The Spirit of Sisterhood Is in the Air and on the Air

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

SisWhen first we meet Hannah, the wondrously mopey mid-20s heroine of HBO’s new hit series “Girls,” she seems to have more strikes against her than a bowling alley at Fenway Park. Her parents have cut off her monthly stipend. Her literary-magazine boss refuses to turn her unpaid internship into a real job. Her atonal lover explores his sex fantasies on her awkwardly untitillated body. She lives in New York City. She majored in English. Yet offsetting all those slings and risk factors is a powerful defense system: girlfriends. Hannah has a tight-knit network of three female confederates, one best friend and two sturdy runners-up; and while none of the girl-women can offer much material support, no spare bedroom in a rent-controlled apartment, they are each other’s emotional tourniquets. You, fat? Don’t make me laugh. An unpleasant doctor’s appointment? We’re going too. Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the series, has said that while her titular characters may all date men, female friendship is “the true romance of the show.”

As in urban jungles, so too in jungle jungles. Researchers have lately gathered abundant evidence that female friendship is one of nature’s preferred narrative tools. In animals as diverse as African elephants and barnyard mice, blue monkeys of Kenya and feral horses of New Zealand, affiliative, longlasting and mutually beneficial relationships between females turn out to be the basic unit of social life, the force that not only binds existing groups together but explains why the animals’ ancestors bothered going herd in the first place. Scientists are moving beyond the observational stage — watching as a couple of female monkeys groom each other into a state of hedonic near-liquefaction — to quantifying the benefits of that well-groomed friendship to both picking partners. Researchers have discovered that female chacma baboons with strong sororal bonds have lower levels of stress hormones, live significantly longer and rear a greater number of offspring to independence than do their less socialized peers.

More here.