thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Hateship, Friendship, and the Power Dynamics of “Doll & Em”

In girl culture, TV on April 22, 2014 at 8:56 am

Sarah T.

Because I am very lucky, I’ve known a lot of smart, funny, talented, gorgeous women in my life so far. There’s no question that these friends have made my life richer and helped shape me into a better human being. There’s also no denying that—particularly in my younger years—I’ve sometimes compared myself to them and wound up feeling decidedly second-rate.

Of course, it’s not productive to feel gloomy because your friend has just nabbed a plum book deal or won a grant to spend ten months rafting down the Amazon or happens to have the luminous skin of a woodland elf. But feeling occasionally competitive with the people who are close to you—or at least having a little bit of a reflexive inferiority complex mixed in with all the love and genuine admiration—is only human. What’s important, I’ve found as I get older, is learning how to deal with those emotions. I can recognize the things that make my friends awesome and feel proud to know them while actively choosing not to listen to the little self-doubt piano tinkling away inside my head. Or I can let insecurities rankle and seethe until they finally threaten to torpedo the friendship for good.

The new HBO series Doll & Em, created by real-life pals Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer, is about two old friends who take the latter, messier road. The power dynamic between Doll and Em seesaws back and forth as the women use one another as measuring sticks of success and find themselves constantly wanting. They know each other well enough to wound. But they also care about each other enough to decide that their broken friendship is worth fighting for.

Doll (Wells) and Em (Mortimer) grew up together in London. At 40, they love each other just as fiercely as they did in their childhood bathtub-splashing days—as is evident from the weepy phone call Doll makes to Em shortly after breaking up with her no-good boyfriend. Em, a successful movie star, ducks away from a red-carpet interview alongside Bradley Cooper to lend her old friend some support. She even comes up with what seems like a generous offer, hiring Doll as her new personal assistant and flying her out to Los Angeles.

The power dynamics inherent in a boss-employee relationship make this whole personal assistant plan doomed from the start. Already Doll and Em’s positions in the world are unequal. Em spends her days starring in a female version of The Godfather and her evenings schmoozing with Greta Gerwig. She gets home pedicure visits and never has to do her own laundry. She also has a husband and two small children back in London, though these characters are rarely seen or referenced. As a rich and glamorous movie star, wife and mother, she has attained the roles to which women are told to aspire.

Meanwhile, Doll hasn’t yet found a career that she loves. She’s going through the aforementioned breakup with the kind of guy who shows up drunk outside her apartment to announce that he’s dating a 26-year-old. It’s easy to see how spending time around Em might make her feel self-conscious, even before she landed on her friend’s payroll.

The rift between Doll and Em opens up almost as soon as Doll’s plane lands in L.A. Lounging around in Em’s living room, Doll asks about her new duties. Will she be making her breakfast or fetching coffee? Don’t be daft, Em laughs. But then, yawning with faux-casual ease, Em mumbles instructions for the world’s most complicated latte order, on the off chance that Doll has the time to get it one morning: lots of froth whipped up with extra milk, three shots, a medium cup. Doll dutifully scribbles down her new boss’s preferences. Then Em really doubles down on the new world order by offering Doll some ice cream in the freezer. She lies on the couch, immobilized, until her friend gives up and rises to get the good stuff for both of them.

By making Doll a paid member of her already extensive staff, Em takes a subtext that was already there—Em the success story, Doll the inferior—and makes it impossible for her friend to ignore. Worse yet, she does it at a time when Doll’s at her most vulnerable. It’s entirely understandable, once Em starts pushing Doll’s buttons, that her friend feels has no choice but to launch her own subtle counterattack.

Em may have a luxurious lifestyle, but she’s also anxious and insecure. She’s exhausted from navigating the pressures of Hollywood and worried about what aging will mean for her career. This is a reasonable fear. After all, the makeup artists working on the Godmother film appears to think that women at the age of 63 are a hair’s breadth away from the nursing home.

Doll starts playing into Em’s anxieties, needling her over a difficult scene while Em is trying to rehearse the dialogue. Her persistent digs finally lead Em to flee her own trailer. She paces around outside, clutching her script in her hands, while Doll tries her hand at running lines on Em’s couch.

While both Doll and Em engage in this kind of psychological warfare, it seems unlikely that either of them have any idea what they’re doing. They’ve been close friends for a long time, without any major blowouts that we know of. The tension between them now largely seems to be a byproduct of a bad working relationship match. Their enduring, mutually giving relationship doesn’t translate into a framework where Doll gets paid to be at Em’s beck and call and Em owes Doll nothing but wages. The fact that Doll soon reveals a talent for both acting and the L.A. lifestyle only further upsets the balance, as Em begins to worry that the friend she’s assigned to a supporting role will soon outshine her.

