TV & Movies

5 Things ‘Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion’ Can Teach Us About Friendship

written by EMMA GINSBERG
Source: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Source: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

If you’re one of the people who saw Mira Sorvino announce that a sequel to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is in the works and immediately freaked out, hi, let’s be best friends. IMO, Romy and Michele is one of the most underrated movies of the bright-pink-bedazzled-blockbuster-rom-com era of films. You know Clueless, you love Mean Girls, you still have an emotional attachment to 13 Going on 30, but this 1997 cult classic has flown under the radar for far too long. Thankfully, Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow are “full force ahead” on reprising their roles as Romy and Michele, so those of us who adore this film will finally have a chance to shout “Have a Romy and Michele Day!” from the rooftops.

If you have yet to experience the wacky, wonderful world of two best friends living in Los Angeles turned “sophisticated, educated, successful career women,” first of all, cancel your Friday night plans and watch this movie. Allow me to break it down for you: Romy (Sorvino) and Michelle (Kudrow) have been best friends since high school, where they both were members of the “B-group” in the social hierarchy. When their 10-year high school reunion rolls around, Romy and Michele realize that their lack of partners and careers won’t impress their former “A-group” classmates, so they concoct an elaborate lie about their lives to present at the reunion together. Hilarity ensues.

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is about so many aspects of the female experience, including being simultaneously infantilized and rushed by society’s “timeline,” buying into the illusion of comparison, and the trap of relentlessly pursuing socially acceptable self-improvement. However, the best moments of this movie (and the reasons why I am over the moon excited about the sequel) come when the film addresses the nuances of adult female friendship. So, while we wait patiently for the sequel to hit the big screen, here are five lessons that Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion can teach us about female friendship.

1. Being female friends in adulthood sometimes means coming face-to-face with each other’s baggage.

With all due respect to your best friend, there’s likely been a moment in your friendship where you’ve thought to yourself, “Wow, this girl has some issues!” Granted, that moment does not arrive for Romy and Michele in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, at least not explicitly. However, their insecurities do interfere with their friendship when they realize that they are nowhere near where they thought they would be in life at age 28. In particular, Romy is distressed by the fact that neither of them have sustained careers or relationships—she also proposes that the two of them should lose weight before the reunion to impress the “A-group.” It is Romy’s distress over these perceived shortcomings that spurs a makeover sequence early in the film.

As women, we live in a world that never fails to criticize us for being too nice or not nice enough, too ambitious or not ambitious enough, single and “wild” or coupled and “boring,” and, of course, polices our bodies in more ways than one. Which of these critiques burrows deepest in our own self-limiting beliefs is often not up to us. What Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion reveals is that when we are in close relationships with other women, those insecurities will bubble up, clash, and even influence our friends. It takes little convincing for Michele to join Romy in the makeover process because Romy’s observations activated insecurities that had been dormant in Michele’s own mind. The message of the film is that female friendship is always worth it, even when the baggage that society has pushed on each of us makes its way into those friendships—so long as we acknowledge that baggage is there.

Choosing our female friendships over the socially dictated timeline, especially in our 20s and 30s, can be both worthwhile and radical…

2. Society will paint you and your friends differently. We must continue to connect despite those labels.

I could write an entire essay about how Romy and Michele are portrayed as the same but different throughout Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, but the gist of it is this: Romy is repeatedly sexualized in the movie, while Michele is infantilized. As the two attempt to get jobs and boyfriends in time for the reunion, Michele is tasked with finding a career while Romy seeks out potential suitors. Each of them fails repeatedly at these goals—Michele is turned away from job after job, and Romy stands alone in revealing outfits in crowded bars—and their “failures” define them. Michele is depicted as girlish without a career, and Romy struggles to get the two any closer to impressing the “A-group” until she agrees to pretend to have had sex with her manager at the dealership in exchange for a car.

Sometimes, these differences in how Romy and Michele are portrayed in the movie cause conflict in their friendship. Ultimately, though, it is their ability to complement each other’s weaknesses and look past these “failures” that allow them to thwart the “A-group” at the reunion. Especially in the internet age, society places labels on women to attempt to drive wedges in our relationships and weaken our collective power—like, heaven help us if a Pilates princess and a mob wife become friends! We must Mary Kate and Ashley match at all costs! The secret that Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion wants you to know? The girlbosses, bimbos, and babygirls are all stronger when we stand together. Looking past arbitrary labels in favor of genuine female friendship is essential.

