It took me all weekend to figure out what did not sit right with me about Ann Friedman’s “Shine Theory” of female friendship, which ran in New York magazine on Friday. The much-applauded piece has a veneer of warm and inspirational. Friedman, who does seem like a lovely person, basically advocates for the end of schadenfreude in female relationships. If you meet a woman who is cooler, more successful, more effortlessly creative with her prints than you are, don’t hate on her—be her friend:
But even if it were somehow possible to objectively evaluate all of our female peers against ourselves, it’s worth asking why we’re spending all this time creating a ranking system in our minds. When we hate on women who we perceive to be more “together” than we are, we’re really just expressing the negative feelings we have about our own careers, or bodies, or relationships.
Here’s my solution: When you meet a woman who is intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful, and professionally accomplished, befriend her. Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.
This is uplifting advice, right? It imagines a world where Kelly Rowland loves Beyoncé and all the Kardashians stop resenting Kim and the Texas cheerleader mom never existed. Where we are all sisterly and supportive because if our friends shine, then we shine, too!
But the problem is that this worldview posits a definition of friendship I can’t really relate to as a strategic alliance, a self-improvement project, or maybe just networking, which is a fine and noble pursuit but not the same as actual friendship. I might have a “ranking system” in my mind (although I don’t spend all my time on it), but it involves my colleagues or fellow journalists, not my friends. My friends, even if they are journalists, are largely exempt from this ranking system. When they are doing well I toast them, and when they are having a hard time, I hear them out. Sometimes I envy their shine for a day or two or even their new pair of sweet sandals. But so what? I’m only human.
If I chose my real friends using Friedman’s advice, I would be in big trouble. What would happen if my successful friend’s career suddenly hit the skids? Do I have to drop her because she will tarnish my shine? And what if I have a sudden bout of success and my friend emits the jealous vibe? Do I have to shun her because she’s being unsisterly? In any case, the advice seems old-fashioned, a relic from the days when women did not see themselves as worthy competition for men, so they fought one another for scraps.
It seems to me a much safer strategy to divide the world between friends and professional acquaintances and have different rules for each category. If it’s a fabulous friend you are feeling envious of, ride it out, tell yourself it’s only natural, and then let it go. If it’s a fabulous acquaintance, call up your friend and have a nice, satisfying gossip session about how she can’t actually walk in her sweet sandals or whatever, and then eventually let that one go, too.