by Susanna Sonnenberg
2013 • 272 pages • Scribner
The storied Bechdel Test caught some flack last year in the wake of Pacific Rim. Faced with such a fully realized female character that was, nonetheless, the only woman with a major speaking role in the film, fans coined the Mako Mori Test, which focused on testing a film’s development of a female character.
Of course, passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean that a text is feminist or not. Showgirls, as you may hazily recall, passes it several times, and John Carter squeaks by with a single exchange. What the Bechdel Test means that the film’s female characters have the potential to exist, however briefly, in a world where they are not defined by the men in their lives and where they can connect to each other. The test indicates a breeding ground for depictions of female relationships, be it in the film itself or in the fanworks created around it. Representation in media is incredibly important, as we’ve been over time and again. In a culture where teenage girls pat themselves on the back for not being like “other girls” and mainstream films tell us that (heterosexual) marriage is the only important relationship in your life, seeing female friendships not only validated but celebrated onscreen disrupts those harmful narratives on a visceral, immediate level. Which, to bring it back to Ms. Mori, is why fans were so unsettled to realize that Pacific Rim fails the Bechdel Test: it’s the rare—and, perhaps, only—action movie that posits that friendship is more than capable of being the defining relationship of a lifetime.
And that’s exactly Sonnenberg’s argument in She Matters. Her first memoir, Her Last Death, recounts her experience growing up the daughter of a drug addict, but her second is a look at Sonnenberg’s life as organized by the succession of female friends she’s had through the years. She details the girl that astonished her in grade school; the older girl whose approval she craved at boarding school; the fellow mothers she’s found herself attached to.
I say succession because that’s precisely what reading She Matters feels like—a revolving door of women, instead of an ever-expanding pool of women. This is largely due to the influence of Sonnenberg’s mother, both on the girls she meets and on Sonnenberg herself. Her mother, always larger than life in a decidedly manic, selfish way, ruins lives and friendships carelessly, almost incapable of seeing people as just as real as she is. And because of Sonnenberg’s warped relationship with her mother, whose attention she fought for constantly as a child, her own neediness subsumes the vast majority of the friendships included here. By the time she gets to friendships that have stood the test of time without growing sour, it feels like too little too late.
But I’m not going to knock Sonnenberg for showing yet another thing we don’t see in the media: the fact that friendships don’t always last or even end well. We have a narrative for the dissolution of romantic relationships (even if it often comes with the sickening idea that there will be one relationship that invalidates all the others), but not the dissolution of friendships. Sonnenberg identifies the moment that she and her friends pull apart, in one case reflecting sadly that a friend she still has is no longer as close to her as she once was. I do wish She Matters had focused more on the women who mattered and a little less on Sonnenberg picking the pieces of their connection apart to try and figure out what went wrong. But Sonnenberg is protective of her friends’ secrets—friends revealing something drastic is an integral part to two of the stories she tells, and the revelations are never disclosed. It’s the last and least thing she can do for these friendships.
She Matters is less vital and celebratory than I hoped, but I’m glad I discovered Sonnenberg’s incredibly powerful writing voice. I am not a particularly gifted mimic, but there are only a few writers who get inside my head and start possessing my own eternal internal monologue. Tom Wolfe was one and Sonnenberg is another. Her gift lies in the unexpected, perfect detail, which classes her alongside Michael Chabon for me.
Lastly, I must say that I find it a little shady that Sonnenberg includes a college romance in a book specifically all about female friendships. I’m sure this is partially the marketing, but this is a memoir about female friendships, not female relationships. Although this does lead to one of the best lines in the memoir, when Sonnenberg returns to America and sighs at the mundanity of her boyfriend: “But with Miriam, I had tamed a whole country!” she grouses (89).
I rented this book from the public library.