Grace Beal: As the majority of my time over the last two years has been spent on Zoom, it is no surprise that I met one of my best friends at Michigan online. It is maybe even less of a surprise that she is an artist who has also taken up photography. Last fall, Annabel Paul and I met in Women’s and Gender Studies 151, and our photo essay for this semester is a result of our friendship. This is our final project for Women’s and Gender Studies 240.
Annabel Paul: Both Grace and I cherish the female friendships in our lives, including our own friendship. We also both grew up with sisters and therefore, were interested in exploring the complexities of female friendship and sisterhood for our final project. Our shared interest in photography made a photo essay the perfect medium to dive deeper into this topic. Although Grace and I have only been friends for one year, it feels like we have known each other for forever. Through the research we have conducted, we have learned that this is not uncommon. In fact, feminist discourse analysts Maree Martinussen, Margaret Wetherell and Dr. Virginia Braun write that “the habituation of [a woman’s] friends’ presence in her life is constructed as complete; their intertwining comes through being “part of the furniture” and “in the woodwork” for a long time.”
Grace: When I was in second grade, my sister Lucy passed away from a congenital heart disease. She was eleven months old. Since her passing, I have found it difficult to define sisterhood. This project was one of the first instances in which I got to discuss and unpack how sisterhood, both of blood and beyond, has changed my life for the better. Developing the bonds between those you consider to be your sisters takes time and effort; the more that women are willing to develop and maintain their relationships, the more powerful these sisterhoods become.
Annabel: Like Grace, my life has been shaped by having siblings. As a sister, I have found that there is a “symmetry” that I have not experienced anywhere else. But, in this symmetry, there is a doubleness which is described by philosopher Dr. Alex Philp as “the reason why many biological sisters harbour ‘the desire to be one, juxtaposed against the necessity to be two’”. Being a woman in an inherently woman-hating world takes a toll on all of my relationships, both biological and social. Women will undoubtedly internalize and externalize anti-woman behavior, simply through the practice of existing.
As women, we are socially pitted against each other, and especially at the University of Michigan, made to compete in order to fall somewhere on the academic spectrum that men seem to naturally inhabit. As quoted in a New York Times article, Psychologist Dr. Noam Shpancer writes: “‘As women [are made] to consider being prized by men their ultimate source of strength, worth, achievement and identity, they are compelled to battle other women for the prize.’” To me, this is why female friendship and sisterhood is so important and nuanced; although it may not seem like it, sisterhood takes a lot of work. In fact, it is really hard. However, the work is worth it to have friends and sisters that have the potential to remind you that you are a person with power who deserves things in this world.
Grace: I believe that “friends see you at “your best and worst” is an example of a “warts and all” sentiment that makes up ideologies of intimacy between the closest of friends.” This has been incredibly important in my life following the loss of Lucy. One of my best friends, Antonia, has been my friend for over 16 years. Together, we have created a lifetime of memories and reasons why I call her a “sister”. Antonia and her sister Gianna were there for my other younger sister Eliza and I as we grieved one of the most devastating losses one can experience.
Intimacy of female friendships is often neglected and even sexualized to the point that some women fear showing too much affection. Dr. Alex Philp calls special attention to this point: “it is the exclusively female nature of the relationship (a threat to patriarchy) which has discouraged critical attention to sisters.” This project is our attempt to battle that stigma and discredit the patriarchal and alarmingly sexist stereotype.
Annabel: I decided to take staged photographs of my close friends and sisters to visualize core aspects of female friendship. However, it made more sense to decide the aspects of the female bond that we were going to highlight with my subjects rather than for my subjects. I did this to ensure that the photographs would be reflective of their experiences as well as mine.
Some of the ideas that my subjects and I came up with were honesty, support, safety/comfort, acceptance, communication and representation. Because of the collaborative artistic process, this project opened up a dialogue between my subjects and I, creating, in a sense, a consciousness raising group. Feminist pyschologist Dr. Nina Thomas describes a consciousness raising group as “[A] group… within which to examine how gender stereotypes affect interactions among group members, specifically in power relations, deference to “authority,” the willingness to share oneself, efforts at creating intimacy, and helping others”.
What is important to note here is that not all female friendships present themselves in the same way because not all females have the same experiences. Female is one identifier that often works in tandem with other identifiers to make up the whole of someone’s identity. Different cultures allow for different levels of intimacy between women and this is reflective in the relationships they are able to establish for themselves. A person’s unique and personal identity innately shapes who they are which is an imperative part of friendship as it is defined by the people within it.
Grace: The title of “sister” is the most important identity I wear, but it has never been one that I sought out. That changed this past year when I chose to rush a sorority, something I never thought I would do. Although I am willing to admit that the pandemic was the push it took for me to rush, I have also met some amazing women I now call my sisters and who inspire me constantly. Everyday I see how the different identities of my sisters shape their intersectional experiences, both good and bad, at Michigan.
Maura Burns, LSA junior and president of Alpha Delta Pi sorority, said “Sisterhood to me definitely focuses on supporting women and spending time with other strong women as that is something pretty unique to the sorority experience. I would also say sisterhood is more than the traditional sisterhood event… It is the daily things that happen in this organization that, especially while I’ve lived in the house, I have grown to appreciate!”
Women in Greek Life, at Michigan in particular, are subject to judgment for numerous reasons, some of which are logical and valid given the many systemic issues of Greek Life. However, rarely do outsiders comment on the inner workings of the relationships created within sororities. These sisterhoods are strengthened by a common understanding of the patriarchal institutions and ideas on which they were founded.
Annabel: If our work has any impact, I hope that it helps women reflect on their relationships with the women in their lives. I hope that it highlights some of the conditions necessary to foster a radical and comfortable female friendship, as shown through Grace and my life experiences. I hope it brings attention to the fact that the patriarchy relies upon women hating women in order to sustain itself. At the very least, I hope that this project invites conversation, as art often does, and raises the consciousness of whoever experiences it, just as it did mine.
Grace and Annabel: As we wrapped up our project, we wanted to acknowledge the privilege we have to take photos, with very unique styles, and enjoy and make art. As we have learned in our Women and Gender Studies class, and as stated by photojournalist Rachel Somerstein, “convention holds that women are meant to be the camera’s subject, not its operator; they constitute the bodies of the “surveyed”, not the surveyors.” However, as artists and photographers we also appreciate that “to be a woman operating the camera is to subvert established ideology that makes women image-makers at once illegible… and vulnerable” and we feel proud to conquer this challenge.
Grace: Thank you to my friend and STAMPS sophomore Annabel Paul (firstname.lastname@example.org) for partnering with me for this photo essay for our Women’s and Gender Studies 240 final project. Another thank you to Professor Allison Alexy, GSIs Irene Mora and Erick Aguinaldo and Senior Multimedia Photo Editor Emma Mati for their assistance and support throughout the project.
Managing Photo Editor Grace Beal can be reached at email@example.com.