This post is featured in the CAPC Magazine, May 2017: Soul Sisters issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and receive a host of other benefits, too.

***This may contain spoilers for Pitch Perfect and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.***

Human relationships permeate everything from commercials to songs on the radio, the silver screen to the Internet. Whether it’s friendship, romance, or family, our relationships define us like nothing else. Sisterhood, however, is one relational aspect that we don’t see much of. It’s a bond beyond simply having a female sibling, one that’s more intimate than mere friendship between women. It truly is an underutilized relational archetype. There are many examples of biological sisters in movies and books, of course, but it is hard to find depictions of non-familial female relationships that look any different than mixed-sex friendships, and even fewer pass the Bechdel test. The stereotype of female friendship in our culture involves negative, shallow behaviors, such as gossiping and backstabbing. These things do happen in real life, but they are not definitive of female relationships. Genuine, caring sisterhood does exist. A fair representation of women in entertainment would include positive aspects of sisterhood, encouraging women to pursue healthy sisterhood in their own lives. Two movies—Pitch Perfect and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2—make admirable efforts at displaying this bond, with varying degrees of success.

In terms of viewer approval, Pitch Perfect is a successful film that seems to have all the elements needed to build a strong female bond: music, singing, friends, and a common goal, just to name a few. When the lead, Beca, goes to college and joins an all female competitive a cappella group, she initially finds the Barden Bellas in chaos due to inexperience and a fear of losing. Additionally, many of the characters’ quirky personalities clash with the vision of perfection that Aubrey, the group’s leader, desires. Over the course of the film, the Bellas learn how to weave their differences into a cohesive whole, with each member contributing something special for the good of the team. Pitch Perfect does an excellent job of showing women focused on pursuing their shared goals; the Bellas’ bond rooted primarily in singing and dancing together, honing their skills.

A fair representation of women in entertainment would include positive aspects of sisterhood, encouraging women to pursue healthy sisterhood in their own lives.

However, while the movie focuses on the relationship of a large group of women, little genuine sisterhood is present. What if the Barden Bellas were a group of men or a mix of men and women? What would change about the story or the development of the group’s bond? Rather than sisterhood, Pitch Perfect portrays a strong sense of team spirit, and the benefits of working together. These are good themes in their own right, but it’s strange that such a female-centric movie fails to show anything unique about the bonds between women. Really, the connections between the Bellas seem shallow (although it is not in this movie’s nature to tackle anything too serious). The scene where each of the Bellas confesses something personal to the group in the hopes of becoming closer is one of the only scenes in the movie where the characters pursue any kind of vulnerability and trust, but it fails to show any real emotional material. Instead, the scene takes one of the most serious confessions—Cynthia Rose’s gambling—and spins it as a gag. This could have been an opportunity for substantial growth in the Bellas’ relationship; they would have had to help one of their teammates who was struggling with a personal problem, as opposed to only looking at problems that impact the group directly. All of the confessions come off as jokes, and yet the characters somehow, incongruously, come away with a renewed sense of commitment and team spirit. Nothing in the Bellas’ interactions signifies that we are watching women develop unique, female-specific bonds. Perhaps it is asking too much of a comedic movie, but this glossing over of very real struggles damages any potential for observing true sisterhood.

If anything, Pitch Perfect is closest in tone to the childhood sports movies I grew up watching. The girls want to win, they have to learn how to work together, and they have to beat a seemingly more talented opponent. There’s nothing wrong with a movie showing the trials and rewards of working with a group, but it’s worth acknowledging that a movie implying it represents the beauty of sisterhood does so little to genuinely show that type of connection.

A more recent—and more developed—example of genuine sisterhood is seen between Gamora and Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The two are not biologically related, but their shared experiences begin with a kidnapping by the evil Thanos to be raised and trained together as his daughters. In Vol. 1, we see the two women fiercely vying for power over one another; there is little hope for a shared sisterhood, despite Gamora’s repeated pleas for Nebula to join the fight to save the world. This backstory sets the foundation for potential sisterhood, nudging our hopes to that end, and Vol. 2 reveals that it is the desire for and lack of sisterhood that has fueled the conflict between Gamora and Nebula. With this information, we can see how Nebula’s need for sisterhood is different than a need for a sister (she had that already) or even for shared, common goals (she was invited into that several times)—and her lack of sisterhood has sent her into an inconsolable rage. Nebula’s anger is understandable—when she could not best her sister in skills, Thanos’s punishment was the result. If they were sisters—if they had a shared sisterhood—why didn’t Gamora show pity and restraint? But Nebula received neither. Sisterhood was thwarted each time Gamora won a battle, becoming less and less possible as Nebula’s true self was slowly replaced with machinery.

