The Hulu miniseries depicts a world where women’s perspectives are central, and those of men are secondary.
This story has spoilers from Conversations With Friends.
For as much original content as we get on our screens these days, when it comes to relationship storylines, it’s usually pretty easy to predict the general structure: Women fall for men, women fight over men, women are diminished by men, and so on. In fact, it’s so rare that plot points don’t revolve around the male gaze that there’s an actual test — the Bechdel test — for evaluating female representation. That’s why Conversations With Friends, the new Hulu miniseries adapted from Sally Rooney’s book of the same name, is so refreshing.
Conversations with Friends is more like conversations between Gen Z and millennials, but stripped of any ageism. And while CWF spends a lot of time flipping tropes upside down, it most interestingly centers its look at the world through the lens of the female gaze. It takes a story as old as Lolita and asks what it would look like if the opinion and motivations of the older man were entirely secondary — while adding in a quadruple relationship to boot.
The story begins with Francis (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane) entering their final year at university; the former a burgeoning writing talent and the latter her ethereal, yet self-possessed muse. Where Francis can be elitist and judgmental in her leftist leanings (she thinks writing for money is selling out by commodifying art), Bobbi is a free spirit who eschews all conventionalities like monogamy and heteronormativity. The two exist in a free fall of romantic-meets-platonic love, having dated, broken up, and then carried on as creative collaborators and best friends. The drama begins when Francis and Bobbi meet a famous writer, Melissa (Jemima Kirke), who happens to see them perform their spoken word poetry. She becomes fascinated by the young prodigies and invites them to her home, where they in turn meet her husband Nick (Joe Alwyn), a fairly recognizable actor.
The four thrive off of their mutual intrigue with one another. Francis and Bobbi are being treated like adults and rubbing elbows with a whole different echelon of people; Nick and Melissa, meanwhile, are reveling in the youthful zeitgeist that Francis and Bobbi exude. But it gets complicated when Bobbi develops an unrequited crush on Melissa, and Francis and Nick begin an affair. From there, the show zeroes in on the interiorities of its female characters. While Nick is central to the plot moving forward, CWF never actually stops to examine anything from his perspective. We learn of his bouts of depression, his malaise with acting, and his prior tryst with a professor, but those are mere plot devices for the women around him to react to. Nick isn’t dismissed altogether, but he’s only seen through the eyes of his mistress, his wife, and their female friends — much like how women are often portrayed when depicted as romantic love interests in male-driven stories.
When Bobbi starts to pick up on Francis’s romantic inclination toward Nick, she cracks, “We only know him because he’s married to someone interesting.” When the argument escalates, Bobbi later writes in a text to Francis, “It is so stereotypically homophobic to accuse a gay woman of being secretly jealous of a man. But even more than that, it’s really devaluing our friendship — to make out like I’m competing for your attention. What does that say about how you see me? Do you really rank our relationship below your passing sexual interest in some cis-het married guy?”
Conversations With Friends isn’t sexist by any means; it’s just a story about what women go through — and one that doesn’t feel the need to bother with men’s opinions in order to convey those outlooks. Nick as a character is just bland enough to symbolize multiple archetypes of a male in a female’s life at once. To Melissa, Nick is an albatross, constantly saddling her with his moodiness. To Bobbi, Nick is wallpaper, a requirement to be around Melissa. To Francis, Nick is the sun that she begins to revolve around, losing herself in the process. When Nick isn’t the driving force that the women are reacting to, the few other male characters are seen through the same diffused light. The fuckboy Francis goes on a Tinder date with, in an attempt to distract herself from jealousy, is just that: a milquetoast med student who’s a lousy lay and can only name Yeats as a poet. Francis’s father also plays a role in helping us understand her, when we see how she reacts to his helpless alcoholism — but he’s never reckoned with as a personality, just another man with whose inability to cope she must deal.
Beyond the involvement of men in their lives, the show takes careful time to inspect the other plights of women that often go unexamined. We see Francis experience excruciating pain, nausea, and fainting that accompany what is, at first, a mysterious ailment and is later diagnosed as endometriosis — a disorder that’s notoriously misdiagnosed and has no cure and limited treatment options. Francis is most upset by its potential to cause infertility — not because she’s necessarily trying to get pregnant, but because Nick has told her he wants children someday. She becomes consumed with the implications of not having that option and begins comparing herself to Melissa, who has chosen a career over family. Both women struggle with the same societal pressure to procreate — and the desire for something else: a successful writing career. Even Melissa’s agent, who develops an interest in furthering Francis’s pursuits, is a no-nonsense woman who pushes both Melissa and Francis to prioritize their writing above all — another opportunity the show had to include a male voice, but chose not to.
Conversations With Friends has its flaws: Its tedious 12-episode runtime could’ve been trimmed to ten instead, and the show often relies on characters’ text messages and emails to convey key plot advancements, which can make it tough to follow along. But it’s still a worthy effort in making a love story that isn’t propelled by the male gaze. In fact, Conversations With Friends is completely dominated by the female gaze, and it makes it a compelling foray into storytelling on the screen.