Who run the world? Girls! And yes, while we love all the important people in our lives, there isn’t any power in the universe like the kind that comes from our strong female friendships. If you’re lucky in this world, you are blessed with the kind of ride or die ladies in your inner-circle that would make the Khaleesi jealous for their loyalty.
It’s too bad that female friendships have been historically under-represented and undervalued in our literature and films, and this needs to change (I’m particularly sensitive to this as a PhD in literature, and a feminist). True long-term friendships take work and commitment and generosity and all that mushy stuff, similarly to the way romantic partnerships do, so if you grow up without seeing examples of how to do all that with a friend or group of friends, then how will you know how to create this wonderful phenomenon for your adult self?
Cue the magic of a selection of amazing films, big budget and independent, some recently released, and some almost 30 years-old, that celebrate the raw power and jaw-dropping perfection of female friendships. I watched all these awesome films to give you the high notes on why you and your besties need to put them on your Netflix queue. So gather one, two, or a crowd of your special ladies to watch these female friendship classics, and don’t forget the tissues!
Thelma and Louise (1991)
Let’s go big right out of the gate. Thelma and Louise could be called the essential ride or die, independent woman masterpiece. The working class, small town Thelma and Louise characters, played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, respectively, are longing to break free from their gross, oppressive husbands. So . . . super fun all-girls road trip? Yeah! Sounds great!
Sorry ladies, remember that thing called rape culture? After a troll of a guy threatens to sexually assault Thelma in a parking lot, Louise goes all badass protective best friend and shoots the guy. They go on the lam in a red convertible, and are chased by the police. So, not your typical carefree spring break vaycay flick. Would you kill someone who was trying to hurt your best friend? No matter how far you’d actually go to protect your crew, the way Louise takes power into her own hands and shuts down a piece of human scum sure feels good, and represents what pretty much all good people fantasize about doing to rapists. Even if you don’t believe in more violence as an answer to violence in real life, watching Louise ferociously protect her friend is damn cathartic.
The famously dramatic end (I won’t spoil it for you in case you were under a rock in the ’90s and haven’t seen it yet) is definitely inspiring and deeply sad at the same time — a tough but worthwhile combo to pull off.
trolls (as outlined in a 2016 issue of The Atlantic) who thought that nobody would want to watch four female leads as comedic action heroes, and boy were they wrong. Not only did predominantly positive reviews mark critics’ responses, according to BBC News, Variety reported that leading up to its opening, the new Ghostbusters took the “top spot in advance ticket sales for comedies.”
The four ghostbusters, played by Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, are hilarious in the roles, of course, but one of my favorite things about the movie was their skill and commitment to their professions, and the prevailing pro-friendship message. So as Manohla Dargis puts it in her editorial for the New York Times Movie section, “Girls rule. Women are funny. Get over it.”
Waiting to Exhale (1995)
This mid-nineties film starring the epic Whitney Houston, and exploring the lives of a group of disparate, yet bonded black women, became a cultural touchstone for many women at the time. As Macy Freeman puts it in a 2012 Washington Post editorial about the film, “Our mothers watched this film with their friends, and we watched it with ours, seeing at least a few qualities in one of the characters that reminded us of ourselves or women we know.” As rare and special movies celebrating women’s relationships with each other are, multiply that again when it comes to honoring black women’s friendships with each other. But that’s not all that makes Waiting to Exhale a cinematic gem.
The birthday scene at the end of the film gave female viewers a visual of what it looks like for women to help each other through difficult situations (I won’t give away the exact details). And if you’re a young woman watching that, it can really give you something important to emulate.
As Macy Freeman put it for the Washington Post, “We all have our favorite scenes, but none summarizes the friendship shared by these black women more than Gloria’s birthday party and the final scene of the film. For me, it tells a simple but significant lesson: The women who care about us the most are often the ones to give us tough love when we need it.”
A League of their Own (1992)
Another nineties gem starring Geena Davis! We’ve also got Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell on hand for comic relief, as well as a great performance in a supportive role by Tom Hanks. What can I say? My college softball team watched this movie with pizza and beer before pretty much every game for four years, and it was an awesome bonding experience every time.
This period piece is based on real events, set during World War II, when American baseball was super popular, but so many of the male players from the big leagues had left the team to go off to fight in the war. So just the way women like “Rosie the Riveter” took over men’s jobs in factories and on farms, a crew of very talented female baseball players became the “All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.” According to league historians writing for aagpbl.org, real women “inspired the feature film,” which makes the bonding between the players even more powerful. Watch this one if you and your ladies are into sports together (or just Madonna, of course).
Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997)
Could this be the single greatest ’90s comedy? Quite possibly. Lisa Kudrow (love her) and Mira Sorvino, co-star as ditzy and aimless, yet good-hearted, 28-year-old best friends who were perhaps a bit uncool in high school (Kudrow’s character had to wear a back brace as a teen due to scoliosis, which wasn’t good for her social standing). When their ten-year reunion rolls around, they are desperate to show up and prove their haters wrong. Remember this was before the days of social media, so reunions were definitely more of a thing.
