My sisters are the truest loves of my life. So much so that even saying these words feels like condensing the ocean into a single drop. There isn’t a word for the enormity of it, the depth of connection, and “love” barely scratches the surface.
So, if words fail where sisters are concerned, maybe visual storytelling can pick up the slack. Film and TV have always been spaces where my sisters and I can bond, put aside our petty squabbles and just exist together. Inevitably, we see ourselves in the media we consume. To capture the inarticulate profundity of this complex connection is no small feat, but many artists have managed to craft raw, honest portrayals that reveal a great deal about the unique bond that is sisterhood.
The March sisters of “Little Women” are perhaps the most famous, well-loved example of this nuanced relationship. The girls do each other’s hair and laugh when strands are burnt off. They put on plays for the family and nurture each other’s talents. Endless beautiful memories are forged as they spend their entire childhoods in the same house with the same parents but wildly different personalities. Jo (Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”) and Amy (Florence Pugh, “Midsommar”) have polarized personalities that serve as a recipe for endless discourse. When Jo denies Amy the chance to attend the theater with her and Meg (Emma Watson, “The Bling Ring”), Amy’s anger leads her to retaliate by burning Jo’s novel manuscript, only to feel remorse when she sees how heartbroken Jo is at the loss.
The injustice Amy feels at the situation is utterly relatable; equity despite an age difference is difficult to come by in any household. Jo’s reaction is equally relatable, as she swears that she will “hate (Amy) forever” after what she’s done — an assertion that every sibling has likely made at least once in their life — but finds forgiveness when she remembers how much Amy means to her. Their anger at one another is a visceral sign of their closeness. These characters understand each other like no one else, so they know how to hurt each other like no one else. This understanding, however it can be weaponized, ultimately binds them despite life’s tribulations. When Jo silently falls into tears at the loss of her hair, Amy comforts her, noting that she “would feel the same way.” Deep down, they are fundamentally the same ambitious young women, and that shared experience allows them to validate one another.
In their adulthood, however, when the girls are no longer tied together under one roof, their love shines through differently. While Amy is in Europe painting, Jo is writing in New York and Meg has a house of her own; still, they all check in on one another. When Jo is back home without them after their fourth sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen, “Babyteeth”) passes away, it is the first time she feels truly lonely. Lost in the attic where she once played with her sister, the absence of such a vital figure becomes all-consuming for Jo. The loss of someone who was supposed to be with her through the entirety of her life is palpably painful. During this time, she finds solace in her remaining sisters rather than pushing them away. She reconciles her differences with Amy, solidifying the lesson they’d learned years earlier that “life is too short to be angry at one’s sisters.”
Similarly, the nuance of these childhood sister relationships is beautifully explored in adulthood in “Fleabag.” Although Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, “Crashing”) and Claire (Sian Clifford, “Unstable”) are polar opposites, their love story is the beating heart of the series. Claire’s repressed Type A personality coupled with Fleabag’s pathological need to deflect with humor make it virtually impossible for them to express their love in a healthy way. Like many sets of sisters, they rarely hug, and on the off chance they do, one of them squirms away or resorts to violence in retaliation. But they do not need to voice their love to feel the unspoken depth of it. It can be heard in every laugh they share, every walk through the cemetery to visit their mother and every sacrifice one makes to sustain the other. Fleabag takes responsibility for Claire’s miscarriage to save her the criticism at a family dinner; Claire gives Fleabag money to keep her afloat when she’s in financial trouble. There is no need for them to ask for these favors — they are freely assumed.
Even with such committed support, sisters tend to draw arbitrary boundary lines. In the opening episode, Fleabag realizes she is wearing one of Claire’s shirts that she had convinced her was lost. Claire, naturally, forces her to return it immediately. It’s classic younger sister hijinks and older sister crackdown portrayed honestly. As the elder daughter, Claire assumes a more stick-in-the-mud role, but she secretly envies Fleabag’s ability to be carefree and humorous. Meanwhile, Fleabag is jealous of how put-together her sister is, leading them both to attempt to learn through the other’s perspective. Claire’s declaration that Fleabag is “the only person (she’d) run through an airport for” is the show’s equivalent of a sweeping declaration of the soulmate-level love they’ve cultivated despite their differences.
A similar dynamic between an older and younger sister plays out in Netflix’s “Arcane.” The story of brash brawler Vi (Hailee Steinfeld, “The Edge of Seventeen”) and her brilliantly precocious little sister Powder (Ella Purnell, “Yellowjackets”) begins with them at their best. In their childhood, Vi is able to protect Powder from the dangers and hardships of their dystopian world. Vi puts herself at risk fighting enemies twice her size to ensure Powder never needs to put herself in harm’s way, but Powder looks up to her older sister and wants nothing more than to be just like her. As is always the case, they fundamentally juxtapose one another. Powder can’t fight like Vi, but she can engineer state-of-the-art weapons. When she tries to use her skills without thinking strategically the way that Vi can, Powder ends up undoing all of Vi’s hard work and decimating their family.
Kids make mistakes, and sometimes their caretakers grow angry at having to pay for them, but that doesn’t negate the love forever residing in everyone. Vi lashes out at Powder after the accident she caused and leaves to cool off with every intention of coming back to care for her sister despite the carnage. Tragically, that chance is stripped from her when she is kidnapped and imprisoned for several years. The only thing that keeps her going through the abuse of imprisonment is the thought of reuniting with her sister. During that time, Powder is raised by a ruthless killer who remakes her into “Jinx,” a wild card who causes harm to everyone around her. She is haunted by Vi, seeing her in the faces of strangers, but immediately reverts back to her old self upon reuniting with her sister. Despite all the years they spend apart and the horrors they endure, the two find strength and solace in each other.
In the same way that Vi protects Powder, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, “No Hard Feelings”) protects her sister Primrose (Willow Shields, “Spinning Out”) in “The Hunger Games” at great personal cost. The entire reason for Katniss volunteering to enter a literal death match is to ensure that her younger sister doesn’t have to. The value of this other person is greater than that of her own life; what’s more, Katniss promises to try and win the games for Prim. So, not only is she willing to die for her, she is willing to kill out of love for her sister. The hope and strength she finds in seeing her sister again propel her to survive at any cost. It speaks to the inherent devotion of this relationship that its preservation surpasses all other survival or moral instincts.
While a sister can be one’s closest tie, she can also be one’s greatest rival. “The Good Place” explores the rocky dynamic between Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil, “Poker Face”) and her older sister Kamilah (Rebecca Hazlewood, “Kissing Cousins”), who always seems to effortlessly excel, garnering the coveted praise of her parents. Tahani spends her entire life trying to finally overtake her sister until it actually kills her. When she realizes how the rift between them has damaged both parties, she extends an olive branch that leads to reconciliation and lasting personal serenity. Their entire arc beautifully demonstrates that life truly is too short to be angry at one’s sisters.
Sisterhood is incredibly complex. Sure, I would die for my sisters, but that doesn’t mean I’ll let them borrow my clothes. Yes, we know each other better than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean we won’t use this knowledge against one another. Through every hardship, a sister is someone to hold your hand with an iron grip and make fun of you for needing a hand to hold at all. There is joy and playfulness, fury and envy all swirling around at the heart of this bond. No two sisters are the same, no two relationships are the same, but the hallmarks of this dynamic on screen are shining pillars for the exploration of this unique relationship; it’s the greatest love story there is.
Daily Arts Writer Mina Tobya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.