Friends, Girlfriends, and Lovers

Notes on Adulthood and Acceptance

illustration by Tony Stella

“Will you be happy for me when I get married?”

I can’t remember if I hesitated or not. “Of course I’ll be happy for you,” I answered. 

“Ok, good,” she replied, beaming at what seemed like certainty in my answer.

Will you be happy for me when I get married? I’ve turned this question over in my mind since my closest friend of more than a decade asked it of me. I’ve considered my response, whether it was honest, and the need to ask the question in the first place. It was honest. I mean, I think it was. Yes, I will be happy for her. It should be simple. Something innate, not needed to be asked at all. We will both be 26 this year. Four years away from 30, 10 years since 16, 14 since we first met in seventh grade gym class. And not as long ago as we might think, it was social suicide for women our age to not yet be wed or already with children. Now, I feel comforted by sentiments of unease from friends and peers alike at the thought of acquiring a spouse and kids before 30. Women have more choices now, ease of access to birth control, to higher education, to job opportunities and vocations that can put off motherhood for years and years and yadda yadda yadda. And still, the shadow of economic instability has left many in my generation in this stunted, childlike lurch. The world does not demand that we grow up so quickly anymore, but we are scared to do so anyway.

Will you be happy for me when I get married?

Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) shifts around in the early morning dark, disturbing the subject of her next portrait—her best friend and roommate, Anne Munroe (Anita Skinner). Anne awakens to the sound of Susan skulking around with her camera, endeavoring to take a photo of her very own sleeping beauty. But now she’s awake, and Susan can’t take photos of Anne sleeping if she’s awake. “Did you dream again?” Anne asks her curiously, like a concerned parent, after turning on the light. “Did you have a bad dream?” Before Susan can answer, the film cuts away to the opening credits, showcasing a series of photobooth memories of the two friends together, all smiles, hugs, and silly faces. Susan with her unique visage and frizzy hair; Anne a blonde yet not quite conventional beauty. We don’t know how long they’ve been friends, but the photographs are imbued with years. They’re not just friends, they’re girlfriends—two 20-somethings in 1970s New York City, a time of massive cultural change and social upheaval for women just like them. Big hair, no bras, independence, and gender equality. “You can take care of yourself,” Susan urges Anne as they drink together in a bar. Anne agrees but doesn’t seem too sure.

In Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends, a best friendship is thrown to the margins as their paths to adulthood diverge. Not yet adults and no longer quite children, the prospective poet Anne and budding photographer Susan begin the 1978 film sharing a messy new apartment that brims with the possibility of memories to be made. That is until the blow is dealt of Anne’s impending marriage to a man she barely knows. “I think I almost might love him,” Anne had told Susan. Incredulous, Susan replied, “You think you almost might love him?” Thus, the reveal of Anne’s hasty nuptials to Martin (Bob Balaban) sends joy beset by heartbreak across Susan’s face. Suddenly, the two friends are the same age and yet not at all. “How can you get married?” Susan pleads as she warmly embraces Anne. The happiness for her friend is just as genuine as her grief.

Will you be happy for me when I get married?

Sometimes I think I’m crazy, or a sociopath—like I’m missing a part of my brain. When I think of my friends getting married and having children, I only feel dread. Terror. Restlessness. The fact that my friend felt she had to ask me outright, just to make sure, like it had been nagging at her for some time now. God, what’s wrong with me? I’ve never wanted kids, and have no recollection of the desire ever entering my mind. I have no siblings, no young cousins or relatives, no close friends with children. Marriage has seemed less enticing to me the older I get. For my parents, seeing me with a family of my own was never something that they impressed upon me; my mother has no demanding desire to become a grandmother. “Do whatever you want,” she once said to me, with fondness. My mom and dad are 61 and 72, respectively; they had lived lives before I’d even entered my own. They’ve told me that they just want me to be happy, and so I’ve never felt the need to place value on marriage or motherhood. I am not patient nor maternal—children unsettle me, babies in particular. I am a woman but never felt very womanly. I am disquieted by what my body can do and I feel compelled to reject it. It’s not important to me, it doesn’t define my version of womanhood. My life is for myself, and no one else. Is it not the same for you?

It is for Susan, who won’t oppose the notion of getting married or having children someday but can’t entertain the idea for the present. For Susan and Anne, the times are newly favorable towards women’s liberation. Women have choices now: they don’t need to fall on a man to provide for them, a domicile to protect them, children to give them “purpose.” The film was shot following the emergence of second-wave feminism and, as Harvard gender studies professor Carol Gilligan wrote on the film, women were now asking themselves questions like “What are you doing? And, more to the point, What are you doing to counter a culture contingent on women’s silence?” Because there’s that word again: “choices.” If we have the choice to put off that which has been seen as holding us back in a society intent on oppressing us, why would we not want to take advantage of such a choice? To enter marriage and parenthood gives credence to the patriarchal order, does it not? 