Even when Romy and Michelle start fighting with each other and decide to make up lies for the other reunion-goers about what they’ve accomplished so far in life (Michelle claims to have invented Post-its!), when the mean girls from high school come around to trash the two friends, they stick up for each other (yay). As Janet Maslin said in her 1997 New York Times review, “Though the film frays their friendship by having them argue about which one is the bigger success, ”cuteness-wise,” that’s easy to settle. They both win.”
What’s really cool about this cinematic homage to female friends is that even though the film could technically claim rom-com status because of the story arc surrounding Romy’s preoccupation with her high school infatuation, in the end, Romy ditches her loser crush to hang out with Michelle and her nice-guy new love (resulting in an epic three-way interpretive dance scene). The film ends with Romy and Michelle running a store together and celebrating their true loves: fashion and each other.
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
Based on the book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, by Fannie Flagg, this movie is chock-a-block with scenes of strong women helping each other. Starring show-stoppers Kathy Bates, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary-Louise Parker, and Jessica Tandy, the plot shifts forward and backward in time, tracing the lives of several women going through hardships like the deaths of dear ones, abuse at the hands of a husband, and even forbidden love.
There’s actually a bit of a sexy scene between two of the female characters in the original book (it’s steamy, I’ve read it), but that connotation is mostly left out of the film. As AfterEllen.com puts it, “the film version de-gayed much of the Fannie Flagg novel it was based on,” showing more of a platonic love. The point is, this group of women helps each other to value themselves, and protects each other from those that would hurt them. Can you ask for anything else from a rad all-girl crew?
Baby Mama (2008)
“You pay the bills, she has the baby. That’s called a baby mama,” says the main character’s doorman. Although this movie comes off mostly as a slapstick, hilarious romp about an older single woman trying to have a baby and her hired surrogate, it ends up also being a sweet story about a supportive female friendship developing in spite of class divisions and each other’s imperfections. Plus, Amy Pohehler and Tina Fey — do I need to say more?
Steel Magnolias (1989)
What is harder for a woman to weather than the death of her child? This story follows the lives of several small town, southern women (played by Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts) over many years, through abandonment, divorce, illness, marriage, birth, new hairstyles, and yes, even untimely death.
The meat of the plot focuses on the way these women may sometimes fight, but ultimately support each other through hell and back. There is lots of eye candy and comic relief to be found in scenes like the pretty, pastel wedding, a summer carnival, and tons and tons of Dolly Parton magic, but the overall message highlights the strength and value of strong female friendship. The title itself, Steel Magnolias, probably means to highlight the women themselves — how they are beautiful like flowers, yet still as strong as steel.
The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Did you read the book by Amy Tan in high school or college, or even a book group? It’s pretty likely you did, since as TCM.com reports, “The Joy Luck Club remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for 75 weeks and was translated into 23 languages worldwide. Before the book was even published, Tan had interest from Hollywood.”
It’s up to you to decide if the book or the movie is better, but both do an incredible job showing the nuance and power of female relationships. In the film, directed by Wayne Wang, viewers get to see a lot of complicated interaction between mothers and daughters, but the base plot follows four female friends.
As TCM.com notes, the movie follows “four Chinese women living in San Francisco, and their American born adult daughters, [who] share the fascinating and often harrowing stories of their lives,” with each other. Again, we see a common theme throughout many of these stories: life is ridiculously hard, so what can you do to survive it? Get yourself a group of awesome female friends.
Now and Then (1995)
This one was a favorite movie when I was a tween and teen, so I can’t believe it only has a 24 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes! Parts of the plot are a bit far-fetched, I suppose. There are ghosts and séances, and a psychic (played by Jeneane Garafalo), and a group of 12-year-olds trying to solve a murder. It’s set in both the 1995 present-day, and flashes backs to 1970s suburban America, where four tween best friends negotiate puberty in a small town.
Refinery29 calls it a “classic” and a “coming-of-age film . . . about female friendship.” Rosie O’Donnell, Melanie Griffith, Demi Moore, and Rita Wilson play the star-studded cast of the grown-up girls, who come back together when one of them has her own baby, and provide each other with valuable support after spending time apart in very different adult lives, from a movie star to a stay at home mom.
Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, Gaby Hoffman, and Ashleigh Aston Moore play their younger selves, respectively. Vashtie.com, which refers to the movie as “the coming-of-age film of all things sisterhood,” notes one of the most memorable sound bites in the movie: “We all used to try so hard to fit in. We wanted to look exactly alike, do all the same things, practically be the same person, but when we weren’t looking that all changed. The tree house was supposed to bring us more independence, but what the summer actually brought was independence from each other.”
Friends until the end
Do you have a group of women in your life that you know you can count on? Or maybe just one super-sister-soulmate who you would immediately text if you won the lottery, or maybe even if you went nuts, robbed a bank, and needed someone to hide you? I hope you do. If so, hold them close and watch these movies together! If not, how about inviting some new friends over to check some of these movies out together? You may all get some bright ideas.
[Editorial note: I first published this article on The List and decided to share it with y’all here.]