By Medha Anoo
Are you watching shows that glorify unhealthy relationships? Good.
For girls, close relationships with our best friends are a nearly universal experience, and often begin at young ages. We are all familiar with the depiction of the girlhood sleepover, which included hair braiding, scary movies, telling secrets, and then pinky-swearing never to tell. Relationships with our best friends became central to our identity, and as young children resistant to change, we were afraid of anything that disrupted that important relationship. A quote from Anne of Green Gables (1908) comes to mind:
“‘It’s about Diana,’ sobbed Anne luxuriously. ‘I love Diana so, Marilla. I cannot ever live without her. But I know very well when we grow up that Diana will get married and go away and leave me. And oh, what shall I do?’”
I understood Anne. My best friend—let’s call her Diana—and I wrote the book on girlhood best friendship. We had the matching heart-shaped lockets with the other’s name in it, the secret handshake, and the oath to remain each other’s “bosom friend,” as Anne and Diana call each other, forever. Like Anne, who hated her friend’s future imaginary husband, I reviled the nine-year-old boys in our class who would perform playground stunts during recess in an attempt to woo Diana.
Brett Laursen, a psychology professor who has studied adolescent peer pressure and the longevity of middle-school friendships, explains that middle school is the first opportunity children have to choose their friends and also happens to coincide with declining supervision from guardians, leading to the emergence of intense, emotional couplings between preteen girls. Popular culture encourages these bonds—“Best BFF tattoos” Pinterest boards abound, listicles for the best sisterhood TV show quotes are ubiquitous, and crafting the most unique ‘best friend bracelet’ was all the rage at my school. The singular, implicit label to these relationships is sisterhood. However, being the young, queer girl I was, calling Diana my sister made me downright uncomfortable.
In Anne of Green Gables, Diana Barry’s mother doesn’t let Diana “play with any little girl who isn’t nice and good.” The implication in the text is that she would not approve of any child who downgraded their family’s image—which is a feeling familiar to any queer girl. When I started exhibiting ‘tomboyish tendencies,’ both my mother and my friend’s mother started suggesting that our relationship might be unhealthy. Some of Diana’s friends told her I was toxic for wanting to spend more time with her. Both encouraged us to find other people to befriend.
The truth is that my mother, and many other women, and I have relied on emotional bonds with our girlhood best friends, and my childhood infatuation with Diana was no more “unhealthy” than little boys and girls getting married with Ring Pops at recess. Diana’s mother was wrong—our relationship wasn’t unhealthy. I just happened to love her. I spent the formative years of my life hurt and confused about my relationship with Diana, so when I moved to a new city at age eleven, I was emotionally stunted. I still struggle with knowing implicit boundaries in friendships.
However, this realization didn’t occur for years. I realized I was queer when, at age fourteen, I found my feelings for Diana mirrored in Jennifer’s Body (2009), a horror movie about the relationship between Jennifer Check, a high school girl turned into a succubus, and her nerdy best friend, Anita ‘Needy’ Lesnicki. In the movie, an indie band offers Jennifer as a virgin sacrifice in exchange for fame and fortune, but as Jennifer is not a virgin, the plan backfires, and she is possessed by a succubus with appetites for both men and women. Jennifer resists eating Needy due to the extent of her feelings for her, whereas Needy restructures her life in order to protect Jennifer’s secret and ultimately kills both Jennifer (to rid her best friend of the demon inside her) and the people who turned Jennifer into a succubus. Critics condemned the ‘gratuitous’ kiss scene between the two and dismissed the film as, at best, mediocre. To me, it was the culmination of the movie’s queer narrative. Finally, both girls might be able to admit to the feelings they’d repressed their entire lives. Maybe they could have been happy.
Sure, Jennifer and Needy’s relationship was also destructive and harmful, but it was important to me because it showed me that Needy and Jennifer’s relationship wasn’t unhealthy because it was queer; it was unhealthy because they were codependent—Needy and Jennifer are excessively emotionally attached to each other. Although Jennifer’s initial victims seem to be chosen at random, she progresses by seducing and consuming boys Needy has expressed a liking toward, including Needy’s boyfriend, Chip. Needy and Chip have sex for the first time, but Needy can only think of Jennifer because she believes that something is horribly wrong with her, suggesting a psychological link as well.
Denunciating “unhealthy” relationships in media, especially queer ones, assumes that only the most perfect relationships deserve screentime, and this assumption can have serious consequences. When young queer girls grow up only finding idealized versions of queer romantic relationships in media, it’s easy to ignore red flags and abusive behaviors in real-life relationships. A cancel culture where flawed representations are immediately deemed dangerous also erases real-life experiences like my own experiences. Memorably, we have cancelled Ross and Rachel (FRIENDS), Bella and Edward (Twilight), Alex and Piper (Orange is the New Black), and more recently, Beck and Joe (You) for being toxic and unhealthy; to which I say, That’s the whole point!
