Female Friends and Coercive Solidarity

I don’t usually start posts with housekeeping, but this week’s is a particularly hot take that I’m sure is going to ruffle some feathers on all sides. In the event of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a floatation device . . . really, though, let’s keep the comments section cool both here and on socials, yeah? I’m fully aware that some folks will feel like I’m talking about them, and other folks will feel the guilty twinge of “oh, I may have encouraged that without fully considering the consequences.” But if you’ve arrived at my blog before, you know we’re all here to feel the uncomfortable feelings. That’s how we grow. This is just my reminder to you that a) you can and should process at your own pace, and b) processing in real time on the internet may not be the wisest choice for you and those around you. (Considering this blog has gone through many drafts and multiple beta readers, I am definitely taking my own advice here.)

That said, it’s true—I generally don’t preface posts with lists of disclaimers. I haven’t for a long time. However, it’s somewhat rare that I take on a topic like today’s. I spend a lot of time talking about my relationships and interactions with men—personal, professional, adversarial, musical. I almost never talk about my relationships with women.

As a broad topic, this is a deficit I’m hoping to address not only through this post but in future blogs as well. Relationships between gender-marginalized folks in fields dominated by cis men can be (and frequently are) exceedingly rewarding and helpful in many ways I couldn’t hope to articulate fully. Still, forming those friendships, especially when you’re young, can be particularly fraught. Many of the female friends I made as an undergrad were spurred on initially by some (male) peer or mentor encouraging us to hang out and get to know each other—often because we were among the only women around. Composition, trumpet, jazz . . . the discipline didn’t matter. I fell into friendships with girls predicated solely on the fact that we were both female in the same difficult field.

Some of these relationships have withstood the test of time and distance—for instance, I missed out on two years of Brianne Borden and she’s still an incredibly important part of my life—but others, perhaps once sustained by shared classes and mutual friends, have fizzled or grown complicated. And this evolution in itself is tricky, but I think it speaks to the isolation that comes with working in difficult fields and times like this. Minorities in music and other disciplines are so often thrown together under some general premise that seems to say, “Oh, you’re both different in the same way. Surely you’ll get along.”

To really understand why this is fundamentally very weird, stop for a moment (especially if you are a cis man) and think about the myriad people who make up your scene or community. Now imagine a trusted friend or valued mentor introduces you to one of these folks and encourages you to hang out because you are both men. This would be incredibly strange—even in a group of friends comprised primarily of women. But let’s say you take this friend or mentor’s advice and hang with this other guy. You swap numbers, you get to know each other . . . and then, whether it has been minutes or weeks or years, you come to a jarring conclusion: you would not prioritize this friendship in any other situation.

It can be a daunting realization to come to, especially in this era, where it seems like most of the men in my life are bigger on woman/woman solidarity than I am. (Now there’s something you can stop and think about for a couple minutes.) If I had to guess—please note this is not clinical or statistically solid in the least—a lot of cis male folks are somewhat gung-ho on this subject because they genuinely want to facilitate meaningful connections for their marginalized friends; however, they do not fully understand the complicated power dynamics and consequences that can arise from these situations. Most of my male friends can set firmer boundaries with their male friends—can keep them at arm’s length—without too much blowback from the community at large. In my experience, women aren’t so lucky.

It’s difficult to talk about these things to a male audience. (Yes, there are folks of many genders reading this; however, a good chunk of y’all are dudes.) The biggest hurdle, for me, exists because marginalized women are so often pressured to stand with other marginalized women regardless of the context or cost. As I take this apart, please note that this isn’t me saying we shouldn’t be standing alongside differently marginalized folks or more marginalized folks as we fight that marginalization. Leveraging privilege is a huge priority for me. I’m talking here about close interpersonal relationships and the abuses of power and trust that can come with obligatory one-on-one solidarity. Or, to put it another way: women can be shitty humans from time to time, either generally or in the context of a single relationship, and when we make Being Friends With All The Other Girls obligatory (explicitly or otherwise), we jeopardize the wellbeing and career trajectories of the people in the blast radius. We force folks into toxic relationships without stipulating that you don’t have to be friends with the only other girl in your program or community if she’s not actively, intentionally good for you. 

When I say regardless of the context or cost, the phrase sounds generic, but I can name specific sacrifices I either have made or would have had to make over the course of the last half a decade if I defaulted to standing with the women in my communities who aren’t great influences on me: other friendships with women. My choice in life partners. Professional opportunities. My best friend. I’ll almost always defer to the women around me, but the gray area encroaches when someone asks for support on an issue I have little to no involvement in and either pulls the “us girls have to stick together” card or tries to leverage whisper networks to cause active harm to others.