A major shift in their dynamic occurs when a handsome producer named Buddy takes a shine to Doll at a pool party and asks both her and Em to stick around for a dip in the hot tub. As the two women strip down to their underwear in the bathroom, the playful repartee that must have once characterized their friendship resurfaces.

“Aren’t we too old for this?” Em giggles.

“Yes, we’ve got about five minutes left—hurry,” Doll says, as she ties up her hair.

The friends even pre-arrange a code that Doll can use if she wants to be left alone with Buddy. “Just ask, ‘Em, are you cold?’ and I’ll hop right out,” Em promises.

But once the friends are in the hot tub, they start competing for Buddy’s attention. When Em preens as Buddy pegs her age at 27, Doll corrects him with a flat, “She’s 40.” Em, in turn, lures Buddy in by reciting a few lines from a Rilke poem in throaty Russian. Then she betrays Doll by refusing to heed their earlier arrangement.

“I’m not at all cold,” she says, removing her tank top in response to Doll’s signal. “If anything, I’m burning up.”

Em’s not consciously trying to hurt her friend. She’s just so accustomed to absorbing other people’s attention as a balm for her worst fears about herself that she can’t bear to let Doll have the spotlight, even for one night.

In the end, she doesn’t have a choice. Doll and Buddy sleep together while she crashes on the couch. Then in the morning—as a kind of cosmic payback for her insane latte orders—Buddy sends Em out to the balcony to bring Doll a cup of coffee. Doll’s wrapped in a plush white bathrobe, calm and dreamy in the soft California light. “I like L.A.,” she says, accepting the mug from her friend. Going by Em’s worried facial expression, it’s easy to hear just how ominous that declaration might sound.

As the series goes on, Em finds her position of power increasingly threatened by Doll’s rising star. Doll wows the Godmother film set as an emotional extra at a funeral, while Em can’t even muster up convincing tears. Soon the two are even trying out for the same role in a new movie—to which Doll receives a callback, while Em does not.

When the tensions between the friends finally come to a head, Doll accuses Em of not wanting her to have a dream. But Em is ready with a few charges of her own:

“You’ve made this entire shoot all about you,” Em says of the Godmother film. She claims that she hired Doll to cheer her up and has been repaid with selfish behavior and crummy personal assistantship. Meanwhile, Em’s own actions suggest her motives were less than altruistic. What she really wanted was to be taken care of. When Doll was unable to stop having needs and emotions of her own and transform into the ideal, selfless assistant, Em felt that it was a violation of their employment contract.

To the show’s credit, both sides of the conflict seem somewhat valid. Why does Doll have to go after the things that Em has? Can’t she carve her own path? Why isn’t Em secure and kind enough to make space for a talented friend who’s trying to find her way in the world?

But Doll & Em isn’t just about jealousy or greed or selfishness. It’s about learning to move past those feelings for the sake of someone you love and figuring out a way of connecting that’s much more generous and true.

Months after Doll and Em fall out with one another, Em decides to extend an olive branch. Watching her old friend act in a tiny, enchanting community theater production in London, Em’s face glows with appreciation for Doll’s talent and passion. Not only is she excited and proud of Doll, she finally recognizes that regardless of their jobs or relationship status, they’re evenly matched—and they have been all along.

That’s the message behind the t-shirt she gives Doll after the play, emblazoned with a photograph of the two of them as children in the bathtub, lit up like Christmas trees. They were on the same level then, the shirt suggests, and they’re on the same level now. Which is why Em unbuttons her coat to reveal that she’s wearing a matching t-shirt too.

It can be hard, sometimes, to know which friendships are toxic and which ones are simply in need of a reboot. Doll and Em’s relationship almost bit the dust because they stopped having empathy for each other. They tore each other down instead of building one another up. It would have been totally understandable if the two of them had given up and walk away for good.

But some friendships—especially the kind with very long histories—can survive a rough patch. To make it through, both parties have to be willing to put in the work required to rebuild their relationship, and they have to believe that their friendship really can change. Doll and Em have that kind of faith in each other. Doll’s forging her own way in the world now, no longer overly reliant on Em for support. And Em’s finally willing—eager, even—to share the spotlight.

As the pair amble into the dark in the closing moments of the series, arms linked, Em takes a breath and proposes that they write a play and star in it together.

“I mean as equals,” she clarifies. “Just do something ourselves, have an idea and put it on. We could go and write by the sea somewhere like Virginia Woolf.”

“Stay in a lighthouse,” Doll says, warming to the idea.

Watching Doll and Em renew their relationship, choosing collaboration over posturing, partnership over power, forgiveness over acrimony, is as touching as the end of any good love story. It’s a reminder that most good friendships really are romances at heart.

Related posts:

Pretty Little Liars and the Power of Four

True-er Detectives: “The Bletchley Circle,” Lady Sleuths, and Friendship

Under Her Wing: Fraught Female Mentorship in “Damages”

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