Friendship as performance art

Taylor Swift's Fourth of July 'family portrait' with Jaime King, Ingrid Michaelson, Emma Stone, and Lena Dunham.

Taylor Swift's Fourth of July 'family portrait' with Jaime King, Ingrid Michaelson, Emma Stone, and Lena Dunham.

On American Independence Day, singer Taylor Swift uploaded to Instagram a pic she captioned 'family portrait'. For those who missed it, the photo could be described as a Last Supper for Famous White Girls. Swift’s A-list best friends Emma Stone and Lena Dunham were there, with singer Ingrid Michaelson, models Jessica Stam and Amanda Griffith, actresses Jessica Szohr, Odeya Rush and Jaime King rounding out the disciples. Swift herself sat, (smirking?) Messiah-like in the centre. 

NYMag wittily pronounced it 'friendship as performance art' and launched an analysis of how social media is intensifying the way we show off our popularity, concluding that friendship might now function as its own commodity. But as anyone who is female and has survived high school might postulate, this is not surprising.

What is surprising in this, the age of turbo capitalism, is how friendship is regarded. According to a study published in Psychological Science, "being a well-respected and appreciated member of your group is more fulfilling [than attaining new levels of income or wealth]". The happiness high you feel from hanging out with friends lasts longer than the high you get from winning the lottery. 


So people would rather have genuine friends than riches? Oh! Way to go, humanity! But this is where it gets tricky because, as philosopher and author Alain de Botton has preached, striving to keep up with our besties gives birth to status anxiety. In fact, according to de Botton, in our own strange way we've come to view celebrities as peers. This is because they're now so prolific in our society. (And they can manufacture relatabilty so well via things like Instagram.)

So, while we value friendship over wealth, it's  our level of wealth that opens us up to the friendships we desire. Look at Swift, all of those friends are famous and the by-product of fame, and, increasingly, the prerequisite, is money. 

But what of us mere mortals and our BFFS? Well, take a look around, because it's unlikely that anyone in your friendship circle is not of the same socio-economic bracket as you. Oh, how triflingly bourgeoisie! My best friend is a hobo I’ll have you know! Well, congrats but you’re in the minority. Hey, class happens. 

But it’s this quagmire, this delightful paradox, dear reader, that helps explain the frenemy. She, (and it is traditionally, but not exclusively ‘she’) inhabits our cliques because we measure ourselves against her, which means we have a lot in common, (ahem, like income). Remember de Botton has said, we only envy people who have achieved what we’d like to achieve - they are relatable to us. As Hannibal Lecter told Clarice Starling ‘we begin by coveting what we see every day.’

In fact, a recent study claimed that we share genetic material equivalent to fourth cousins with our closest friends, who are chosen, said one scientist, as ‘functional kin.’

And just like some kin relationships, in the case of the frenemy we desire the other person’s envy over their friendship. Oh, we may project onto her that she’s ‘totally threatened’ by us and our new Birkenstocks, but it takes two to form a frenemy dynamic.

Yeah but grown women don’t have frenemies! That’s so ‘high school’. Is it? Think of the last time you felt annoyed when you saw a Swift-like photo on Instagram or Facebook. Why did you feel annoyed? ‘Because she’s so up herself!’

Yeah. Uh-Huh. I’m sure it’s not anything else.

This also explains something I’m going to call Power Friending. Traditionally, this involved social climbing and name dropping, right? ‘Oh, I’m really close friends with the editor of Daily Life’ might be a possible example. If someone was insecure.

But there’s a sub-category to this, like when people reach across the aisle, so to speak, to their ex lover’s ex, (think Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston hanging out).

Or someone who has an opposing worldview. Think of Swift and Dunham. Swift has blithely shrugged off feminism, while Dunham is practically the poster child for women’s studies, so by including her in the portrait Swift is essentially telling us ‘You can’t look down on me, smart girls, because a feminist is in my family circle.’ Meanwhile, Dunham, with her middle finger, is essentially saying ‘I might connect emotionally to a Swift song but I still know twee when I see it.’

Now think of Swift and Stone, who have declared themselves besties. By having Stone, known for her sly wit in her midst, Swift is telling us she’s not the self-serious daffodil she often portrays herself to be. As for all the professional hotties, Swift might be letting us know that while her songs (and media reputation) show her as a loser-in-love, she can roll with successful lady playas.

But what Swift and other people who Power Friend don’t seem conscious of is that while they’re busy using each friend for what they can say about them as a person, (while no doubt maintaining a true friendship, hey even Regina George had feelings) there are a couple of things they value even more than that authentic connection and that is: caring a little too much perhaps about what people think of them. For the woman who Power Friends, the perceived connection gives rise to a sense of accomplishment. Which tells us they’re likely insecure and need to overcompensate. Which then tells us that they’re maybe not that fun to hang out with. 

Hmm. Well now who is threatened?