Ostensibly, if Nebula and Gamora received the same upbringing, they should share philosophies on competition and winning, but they do not; or at least not when they were younger. Nebula wanted compassion and care from Gamora—she wanted a sister in more than theory. Did Gamora’s drive to win stem from a fear of Thanos? It is not unimaginable that she continually bested Nebula to impress Thanos and flee his wrath.

Upon hearing that sisterhood is what Nebula desired all along, Gamora softens so that her invitation in Vol. 1 finally matches her demeanor in Vol. 2. Gamora responds to Nebula’s confession with humility and acceptance—she does not make excuses or try to explain away her behavior. Instead, she simply apologizes and allows reconciliation to begin, opening the possibility for mutual care and sisterhood. At the end of Vol. 2, the sisters have switched attitudes: now Nebula wants to actively pursue Thanos and exact revenge while Gamora recognizes his power and recommends caution. Even though they disagree, Gamora harbors no ill will toward Nebula and wishes her the best.

Although Gamora and Nebula are not the best example of fruitful sisterhood, they seem to be moving in that direction, and Nebula clearly desires that closeness. The two do not end the movie arm-in-arm, smiling and laughing over a shared joke. This strengthens the film, however, as real-life relationships rarely change overnight. Nebula’s desire for revenge overcomes her desire for sisterhood, and she leaves Gamora without putting any more effort into their relationship—for now. Still, they have made progress, and it would not be surprising if Nebula were to ask for Gamora’s help in defeating Thanos or for the two to reunite someday to move their sisterhood another step forward.

The sort of sisterhood Nebula longs for is one that would give her a loyal sister even unto death. Although few of us need such a life-or-death bond, this is true sisterhood. It’s the kind that exemplifies selflessness and loyalty, no matter how life crumbles around you. That sort of sisterhood can been seen in between two women who are not movie characters, but real people. Their story is found in the Scripture, in the book of Ruth, which is often described as the greatest romantic love story in the Bible, but it is just as much a story about sisterhood. What truly draws these two women together? First it was family—Ruth married one of Naomi’s sons. Second it was death—both of their husbands died, leaving these women stranded in a male-dominated world. And this is where the two forge a beautiful sisterhood, although it doesn’t look promising at first. In fact, Naomi urges Ruth to go back to her mother (Ruth 1:8 ESV). Ruth refuses, simply saying, “Where you go I will go” (Ruth 1:16 ESV). On the surface, this devotion is not entirely logical, so it can only be one thing: sisterhood. We can only be certain of Ruth’s actions, and without any extra information, the only conclusion is that Ruth’s behavior proceeds from her exceedingly strong attachment to Naomi. While these two are technically family by marriage, they are not biologically related, and their sisterhood does not dissolve when their common family member dies. With the amount of sacrifice, lack of biological ties, and other available options, the bond between Ruth and Naomi must be a sisterhood strong enough to keep them together when all else would tear them apart.

Ruth uproots her life for Naomi, leaving behind every familiar landmark and face. And how many people have loved another person so much that they began worshipping that person’s god, as Ruth does? Eventually, Ruth’s connection to Naomi results in a marriage between Ruth and Boaz, a relative of Naomi. The story ends with a new family and happiness for Ruth and Naomi (Ruth 4:13–17 ESV). The relationship between Ruth and Naomi exemplifies the beauty of sisterhood and the unique possibilities for such a bond between women.

As Hollywood tries to portray women more often as real, flawed characters, hopefully there will be more instances where sisterhood plays an important role in storytelling and character development. It must be something that interests audiences, since it appears in both a light comedy and an action-packed Marvel movie. Even though Pitch Perfect has some work to do before the Bellas can show us true sisterhood, the commitment and drive of their team is a step in the right direction. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 includes an even stronger depiction of sisterhood, making it integral to the story and a high-stakes issue for Gamora and Nebula. Without depictions of sisterhood (flawed as they may be) in either of these movies, the stories and characters would change drastically. Sisterhood is rarely perfect in real life (or in movies), but pursuing such a strong, caring bond is worth the effort. Striving for genuine, selfless sisterhood will lead to beautiful relationships, whether it’s in a movie or our own flesh-and-blood lives.


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