Though they’ve been on my list of Things To Talk About for some time, I haven’t delved into whisper networks on the blog yet. For those unfamiliar, the term refers to the stories passed along through quiet conversations that serve as vital warnings about predators and other problematic and dangerous people within a community. They’re the open secrets and the bad experiences your friends have had with their teachers that they can’t do anything about. Often, whisper networks are used to warn people away from someone with power and influence who opts to misuse or abuse their position. They’re how musicians have been warned about James Levine and Plácido Domingo for decades. These functions are vital to a well-supported arts community, but it’s important to remember that whisper networks aren’t a blank check to pass off stories without fact-checking. They aren’t an appropriate forum for the trash-talking that leaves the realm of reality and ventures into alleged events and/or conversations that are provably (and/or proven) false.

Those folks who don’t know me probably think I’m shooting myself in the foot right now. Should we believe survivors? Yes. Absolutely. But whisper networks go far beyond rape accusations; they cover everything from passing advice to the most serious of crimes. And it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly when someone’s leveraging that network—and the questionable, coercive solidarity of Girls Sticking Together—for a political power grab.

I’ve been bitten by the abuse of that power enough times that I understand when I have to use my best risk-assessment skills—on a personal, triggers-and-other-bad-things level—and identify when it’s time to stand down. Most often, this happens when I’m being pushed toward a decision I don’t have sufficient information to make for myself; in stripping away my ability to make my own choice on the grounds of Us Girls Have To Stick Together No Matter What, I’m being made into a pawn, frequently to be used in a personal, political move I have no interest in or endorsement of. And y’all can guess how I usually feel about that.

We all know that nobody’s perfect, and we all know that lots of people aren’t perfect for each other. On a fundamental level, that’s understandable and okay and should be perfectly navigable. But the complicated friendships and convoluted power dynamics are magnified by a power of ten when you take into account the fact that all the men around us want all the women to be (and remain) friends. Aggressively so. It’s an extension of tokenism—because there are relatively few of us (in any musical community in the country, really), we’re kept from being on the same bandstands, but we’re expected to wholeheartedly support the community we’re in despite our continued mistreatment. (I’ve written about that before, too, but I’ll need to touch on it again sometime soon.) Further, though, because that Support The Community With A Smile mandate is purposely nonspecific, we are expected to be unflinchingly, ceaselessly supportive of every person in our community. That includes the problematic folks of all genders. We are supposed to be happy and positive and hopeful and on display, and that not only makes it difficult to call out oppressive institutions and individuals, it allows those individuals to flex abusive power structures and use the same silencing tools Levine and other predators have used to keep people down. Sometimes it’s “disavow me and you’ll never work again.” Sometimes it’s “disavow me and I’ll spin stories that make you seem like the problem.” Really, they’re just two sides of the same coin, used by different people for different ends.

Those of you who know me and my writing know I’m pretty unafraid to post difficult things on this blog, but despite my best efforts, I’m far less adept at identifying and critiquing events in real time. These posts are carefully written and meticulously edited, and again, a lot of the bigger ones have multiple beta readers. I’m aware that for some folks my words carry significant weight, and I spend a lot of time working to make sure I get as many of them right as possible. This blog was beta-read by four women from across the country, and I’m sure—sure—it’s still going to raise some hackles and ruffle some feathers. Critiquing these things in women is hard, because many of these problems fly almost completely under the radar of our male friends, peers, and superiors. And even when they rise to the surface, it’s difficult to know how to handle them in a way that maintains a feminist perspective while still acknowledging the very real hurt being perpetrated.

Here’s the thing: this isn’t an all-or-nothing scenario. I can be friends with many women without being a ride-or-die for all of them. So, if you’d be so kind, follow the instinct that looks at musical styles or personalities or shared interests and says, “hey, they’d be good for her,” and introduce me to those people. Push me haphazardly in those directions. Nudge me toward the folks you think would make my heart sing. I don’t care if they’re men or not.

Lily Maase, a dear friend and role model who’s among the strongest women I’ve ever known, summed it up best in a conversation we had earlier this year: “It’s not worth having toxic friends just to have female friends.” And I would happily take a thousand copies of Chaz Martineau or Cameron Robello or Chris Lamb or Luke Storm or Tim Feeney—or all of the above—if it meant I didn’t have to choose between Girls Sticking Together and my own moral and ethical standards.

I will take a band of my brothers if that’s what that means. I will take a roomful, a stadium packed to the brim with gender-marginalized people, if that’s what that means. But if you put me in a space with women who are not good for me, I will not pretend that same deep love I have for the people who make my heart sing. I will not give away the title of “sister” to women who expect it to be the highest obligation in my life. These non-sisterships, they’re not inherently forever—for instance, I’m in the process of slowly reconnecting with a friend who wasn’t good for me a few years ago but is once again a positive perspective in my life—but they are boundaries. And I’m going to start setting them down.

None of us are perfect, and we all go through dark times. We all do things we’re not proud of. I can’t speak for anyone else on this matter, but I will speak for myself: harm perpetuated for harm’s sake does not have a place among my sisters. Not when it’s done to me, and not when it’s done to my other siblings.

Those women are no sisters of mine. But maybe, someday, they could be again. ♦

A massive thank you to Kate Amrine, Ashley Killam, Kaili Otsuka, and Indigo Rain Cook for beta-reading this post in the weeks before publication. You make my heart sing.

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