Will you be happy for me when I get married?

Wild, curly hair, spectacles, a nascent career in the arts, a 26-year-old Jew. Susan Weinblatt was just like me. She looked like me, had dreams like me, but I also felt, for the first time, like I wasn’t crazy—this fear, distaste in opposition to the delight expected when another one of my peers announces an engagement or pregnancy. Cheer tinged with disgust. What are you supposed to feel for people other than happiness? Yet here was a protagonist so clearly resentful of her friend’s decision. Marriage, children—topics that even over 40 years after Girlfriends was released are treated like sacred texts. Untouchable things that should only ever invoke joy. Otherwise, it’s a conversation no one wants to have. Here, Anne’s wedding day celebrations chatter on in the background while Susan paints a wall in her apartment red, the color the two women had at one point disagreed upon when they thought they’d be roommates, now symbolic of Susan’s frustration. Anne’s happiness is valid, and so is Susan’s anger. The disbelief in Susan’s voice when her best friend reveals that she’s trading in her independence for her expected role of wifehood is treated without disdain or pity. Susan is never seen as immature. We only just met these two girls, and we understand that we’re about to see them torn apart. We feel as hurt as Susan does. We feel like we lost a friend, too.

From here, Susan and Anne largely go their separate ways, occasionally getting together for awkward meet-ups where a late arrival can become a screaming match. When Anne and the strait-laced, but well-meaning Martin return from their honeymoon in Morocco, Susan visits their new place outside of the city while the newlyweds show off the many souvenirs acquired on their trip. Traditional Moroccan garb, fancy coffee and cigarettes, eclectic knick-knacks, and a slideshow of their photographs. Towards the end of the scene, as the couple continues to fawn over their parade of new things, for a moment the camera holds on Susan’s blank expression as she nurses a cup of coffee. Looking at her, it feels like we can see inside her brain. She wants things to be like they were before—when the two friends would just hang out, get high, get drunk, shoot the shit and goof off like a couple of kids. Now, she has to make an appointment to see her friend, make pleasantries with a man she doesn’t know, leave the city and sit around a neatly furnished apartment. There’s an unspoken and painful understanding in this shot that Susan has lost her best friend to true adulthood. Now, one of them is an adult and one of them is still a kid. Things will never be the same again. You can tell Susan wants to scream. She wants to cry. Instead, she sips her coffee and smiles at the trinkets placed before her.

Yet Susan, who centers her life on her artistic career and creativity, cannot help but be beguiled by the allure of maturity, found in the married, middle-aged Rabbi Gold (Eli Wallach), who works at the weddings and bar mitzvahs she photographs to pay her bills. Susan represents the creative promise that Gold once possessed just like her. He admits to Susan at one point that, as a young man, he had dreams of being an actor, which were ultimately cast aside to make room for a family and stability. During the pair’s brief romantic tryst, they are tantalized by what the other has that they do not—for Rabbi Gold, it’s ephemeral youth and a life chasing artistic pursuits. But for Susan, Rabbi Gold possesses the undeniable allure of authority and precious solitude—an idealistic view of the Rabbi swiftly broken when his wife unknowingly forces the illicit pair to cancel brunch plans, quietly severing the bond between them forever. Susan then returns to Eric (Christopher Guest), a man she once abandoned in the early morning after a one night stand. And while suitable in age, the sweet, untethered Eric does not offer Susan the creative stimulation she desires from a world immersed in the arts—something cheekily illustrated during the young couple’s most critical argument, while Eric mixes a bowl of mashed potatoes without the yogurt Susan feels would make it better. 

Will you be happy for me when I get married?

During a conversation about the future with a college boyfriend, I mentioned that I was disinterested in marriage and motherhood. Ok, marriage, maybe, we’ll see. Who knows. But kids? Not likely at all. To my surprise, he replied to my sentiments incredulously: “What? But it’s what people do. It’s just what you do,” he insisted to me. I shrugged him off and didn’t pursue the conversation further. I was struck by the fact that it didn’t seem like something he had any true desire for himself, but something he viewed as simply part of the natural order of life. During our brief relationship, I saw it as a dishearteningly backward assessment, but now I wonder if he felt as trapped in such expectations as many women do. The rigid outlines of adulthood are not limited to one gender. Over 40 years since the “liberation” of women in the ‘70s from roles that were too often placed upon them without their say, people still feel pressured into holding outdated views of how one goes about their life. Admittedly, it can color my judgment of those who make such a choice, especially women. This is what the world wants from us—why would you just give it to them? Why would you not revolt? I guess it’s hard to know if it’s what someone truly wants, or what they feel obligated to do, or if it’s a little bit of both or a bit of neither. Why does it matter to me? I just feel frustrated to know people think this way.

