Having two best friends is the key to conquering the world, writes Sharon Lam. Even if it means awkward dynamics and petty insecurities.
The other day, I was watching the cinematic marvel, So Close, a Y2K classic which sees Shu Qi, Zhao Wei, and Karen Mok star as heeled assassins hacking into Matrix-green mainframes, roller blading around music stores and killing people with katanas. It is a perfect movie, and I knew it would be from the poster. In it, the three women stand tall, dressed in all white, hair back, staring fiercely out – hotness, strength, confidence, multiplied by three. It’s an enduring motif – behind, or at least next to, every strong woman, are two other strong women. And if there’s one thing (there are many things) that I am jealous of, it’s being an adult female in a group of three tight female friends. How? How did you all end up living in the same city? All maintain a similar level of availability all this time? How did you all survive the pettiness, the fraught fragility of being a trio under the scrutiny of other people and each other?
Women in threes go all the way back to 1AD. There are triple deities in Hinduism and Neopaganism, bur maybe the most in Greek mythology. The Three Graces and the Judgment of Paris became especially popular with artists of the Renaissance and beyond as a chance to portray three naked females. By the likes of Canova, Rubens, and Raphael, the image of three porcelain-white women came to be immortalised in marble and canvas over and over, mute and nude for their owner-spectators. Less popular were the other sort of Greek trio who were secretive, vengeful, oracles – the Furies, the Gorgons, the Moirai. Described as scaly, feathered and old, even those trios were often hot-washed.
Scenes of three women endured into modern art, again largely by male artists. Degas, Picasso, Dali, Munch all had their turns, while Anton Chekov used a trio of women in his play Three Sisters to represent listlessness, boredom and longing. Continuing the tradition of having three young women to ogle at, in 1976, the first episode of Charlie’s Angels aired on American television, with critics deeming it primetime “jiggle television”.
Whether directly influential or not, what followed Charlie’s Angels was a slew of onscreen female trios, dominating the 2000s with friendship and market-friendly girl power. Originally called “Whoopass Girls”, the Emmy-award winning cartoon Powerpuff Girls premiered in 1998, forever revolutionising school lunchtime LARPing. The Gross Sisters of Proud Family and the plastics of Mean Girls wielded the power of three to bully, while Charmed used it to fight demons. In 2000, Charlie’s Angels was remade with the unsurpassable cast of Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore, following the Powerpuff cue of having hair-colour based diversity.
This became a popular trope – see Totally Spies!, Josie and the Pussycats, The Saddle Club – the ever so slight differentiation sold the message that their differences made for a stronger whole, and allowed viewers to personally identify with one of the three. But it also meant everyone had a favourite (at my school, no one ever wanted to be Buttercup) – the girls in these threes, unlike their frozen alabaster ancestors, were not the same as each other.
Real-life trios faced the same interior differences, and in a society that loves pitting women against each other, for every successful girl group – TLC, Sugababes, Atomic Kitten – were just as many tabloids dramatising infighting and feuds. Beyoncé Knowles of Destiny’s Child did break out on her own, even portraying Diana Ross in Dreamgirls, whose real-life billing as lead singer caused tension within The Supremes, who were later renamed “Diana Ross & the Supremes”. People continue to gobble up Beyoncé’s very expensive international tours to this day, while #poormichelle saw Michelle Williams in weak fits, face price-stickered over, and photographed upside down.
It was in this milieu that I grew up, believing that all you needed to save the world were two BFFS but also suspecting that those two BFFs had way more fans than me. As it would turn out, my friendship history would consist almost entirely of trio after trio of girls. From kindy to university, I counted eight different trios of varying lengths. It was beside two other girls that I went to the mall for the first time, drank alcohol for the first time, got catcalled for the first time. Each trio felt like it would last forever, some even had that perfect blonde-brunette-redhead combination, but follicular pigments were not enough, and each friendship would drift apart one after the other.
I can still picture the first two friends I had – there was a photo of us taken in kindy, where I grinned toothlessly along with Emily and Maureen, a picture-perfect snapshot of happy, racially diverse children before diversity was an overused buzzword. Primary school saw The Saddle Club air on TV3 after school and longer lasting trios that felt more substantial. We bonded over MSN and sleepovers until each was torn apart democratically by forces beyond a girls’ control – moving schools, moving countries, incorrect spellings of email addresses. The only connection that remains from primary is now a penpal of fifteen years, though neither of us have any idea where the third went.
High school was divided into two halves and two threes. It was a time of My Chemical Romance, but also a time of the Jonas Brothers. The differences became too great. The latter trio was still together at the end of high school and we tried to make the gear shift into university, but with me going to a different city and the other two staying, I let it again peter out awkwardly, being selfishly excited by new people, new interests, new points of reference. Later in university I entered the last trio that I’d be part of. The three of us shared a penchant for getting stoned, sitting on the floor and taking turns to spoon condensed milk out of a communal can, scenes not dissimilar to the Grey Sisters of Perseus fame, three hags who shared one tooth and one eye between them.
It is a bit miserable to think about how the common denominator in all these failed friendship groups was myself, which I try to assuage with the external politics of being an adolescent girl. In younger examples, our trios were always called out in class. If one of us was home sick, the other two would be asked where the “third head” was. When it was just two of us, it felt like a betrayal and also plain weird to be hanging out with only one other. It was a crutch to only be recognised as one out of three, but a blessing to feel so close to two other people. Identities were so intertwined that each personal change could feel like an attack on the group, and there was no greater time for personal change than those adolescent years. It just took someone to start doing their hair a bit differently, or start talking about someone new, for the other two to feel threatened that they were ready to move on.
With as much fondness as I remember all the girls I grew up with, I feel equally as guilty for drifting away. Had I known how difficult making friends would be as an adult, and if I hadn’t been such an idiot baby with the attention span and self-interest of an idiot baby, perhaps I would still have a relationship with the people I shared some of the most fun and most stupid experiences with. Or we might not get along at all today! Who knows. All I know is that now I am a lone Grey Sister, with no eye and no tooth, alone in a cave, drinking canned chocolate milk, waiting for the renaissance of the female trio. It seems like a better time now to be in a three – local onscreen trio Flat3 have gone from webseries to TV with Creamerie, the only thing that headlines are accusing Boygenius of is being “the world’s most exciting supergroup”, and when I see three women together in a café, I root for them, while hoping that if one dies on the spot, I can replace them.