Do Stories About Female Friendship Need Conflict? An Investigation, Inspired by a Lackluster Response to ‘The Spy Who Dumped Me’
When we talked on the Pajiba Slack last week about The Spy Who Dumped Me, which Tori reviewed and liked very much, I admitted that the movie, directed by Susanna Fogel, hadn’t really done much for me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, I told Tori, but something about it never hit home. I didn’t laugh that often; I rolled my eyes at the idea of Mila Kunis suddenly becoming a badass spy because she played an arcade video game every so often; and I shuddered at the fact that I agreed with Justin Theroux’s character that Kate McKinnon’s performance was a little too much. (Important admission about me: I may be the only member of the Pajiba Overlords who cannot stand Theroux. I’m sorry that I’m not sorry.)
I’ve considered my dislike more since that conversation, and it’s possible that I’ve figured it out, and it’s a weird thing to realize: I think The Spy Who Dumped Me didn’t work for me because it completely lacked conflict between its two female leads. The best friends Audrey and Morgan, played by Kunis and McKinnon, respectively, never really disagree. They’re constantly congratulating and praising each other; after Audrey kills people while defending them, Morgan repeats over and over again how “proud” she is of Audrey for finally committing to something.
The Spy Who Dumped Me is obviously a comedy, and a lot of how supportive Audrey and Morgan are of each other is played for laughs, but I guess I couldn’t really buy into a relationship in which two people are wholly, overwhelmingly down with each other without any pause, even when that allegiance doesn’t seem right under certain circumstances. Would I be totally on board with my best friend if she suddenly displayed a knack for murdering people? I don’t know! Or if my best friend was so wacky and zany that she almost derailed a plan to save the entire world by engaging in a trapeze fight with a former child gymnast abused by her coaches into being an assassin? I also don’t know!
There are a lot of scenes in The Spy Who Dumped Me in which the female characters just barrel forward without any consideration of what has happened because of their actions—the ride-share driver who was murdered, a family friend who was murdered—and hey, we’ve seen men do that shit in comedies for years, so this is not totally unfamiliar to me as a movie viewer! The entire point of feminism is that women should have the same opportunities to do the shit men do, whether it’s dumb or terrible or whatever! But I suppose what I was looking for in The Spy Who Dumped Me was an acknowledgment that female friendships can be complicated and multifaceted, can have layers of intragroup dynamics that speak to a shared history and common hardships and triumphs. Morgan tries to cheer up Audrey by urging a random man at a bar to compliment her breasts; Audrey encourages Morgan to prepare for being an international spy by getting weirdly intimate with a flash-drive. I guess I wanted more than that?
Is it unhealthy that some of my favorite movies about female friendship are ones that acknowledge the competition between women, that point to how ambition and imagination can bring people together or tear them apart? Damn, maybe it is! But I think about Bridesmaids and how Kristen Wiig’s Annie felt discarded by Maya Rudolph’s Lillian for Rose Byrne’s Helen, and how that led to moments of honesty between the two best friends; or the unlikely camaraderie that developed between Melissa McCarthy’s Detective Mullins and Sandra Bullock’s Special Agent Ashburn in The Heat after an initial deep dislike, once they bonded over shared experiences in a professional field populated mainly by men; or the wistful realization that your teen years don’t last forever, demonstrated by Saiorse Ronan’s Lady Bird and Beanie Feldstein’s Julie in Lady Bird and Ellen Page’s Bliss and Alia Shawkat’s Pash in the immensely underrated Whip It; or the push-pull dynamics of friends who border on enemies in the Winona Ryder classics Heathers and Reality Bites.
And there’s Girls Trip and Bring It On and Set It Off and Bachelorette and The Craft and Satisfaction and Mystic Pizza and Ocean’s 8, all of which to varying degrees examine the tight bonds that can develop between women and that can then intermittently fray and rebuild over time. It’s a simplistic understanding of human nature to immediately assume, “Well, conflict leads to growth,” but dammit, conflict DOES lead to growth! And I suppose what I didn’t respond to in The Spy Who Dumped Me was that this was a film that prioritized Audrey’s relationship with Theroux’s character as the one that inspired her to change, which kind of made me think, “Well, why would she respond to the man she’s only dated for a year or so instead of the best friend she’s had for decades? Why would his actions and reactions matter more to her than anyone else’s?”
In those other films, women push each other forward, whether it’s through magical shark rituals or elaborate heists or cheerleading practice, but it’s challenging and combative, too. There’s a suggestion that women can be forceful with one another, can help each other improve, can voice what they want individually and what they want for each other—is that more worthwhile than blind acceptance? Did the female friendship in The Spy Who Dumped Me need conflict rather than unrestrained loyalty to make its point about personal growth? Or are you guys still caught up on the fact that I admitted around these parts that I don’t like Justin Theroux? Scandal!
Meet me in the comments! I’m down to argue if you are.
Image sources (in order of posting): Lionsgate Publicity, Lionsgate Publicity
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