McCarthy, played by Janet McTeer, is blowsily silly — and though she could be wicked and subversively funny, McCarthy was far from silly. Nearly every exchange between the two women is about men and love. It is symptomatic of a trend, I think. We are in a moment of unprecedented popular interest in the matter of female friendship, and this has been greeted as a triumph for feminism. But what we get, for all that, is rather flat portraiture: women giggling about crushes before finding real fulfillment in heterosexual romance and the grail of marriage. It’s a shame, because many women hunger for models of intellectual self-confidence, and female friendships can be rich soil for them.
McCarthy and Arendt’s “love affair” — as their friends described it — was a union of ferocious minds, but it was hardly unusual. Women talk about ideas among themselves all the time. It would be nice if the culture could catch up. To give just a sample of the subjects McCarthy and Arendt talked and wrote to each other about: George Eliot, Cartesianism, Eldridge Cleaver, Kant, G. Gordon Liddy, and Sartre. Both women were members of the Partisan Review crowd, who spent much of their time talking about Stalin and Trotsky.
This also requires a better cultural appreciation of the virtue of friendship. A powerful friendship can be as intense as a love-affair and more stable over time. The notion that women cannot and do not have the finest forms of friendship, spanning a whole range of thought and ideas and experiences, is so absurd it’s amazing it survives. But then we live in a world of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Sometimes, it seems we may be going backward.