Michel exudes his authority as if he ran the place. The story begins as a simple murder story with two intriguing female protagonists, but halfway through it becomes a different movie—a creepy thriller in which the wife, Christina, is haunted by her dead husband’s ghost.
Despite the exciting twists and turns, it’s not so much the murder that drives the film, but rather the strange friendship between the two women. Christina is the typical mousy wife who allows her husband to beat and condescend to her; Nicole, on the other hand, is the typical femme-fatale bombshell, a hybrid between Betty Rizzo and Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct (and I wasn’t surprised that the role was played by Sharon Stone in the 1996 American remake). The relationship between the women is rather intriguing, if not strange: Nicole was having an affair with Christina’s husband, but that is also what brings the two women together. Both get tired of the husband’s cocky and manipulative ways, so they decide to plan his murder.
During moments of calm, we watch Christina and Nicole discuss like old friends, complaining about him, and coolly remember how they hated each other—how a jealous Christina used to carry a knife around, and how Nicole might have wished for Christina’s death. There is a startling sense of dignity and respect for the other, which is often lacking when we’re faced with two women who competed for the affection of a man. Christina is often depicted as physically and emotionally weak, leading Nicole to affectionately treat her like a younger sister—even maternally, when for example she tells Christina not to bite her nails, in order not to give away her nervousness about the murder. Nicole is the only person that defends and consoles Christina when her husband degrades her in public, and during those moments we observe an unspoken yet mutual understanding between the two women who have been abused and mistreated by the same man.
Housemaid is a South Korean thriller about a young woman who is hired as a housemaid and ends up feuding with the woman of the household. To sum it up, The Housemaid is a long and twisted cautionary tale about the dangers of having an attractive and seductive young woman in the household, and how a casual affair can turn into a deadly game of manipulation. Events escalate dangerously and gruesomely, and even the innocent and sickly wife reveals an evil side. One of the interesting aspects of the story is the twisted relationship between the housemaid and the wife: the housemaid, despite her psychotic nature toward the husband and children, shows nothing but fear and submission in front of the wife. The wife strategically allows the other woman to remain in the household as a means to keep an eye on her and avoid a scandal.
The most twisted part is halfway though the movie, when both women “share” the husband. They’re not exactly friends, but it would be too easy to label them enemies; both women have an unspoken mutual understanding that the husband “belongs” to them, and they manipulate him to get at each other. Both women appear to know what limits the other woman can go to, and that kind of character relationship goes beyond the simple backstabbing teenagers in Mean Girls, or the comic strips in which Betty and Veronica are both tugging at Archie’s arms.
Emanuela Betti is a part-time writer, occasional astrologer, neurotic pessimist by day and ball-breaking feminist by night. She miraculously graduated with a BA in English and Creative Writing, and writes about music and movies on her blog.