It’s just what you do. I think about that sentence from time to time, even now. I felt pity for him then. I’m sure he felt pity for me. 

It’s also a sentence that anchors Anne’s path to domesticity, as lingering uncertainties trail her like a shadow. “How can you be sure when you’re so unsure?” Susan once asked of her. Anne, like Rabbi Gold, has ostensibly less confidence in her artistic career than Susan (which is nonetheless understandable—the arts are a financially tenuous path to tread, as Susan can attest to, and even more so in our present day). It can be inferred that such insecurities compel Anne to snatch the safety of a successful home life as soon as the chance is offered to her. Still, from her tentative agreement with Susan that she can take care of herself, to her burgeoning life of motherhood, there’s a sense that Anne has reservations in everything she does. It’s not that she secretly doesn’t want a child or a husband, but that her major life choices are guided by impulsivity stemming from her fear of solitude. She’s “so impetuous,” Susan says callously of Anne after the latter announces her pregnancy, while Susan is equally chided by Anne later on for being selfish. 

“Selfish.” That word used to describe women who do not wish to give themselves over to their higher calling of childcare and household tending. “Do you think I’m selfish?” Susan asks Eric, after Anne calls her the word during an argument “No,” Eric tells her, “scared.” It’s a comment that comes off as both condescending and compassionate, in the same, conflicting vein that Susan can somehow love and loathe Anne; be happy for her and overwhelmingly resentful. To put it plainly, “it’s another way of saying she is human,” writes Carol Gilligan. “But it also underscores the courage it takes for a woman to defy the patriarchal injunction to render herself ‘selfless’ and to include herself in the compass of her care.” In this way, selfishness is being reclaimed—it’s a way of saying, “I matter, too.”

However, the presence of Eric ultimately produces conflict for Susan, whose desire for affection and companionship wrestles against her desire for independence. Eric’s frustration steadily grows with Susan, beginning with her decision to leave his apartment early after the first time they sleep together, trickling into her latent refusal to move in with him. She just wanted to go home, she had told him. She still just wants to go home. When freeloading drifter and aspiring dancer Ceil (Amy Wright) overstays her welcome at Susan’s place, Susan tells her it’s time for her to leave under the pretense of wanting to be alone. It’s a sentiment that I feel a kinship with; any craving for romantic company that I’ve experienced in the wake of the conclusion of my most recent long-term relationship has been consistently overshadowed by my fondness for being by myself. Romantic interactions I’ve flirted with are consistently at odds with my distaste for constant interaction. I want space that no one seems willing to give. I’m not lonely, I just like being alone. This feeling eludes Anne as well as people I know in my own life—this fear of being alone—and it’s what makes Susan such an exceptional, resonant protagonist for me. Here is a woman who rejects nearly all expectations of her, favoring personal growth, individuality, and solitude. But more than that, it’s expressed in a way that is not always particularly agreeable or even “right.” Yet her feelings are never invalidated. She isn’t a bad person. She isn’t selfish. She’s only human.

“You don’t know me at all anymore, you really don’t,” Susan yells at Anne during their ultimate fight, “How could you—you haven’t been alone for more than 10 minutes in your entire life!”

“So that’s why you don’t come over?”

“You’re the one who left me.”

“I didn’t leave you, I got married.”

Will you be happy for me when I get married?

Some people who have children like to tell you that you might change your mind. It’s a topic of oft-tense discussion among those who say that they won’t. I was told it as a teenager who was too immature to know what I wanted. I’m told it at 26, still too immature to know what I want, I guess. What happens when I’m 30? Or 40? Still too immature to know what I want, I suppose. Still too selfish, too unwilling to open myself to “the greatest love I’ll ever know.” This idea that all women will reach a magical age when they finally realize their life’s true purpose, and before then we’re simply naïve, selfish infants. It anchors medical reluctance to administer tubal litigation, renders a (cis) woman’s identity inseparable from her biology. It’s a viewpoint not beholden to a single age group—people from all generations express this doubt towards those who say they would like to remain childless. I won’t change my mind. And why does it matter to you? 

