With Friends Like These, Who Needs (the word) Frenemies?

My Brilliant Friend by Elena FerranteSix months late (as usual), I’ve finally worked through my TBR list far enough to get to Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first in her much-discussed Neapolitan trilogy, and boy, do I get the hype. My immediate reaction was that this a book that will launch a thousand essays: on class, gender, violence, and sexual identity. The book offers so much for analysis and reflection. What captivated me most, though, at least in this initial read, was the rich, complicated, and deeply-felt relationship between the book’s two adolescent protagonists, Elena and Lila. But about a quarter of the way into this fascinating read, I felt a sudden I sudden sinking in my stomach. Oh god, I thought, this is the kind of friendship people are going to label ‘frenemies.’

I am genuinely no snob nor am I here to play language police (could not think of anything more boring, honestly), but I will admit to a knee-jerk skepticism when hearing or reading the word “frenemy.” My problem with the word frenemy is not with its existence or its cute, portmanteau formulation but with its application. I think it is over- and mis-used and because language has power, I worry that “frenemy” might affect how some people perceive female friendships and women in general.

“Frenemy” has been become somewhat of a crutch, a suffocating, reductive shorthand for any friendship that isn’t between bosom friends or Ya-Ya sisters. I am also suspicious of the word’s implicit gendering; sure, there is nothing specifically feminine about it, but when was the last time you heard the word applied anyone other than (typically adolescent) women?

(I feel similarly, by the way, about frenemy’s cousin, “bromance.” The fact that we need separate words for both a female friendship that contains elements of competition or conflict and a male friendship that is characterized by expressions of love and devotion reveals some seriously MESSED UP assumptions about gender and relationships).

In its very structure the word “frenemy” reconciles two opposite poles – friend and enemy – but more often than not, the relationship in question is not one of opposites; more often than not, it could just be categorized by the word friend. Imperfect friend. Competitive friend. Complicated friend. But friend none the less.

You know who are frenemies? Magneto and Professor X are frenemies. They are former friends who still maintain affection and respect for each other but they are often literally on opposing sides in a goddamn war. THAT is a frenemy. A teenage girl who has a deep platonic attachment to someone with whom she also competes for grades — or even, even boys — is not a frenemy.

My Brilliant Friend gives its young female friendship breathing space. Ferrante’s portrayal is of a scorchingly intense, complicated relationship that seamlessly integrates affection with rivalry; she never allows the latter to completely overpower the former and never raises even the faintest doubt that the friendship between Elena and Lila is the most important and rewarding relationship in both their lives.

Ferrante allows for a back and forth between the two girls: for a power dynamic that is weighted but shifting.Sharp, perceptive and self-determined, Lila appears to be the dominant personality or of the leader of the pair — figuratively, but also sometimes literally dragging Lenu by the hand toward danger, change or adventure. And yet there are a number of significant ways in which Elena goes first: she gets to continue her formal education, even until high school; she is the first to hit puberty and the first to attract the attention of a boy.

The pair constantly compare, contrast, and compete; as a foil only the other will do. Elena is constantly saying that Lila is the only one who understands her and the only person worth talking to, really. While the typically undemonstrative Lila never quite explicitly returns that sentiment, the regularity with which she seeks out her friend for support suggests reciprocity, as does the moment when Elena realizes that Lila occasionally at her own powers of persuasion and singles Elena out because she is the only one who challenges her.

Ferrante also understands that there is a difference between wanting what your friend has and wanting to take it from her. Elena and Lila find themselves on both sides of that line at different points in the book, but notably only when they believe that what the other has (education, an engagement) threatens to separate them.

As of now I have only read My Brilliant Friend, and I know there’s risk in writing about it as an example of the insufficiency and oversimplification of the term “frenemy” before I’ve finished the series. I considered waiting until I had finished the entire Neapolitan trilogy before writing but I changed my mind. After all, what impressed me about this book is the power and complexity it ascribes to specifically young female friendships, so it felt fitting to write about and process it the way we experience our childhood friendships: without knowing what comes next.

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