By Anna Brüner
I recently watched The Sisterhood of Night this weekend, which, if you don't know, has been compared to a "modern day telling of the Salem witch trials." And that's what I thought going into it…that a few girls meeting in the woods would descend into some witchy supernatural conflict between them and their homogeneously white, privileged, conservative, upstate New York society. I couldn't have imagined that the movie (unlike the actual Salem witch trials, which had to deal with the teenage girls vs. society) would deal mostly with society vs. teenage girls. There was no witchcraft at fault here. Mostly, the fear, superstition, and paranoia revolved around a misunderstanding of a particular group of girls' friendship. This, it seemed, was more terrifying than witchcraft, and the persecution they encountered was more terrifying than being burned at the stake. The girls in "the sisterhood of night" in the movie encountered violence, persecution, and a social stigma that the girls perpetrating the witch trial madness in Salem hundreds of years ago never had endured -- in fact, those girls received an almost state of immunity. Which led me to raise the question: why are people so afraid of female friendship? More so, why are people so afraid of adolescent female friendship? Or, even more simply, why are people afraid of how girls interact with other girls?
I use the term "girls" loosely here. Basically what I mean is "non-men" -- anyone who identifies as non-masculine, or at least doesn't identify as masculine all of the time. But with Sisterhood of Night, it is very clearly about girls, and, most importantly, strictly about the structure of female friendship. The big secret in the movie isn't witchcraft, it's the girls' friendship itself. Here is a group where young women can be 100% open, 100% vulnerable, 100% sexual, and 100% free,100% unapologetically…and all of these things are perceived as dangerous in society.
As I said, I went in expecting an adaptation of sorts of the witch trials. What I found was a brutally honest reflection of my own adolescence, and even my own childhood. My first real kiss was at seven years old with a girl under a picnic table, both our mouths stuffed with birthday cake, hiding from adults. My earliest crushes were on fellow female classmates, yearning for both their acceptance and their company. I recall even as a young child wanting to marry Princess Jasmine more than Aladdin. But even before I knew -- or even considered -- that I was bisexual, I knew two things for certain. One, that I was attracted to girls. Two, that my relationships with women were "easier" -- more organic, instinctual, and comfortable -- than with men.
It's necessary that we take this into consideration when regarding male friendships. Female friendships, even heterosexual ones, are infinitely more intimate than those of their male counterparts. Women tell each other that we love each other. We afford comfort both emotionally and physically. Not only do we offer mutual understanding and empathy, but we offer hugs, even kisses between the straightest of individuals, and we don't question it. I tell my female friends that I love them upon almost every occasion where I encounter them. Whereas men rarely exchange this kind of intimacy with one another.
In Sisterhood of Night, the girls regularly hug, kiss, touch each other, are naked with each other, and none of it is explicitly sexual. With my own adolescence, I remember undressing with my friends, sleeping together, touching each other that was in no way sexual or romantic, but in a way that could only be described as "I trust this person, and they trust me, and we care about each other, and it's not a big deal." And it wasn't a big deal, just like it isn't a big deal now when I kiss friends upon greeting them, share beds with them, hold them when they are sad or discouraged, or express my affection towards them. Much of this stems from my female friendships in childhood and adolescence, just as they are portrayed in Sisterhood of Night.
Underneath this though is a particular kind of stigma; one that revolves around sexuality. In our culture we are much more accepting of girls experimenting with other girls, and with girls even being bisexual or queer in any sense, than we are with boys. Part of this has to do with the over-sexualization of women, and part has to do with the limited hyper-masculine expectations of men. It's "okay" for a girl to be "a little queer". It's not okay for a man to be. Most of this has to do in part with the fact that boys, from an early age (or at least when they start to masturbate) know what feels good to them. Girls, perfectly able to masturbate, but not able to replicate a (penetrative) sexual experience in the way boys are, often turn to other girls for experimentation. This has nothing to do with sexuality, but more with trying to figure out what feels good, as well as trusting one another. Girls in puberty are afforded this opportunity, whereas our culture deeply frowns upon boys experimenting with other boys. As a teenager I kissed and did things with girls I was attracted to, but I also kissed and did things with girls I wasn't. It was completely consensual, but it had very little to do with sexual orientation, and I never felt secluded because of that. It would have been very different had I been a boy experimenting with other boys without any sexual motivation.
Maybe this has something to do with why women are more sexually fluid (at least openly) than men are. Maybe it's just a social construct to perpetuate women as infinitely, unlimited sexual creatures. I'm not sure. What I am sure of is that I tell my female friends that I love them, whereas many of my former male partners (as well as my current male partner) have never told their male friends that they love them; that since childhood I have been expected to share a bed with my female host, whereas boys rarely slept together during sleepovers; that I am encouraged by a misogynist society to remain attracted to all genders and sexes, whereas my male counterparts are discouraged from any deviation from the masculine "norm."
I watched Sisterhood of Night with my male partner and his brother, and their reaction to it was much different than my own. While they were shocked and reacted heavily to certain parts, I didn't, because overall I felt the movie accurately portrayed not just female friendship, but going through the perils of adolescence as a girl where you are constantly scrutinized. It was only a further reminder that my "normal" as a teenager was not their "normal," and that much of the female adolescence remains shrouded in a false mystery and romance to this day. There's nothing strange, there's nothing abnormal, there's nothing scandalous. There's only a certain kind of trust.
"This is the only place where I could tell my secrets," one member says in Sisterhood of Night about the "sisterhood." And that's how many female and non-men friendships work today, throughout people's ages. This is the only place where we trust each other. But it shouldn't be the only place.