These people like to act like your business is their problem, like your choices have to validate their own. I used to feel anger towards them, but now I wonder if they’re scared. Insecure. Maybe they never wanted it and did it all anyway, thinking that someday their mind would surely change. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe it’s their deepest, darkest secret. Maybe the people who are confident that their minds won’t change remind these other people that there was a choice involved—that they didn’t have to do it. “If this person never changes their mind, then maybe I made the wrong choice.” What a terrifying thing to realize. Nobody wants to admit that they regret such a thing. Maybe we’re all just scared.

Scared. Why does it matter to me? Why does it matter to you?

It’s what I’ve come to realize unites Susan and Anne in their outwardly contrasting lives, why the two women aren’t as different as they might feel—why their adult friendship isn’t all that dissimilar from the ones in my own life, where conversations are separated by months of comfortable silence and well-intentioned sentiments of “we’ll hang out soon.” Both friends are resentful and envious of what the other one has: Susan endowed with a busy yet carefree creative life and ample free time; Anne gifted with financial stability and the comfort to pursue her writing with a safety net. It’s why I should be kinder to myself, and to others who lead lives that I might not necessarily comprehend yet. Anne is scared of instability, of solitude; Susan is scared of adulthood, of losing her friend. Rabbi Gold was once scared, and so is Eric. And so are my own friends, and so were my parents at one point, I can only assume. And so am I. Susan is never condescended to, never made to feel that what she’s feeling is wrong or will even change someday, even if she isn’t being a good friend to Anne in this fragile moment. Neither Susan nor Anne are in the wrong in the daunting battle to keep their friendship from succumbing to dissolution, and in learning, no matter how oppositionally, how to be an adult.

Will you be happy for me when I get married?

In the final sequence of the film, Susan drives to Anne and Martin’s home in the country after Anne had failed to show up to Susan’s first art exhibition that same night. When the two women finally come face to face, there is calm, and happiness, and warmth between the two of them. A much-needed exhalation is released that relieves both Anne and Susan of their stifled resentment towards one another. Anne admits that she just underwent an abortion without telling Martin, in order to allow herself time to go back to school. Susan admits that she’s afraid of being left, after evading Anne’s question of whether she’ll move in with Eric. Once, earlier in the film, Anne had puttered around in her new home with Martin, writing “thank you” cards for wedding gifts that she didn’t want to and wishing that Susan would come over more often. And when Susan did, it became agonizingly clear just how disparate their lives are. Now, however, the two friends proceed to get drunk in front of a warm, roaring fireplace, and suddenly they’re both kids again. It’s like nothing ever changed, as if the months that had once isolated them were all but a transitory dream. The love between the girls had never left even in the midst of separation, massive life changes, and seemingly endless fatigue towards one another.

And yet, their revelry is soon broken by the sound of a car pulling up to the house. Martin has just arrived. He calls Anne’s name and she promptly vacates the room, and Susan has been left again. Susan takes a deep breath, cracks a slight smile, and looks away from the camera. Once more, Susan’s happiness is underscored by something else altogether—this time, apprehension tinged with that persistent fear. Dread. The film ends with a freeze-frame of this look on Susan’s face. This uncertainty towards an ever-uncertain future. Will the two friends pull through, or will they fall apart? We don’t know, and we never will. Susan certainly doesn’t know either. We can only hope. So can they. 

The beauty of the resolution to Girlfriends is that there isn’t one. Neither Anne nor Susan has some eye-opening revelation, no spoken commitment to changing themselves. The two women seem to understand that they are different and that there will be distance between them; that their friendship will have to persist in spite of who they are and who they’ve become. There are aspects to one another’s lives that they will simply never be involved in. But it doesn’t make them bad people, and having choices does not negate fear. 

I am thankful for Susan Weinblatt, and I hope things worked out between her and Anne. But I would also understand if they never did. I’m scared when I look towards the future and think of my friends getting married. I’m scared of how I’ll react when my closest friend tells me she’s pregnant. Like Susan, I like being alone, but I don’t want to be left. Like Susan, I have trouble understanding people who make choices that I wouldn’t make for myself. I can be cruel, and judgmental, and obstinate, and immature. I need to remind myself more often that I’m not a fixed point. I’m constantly changing, even if that scares me too.

“Even if we want different things, I’m still the same person,” Anne had insisted to Susan during their fight. 

“No you’re not,” Susan replied. “You’re married.”

Will you be happy for me when I get married?

Susan is both correct and incorrect. And it’s in these contradictions that we find ourselves, suddenly, adults.