July 5, 2008
The Canberra Times

Scorned women bind in fury and males suffer in lonely hell

Female friendships can be fierce. And for all its fashion, frippery and product placements, the movie Sex and the City is a welcome celebration of just how deeply fierce and enduring those female bonds can be.

So why is the bloke sitting next to me in the cinema sobbing? Is he jealous?

There’s a startling moment in the film when we see a flash of fire in Charlotte’s eyes. Charlotte, the most demure and ”girly” of the four girlfriends, is suddenly formidable as she bellows at ”Mr Big”, who has just wronged her beloved friend Carrie, in perhaps the most humiliating and devastating way a man can – he has left her at the altar.

Yes, Mr Big is a big ”no show” on the big day.

For any woman such a thing is, well, unthinkable. In the film, the hurt, pain and shock of it all erupts like lava spewing as Carrie charges at Mr Big, the dirty dog.

But as her dearest friends, the bridesmaids, pull her away from him, trying to end this volcanic public display of wild fury, it’s Charlotte’s reaction that is most arresting.

As she protectively cradles the heartbroken bride and Mr Big lunges towards them begging forgiveness, Charlotte – the diminutive, breezy air-head Charlotte – thrusts her arm out to stop him.

With just one finger raised, she roars, ”No!” It stops the cad dead in his tracks.

The fury and hate in her eyes at that moment, is a look I will never forget. It’s a ”how dare you do this to my friend, take one step closer and I will kill you!” And right then, I think she could have.

Women know that look. Many of us have felt it ourselves.

When the women we love are painfully wronged, we can be wild and unforgiving towards ”he” who has wronged her: regardless of our girlfriend’s own role or responsibility in the wronging.

The love and loyalty of female friendship is simply uncompromising.

The flip side is when we’ve wronged each other: when we hurt our women friends with our words, or actions.

Then the fury women direct at one another can be almost as scary as that flash in Charlotte’s eye. But it’s temporary. We know that. There is no questioning the validity of the friendship. We know we’ll get back together. It’s just a matter of when, and who breaks first.

In the film it took Carrie and Miranda three days, with Miranda forced to do a bit of begging. Next time no doubt it will be Carrie’s turn.

And make no mistake; there will be a next time. Because that’s the way it is with women’s friendships. They can be fierce, forgiving, loyal and loving yet volatile all in one.

I don’t think the same can be said about men. Which is perhaps why men envy female friendships, while they are prone to loneliness.

When pressed, many men I know will admit they have very few, if any, close male friends with whom they feel an intimate bond and understanding. And that’s not just because I happen to be surrounded by loners. There’s plenty of research data to support this.

The fact is men generally don’t make and keep friends and deep friendships in the way that women do. Which is odd when you think about it, as most of our history would suggest otherwise.

Rarely are great friendships between women celebrated in our history, literature or theatre. Instead we seem to have been duped by a cultural mythology that suggests the most important and greatest friendships are between men.

In Australia the Anzac legend is perhaps most responsible for that misguided assumption.

Yet Australian men are among the loneliest.

The Australia Institute has done some penetrating research on this theme and in 2005 produced a grim report, Mapping Loneliness in Australia, by Michael Flood. Using data from the ongoing HILDA (Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia) survey, which includes interviews with more than 13,000 people; the final conclusion was, well, sad.

The report focused on those aged 25 to 44, and found a ”marked gender gap in the experience of loneliness”. Men, it turns out, ”tend to be lonelier than women” right through that age period and beyond  into old age. The reason for male loneliness is not because of isolation. Unlike some women who are at home with kids and cut off from the social connections provided by the workplace, most men in the study group were found to rely heavily on their workplace as a source of friendships. It’s just that those friendships are more one- dimensional and less intimate than those shared by women. The blokes might spend plenty of time discussing or even playing sport, but it stops there.

Just as women have multi- dimensional lives, their friendships too are multi-layered.

They are less afraid of intimacy and honesty when it comes to sharing details about themselves, their lives, fears, hopes and frustrations.

Men on the other hand tend to baulk at such sharing. Perhaps it’s the competitive nature of masculinity: any revelations of chinks in the manly armour will diminish their standing. Or so they think.

Interestingly the Australia Institute report found that men aged 35 to 44 suffer ”the deepest levels of loneliness”.

And yet this is a time in a man’s life when he has a particularly wide opportunity for social interaction through work, friends, families, children and sporting activities.

But according to the report, men rely on their wives or partners for their emotional and social needs to a much greater degree than women.

The report’s conclusion is worth repeating: ”In short, men need women more than women need men.”

Funny, I could have told them that.

As for the man sobbing as the film credits rolled, I gave him a tissue and told him I cried too.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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