It’s necessary to think critically about which relationships we condemn for being unhealthy, and why. Demanding all romantic and sexual relationships be portrayed in a healthy manner is subject to a definition of ‘healthy’ that tends to exclude queer and polyamorous relationships.
Returning to Anne of Green Gables, and setting aside my personal imprint on Anne, for years, both avid fans and scholars have speculated and heavily evidenced the theory that Anne Shirley is queer. Whether or not the reader agrees on that count, Anne’s and Diana’s loyal, intimate relationship has also been lauded, for centuries, as the epitome of female friendship—and they wear matching lockets, hold onto locks of each other’s hair as keepsakes, and write each other love poems (hello??). No one calls their relationship unhealthy until someone suggests that Anne might be queer.
Additionally, the portrayal of women who love women in the media has been intentionally designed to villainize them. Lesbians in media seek the affections of other (usually straight) women, attempting to become the only important person to them and blocking them from other relationships. Jennifer does something similar when she deliberately attempts to seduce and devour Chip, Needy’s boyfriend.
The result of this misrepresentation is that any time a queer woman attempts to build a place for herself in her partner’s life it is deemed unhealthy. Seeing my attempts to become important to Diana reflected on screen in Jennifer’s Body helped me understand my queerness. However, while I seethed at having to compete with the boys like Jennifer did with Chip, I never stopped my Diana from pursuing other playground love interests. More than once, I served as her maid of honor at a playground wedding. Jennifer would rather eat the groom.
The unfortunate prevalence of the lesbian-coded villain in media (from Disney alone: Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmations, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, Shego from Kim Possible, etc.) also means that the only way young queer girls see themselves represented, often for the first time in their lives, is as evil. This is purposeful—because of the Hays Code (1934-1968) prohibition of positive portrayals of queer people, a legacy of queer-coding villains was established. The Motion Picture Association of America rates movies PG, PG-13, M, R, or NC-17 and conducts operations in utmost secrecy. Members—whose identities are protected—hold a two-term limit and are parents in California, so the rating of movies is subject to what parents are willing to let their children see, which is informed by their own biases. In 2014, the MPAA rated a sex-free movie about a gay romance R, perpetuating a narrative that queer love is wrong and inappropriate for children to watch. How can we be blamed if we begin our forays into romantic and sexual relationships with no other instruction?
There’s a distinction at play here with regards to the word ‘unhealthy.’ While queer relationships can be unhealthy, they are not inherently unhealthy because they are queer. Truly unhealthy—overly codependent, abusive, or otherwise harmful—relationships can occur whether the people involved are cisgender-heterosexual or queer, and as representations of the former abound, representations of queer unhealthy relationships are just as important.
But, because prevailing definition of ‘unhealthy’ includes queerness, queer girls have their important adolescent relationships ripped from them. We are subject to a double standard that straight girls are not—they are both allowed and encouraged to have close friendships with their best friend, but queer girls can’t share locker rooms, sleepover, or have pool parties because our very closeness with other girls is ‘unhealthy.’ We place ourselves under intense scrutiny, and we learn exactly how our actions are perceived to ensure that we never do something that might be bad or toxic or unhealthy by anybody’s standards.
There is a final consequence to canceling literature and media deemed ‘unhealthy.’ When we label our relationships as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ we fail to understand that the women we love—and see represented in the media—are nuanced and make mistakes. When Jennifer’s and Needy’s queer unhealthy relationship is called into question, we have to remember that they are still teenagers—hormonal, complicated, and really, really messy kids—trying to explore their feelings for each other in a small town in America. It’s hard. They are both allowed to mess up, and without the succubus, they might have had a chance. That’s why Needy kills the boys who made Jennifer into a succubus—both to avenge her best friend and the love they might have had.
I am not interested in playing respectability politics. I want good, healthy queer relationships in media, but not at the expense of unhealthy ones. Queer women are allowed to be messy, and we should not be forced to hold ourselves to a perfect, unsustainable standard. If we don’t examine our biases when we condemn unhealthy relationships, good people end up doing homophobes’ work for them, and our lives, our experiences, and our love are censored.
My Diana and I are best friends to this day, and she remains one of the most wonderful people I’ve had the good fortune of knowing. She is the first person I loved, and when I chose her as the first person I would come out to, she accepted me without ever calling into question our girlhood friendship. My queerness is inextricably linked to her and the ‘unhealthy’ relationship we have shared since we were eight years old, and I will be grateful to her for it for the rest of my life.
“You’re a queer girl, Anne. I heard before that you were queer. But I believe I’m going to like you real well.”Diana Barry
Anne of Green Gables (1908)