‘Girlfriends’ Showed Us What a Toxic Friendship Looks Like
Watching Girlfriends in the early 2000s with my momma are memories I’ll always cherish. Even though I was too young to know what most of the show was about (Joan’s “three-month rule” or Sean’s sex addiction), I knew I enjoyed seeing four Black women going through life together. Even at my young age, I could feel the importance of sisterhood. I could feel the magic that comes with finding your “girlfriends.” I, too, wanted to be successful, beautiful, and Black with a core group of Black friends.
When Netflix announced the release of all eight seasons of Girlfriends, there was a collective elation that spread through Black Twitter and other social media platforms. Black womxn everywhere immediately began streaming Girlfriends when it dropped. It’s our cult classic. I binged season after season, warm from the nostalgia I felt just from hearing the theme song. As a kid, I idolized the friendships between Joan, Lynn, Maya, and Toni because it gave me something to look forward to as an adult. But now as an adult, I can clearly see the threads of toxicity running through their friendships because it was so well-obscured by their cute dinner dates, burgeoning career paths, and fun nights out.
“Is it me or is this kind of manipulative?” my friend asked.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a scene from season two. Toni, desperate to prove to Joan that she’s changed her toxic ways, goes up during the assurance of pardon in church. A lot has happened between the two before this point — Toni cheated on her fiancée and Joan saw fit to interfere and tell Toni’s fiancée, who, of course, calls off the engagement. Toni half-heartedly attempted to seduce Joan’s boyfriend as revenge. They forgive each other but fall back into the same habits — Toni tells Joan’s boss intimate details about Joan’s life. Joan cuts her off. Things change when Toni, Maya, and Lynn bombard Joan while she’s enjoying Sunday church service, alone.
“Is it me or is this kind of manipulative?” my friend asked. I rewatched the episode and found myself agreeing. The gesture was beautiful but Toni’s (and Joan’s) toxic behavior doesn’t end in season two. Both Lynn and Maya guilt Joan into forgiving Toni before she’s ready. Was she supposed to refuse Toni’s apology and leave her up at the front of the church alone?
There are many uncomfortable moments like these in Girlfriends. There’s the casual erasure disguised as witty banter throughout the seasons. Trans is Black women and non-binary Black people are absent in the show and queer characters (like Maya’s cousin Ronnie and his boyfriend Peaches) only seem to make appearances as funny sidekicks. Complex issues like misogynoir and classism serve as sparring weapons, notably for Toni and Maya as their tepid tolerance for each other grows throughout the seasons. Toni judges Maya for her lack of wealth and her background. Maya judges Toni for her promiscuity, often flaunting her marriage as a milestone Toni will never reach. Lynn is selfish and despite having the privilege of a college education and multiple degrees, she relies on her friends to bail her out of her bad decisions.
There are so many times Joan crosses boundaries and puts her career above her loved ones (remember the episode she puts her police citation in Lynn’s name?).
And Joan. Oh Joan. She’s insecure and self-absorbed, centering men instead of herself and her friends, while still unwilling to admit she has her own shortcomings. With a career and house like hers, why would anyone like Joan Clayton need a man? There are so many times Joan crosses boundaries and puts her career above her loved ones (remember the episode she puts her police citation in Lynn’s name?). Unfortunately, the most important relationship in her life is her toxic one with Toni. Joan routinely dismisses Toni’s very real internalization of colorism. Toni can be emotionally manipulative and vindictive while Joan fails to support Toni and demonstrates over and over again that she has a big mouth. Joan keeps Toni around, despite her therapist telling her the friendship is toxic. It’s emotionally exhausting to watch these two women break down and rekindle their tumultuous friendship each season.
To be clear, Black women are allowed to have less than perfect friendships. Toni, Lynn, Maya, and Joan are all human characters and have very real, human flaws. Their flaws, of course, are amplified and exaggerated for television and so are their reconciliations. In reality, the grievances the girlfriends inflict on each other wouldn’t result in thriving friendships. They seemingly accept one another in all of their “flaws” but those same flaws are readied for ammunition during their (frequent) fights and disagreements.
That’s not to say that there aren’t many beautiful moments in the show. There are moments of forgiveness and growth and love all throughout Girlfriends. I’ve cried to this show. There are episodes that have helped me decipher my own relationships and friendships. We are allowed to not be healed. We are allowed to be works in progress. Lynn, Joan, Toni, and Maya were all certainly that — works in progress.
However, we can be all these things and still prioritize healthy, reciprocal friendships with other Black femmes. Twenty years later, Girlfriends is a much more useful lesson in what we shouldn’t be seeking in our Black femme friendships, not in what we should aspire to have. We’ve all had our own Joans and Tonis that we’ve had to move on from. But the thing I’ve learned is that healthy friendships between Black femmes almost always result in something magical. Our friendships are magical. I just wished Girlfriends treated them that way.
I’m not ever going to stop watching the show. It’s dear to me. It’s a part of my childhood and adulthood. I’m still going to put it on when I’m having a terrible day or missing my friends. I’m still going to laugh at their antics. I’m still going to cherish hearing the theme song play from the TV. I’m still going to deliberate over the “Which One Are You” memes, choosing Maya as my Girlfriends spirit animal. Except now, I’ll do it knowing none of us are Joans or Lynns or Tonis or Mayas.
Our friendships are real, we are real. If there’s anything to learn from Girlfriends, it’s that.