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3. Close adult female friendships almost always challenge conventional societal timelines.

A moment of rupture in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion occurs when the two craft an elaborate lie about being the inventors of Post-It notes to impress their peers at the reunion. Romy and Michele get into a fight over which of them gets to claim that they “had the idea” for Post-It notes. Furious with each other, they end up deciding to go their separate ways once they reach Tucson. At this moment, Romy and Michele have an opportunity to “grow up” in the eyes of their peers (even through a lie), but that growing up costs them their friendship for a portion of the film. The viewer is forced to consider why Romy and Michele don’t yet have jobs or boyfriends—and the answer is that while they were supposed to be focused on getting those things, they were too busy having fun with each other.

Conventionally, society expects us to use the decade after graduating high school to pursue a career and a long-term partnership. Often, focusing solely on those two socially acceptable goals prevents us from reveling in female friendships in adulthood. It is this prescribed timeline that spawns the intense nostalgia for the female unity of our younger years, as we saw this year with the Barbie movie, Taylor Swift obsession, and girlhood “trend.” Romy and Michele show us that being so optimistic about the gifts the timeline promises to give us, from career fulfillment to marital success, has a trade-off. Choosing our female friendships over the socially dictated timeline, especially in our 20s and 30s, can be both worthwhile and radical, no matter what the “A-group” thinks.

4. Attempting to climb a perceived social hierarchy will not bring you more fulfilling friendships.

If there’s one uncomfortable truth that Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion forces us to face, it’s that the ideas about the social food chain that we all think we left in high school have a funny way of making their way into our lives as adults. Romy and Michele spend so much of the film seeking approval from mean girl Christie Masters, athlete Billie Christianson, and the rest of the “A-group” that not only do they damage their own relationship, but they also fail to see the value in pursuing friendships outside of the “A-group.” At the end of the film, they realize that their true friendships (besides each other) are to be found in Sandy Frink, the geek whose romantic pursuits Michele repeatedly ignored; Heather Mooney, the cigarette-smoking rebel they used to bully; and Lisa Luder, an “A-group” defector herself. Unlearning ideas about who our true friends are doesn’t stop after high school—one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, even in adulthood, is relief from trying to climb false hierarchies.

…one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, even in adulthood, is relief from trying to climb false hierarchies.

5. Female friendships are crucial for disrupting systemic sexism, especially within a specific industry.

OK, so this isn’t a lesson that we find explicitly in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, but it is one that we can take away from the beginning stages of the production of the sequel. Chances are, if you grew up after Romy and Michele was at its peak popularity, you’re pretty familiar with Lisa Kudrow, but you might not know Mira Sorvino as well. This is because, at the peak of her career, Sorvino was sexually harassed and intentionally excluded from the film industry by Harvey Weinstein. Mira Sorvino has an undergraduate degree from Harvard, won an Oscar for her role in Mighty Aphrodite in 1996, and was praised for her portrayal of Romy in 1997—and she struggled to get roles afterward because of systemic sexism at Miramax. She was one of the first women to come forward against Weinstein’s abuse in 2017.

Now, as we await the sequel to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, it is Sorvino’s relationships with Kudrow and the film’s original screenwriter, Robin Schiff, that will thrust her talent and genius into the (currently fanatical for representations of the female experience) public consciousness once again. Sorvino and Kudrow are reportedly wrapping up their deals to be executive producers for the sequel, and Schiff is finalizing the script. Regardless of whether these three women consider themselves to be “friends,” it is their respect for one another in their industry—and their collective urge to make another movie about two of the most iconic female friends to grace the big screen—that will finally give Mira Sorvino the flowers she deserves and take one more step towards tackling the misogyny that plagues Hollywood. Alan Cumming, who played Sandy Frink in the original film, put it bluntly: “If [Kudrow and Sorvino] were two men, this would’ve been our fifth sequel by now.” Hey, Hollywood, we want more movies about complex adult female friendships! The sequel to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion better just be the beginning.