There’s Always Abby: The Radical Queer Friendship at the Center of “Carol”

After seeing Carol what felt like centuries after everyone else had seen it, including my own mother, there were so many things I couldn’t get out of my mind: Therese (Rooney Mara)’s head turning at the feeling of Carol (Cate Blanchett)’s hand on her shoulder like she can taste it; the color red; the way Carol’s breath catches with emotion when she says, “And we’re not ugly people, Harge.” The fact of seeing this story brought to life, which I first encountered as a book while I was living in New York and working retail during Christmas and falling in love with an unavailable woman, hit me with such sheer magnitude that I could hardly move when the credits finally rolled.

But the thing I keep returning to most of all is the relationship between Carol and Abby (Sarah Paulson). It struck me, this portrayal of a deep, lifelong friendship between two gay women navigating all the treacheries of life in the 1950s, side-by-side. It spoke directly to the very special chamber of my heart that holds the gratitude and abiding love I have for the queer friendships in my own life.

Before we know that Carol and Abby were once lovers, we see their familiarity, the easy intimacy of two people who have been friends for decades, who have secrets from the world but not from one another. It seems like nothing out of the ordinary, the cozy scene they spend tucked into a booth at a smoky bar, sipping martinis, Abby saying, “I’ve got my eye on this redhead,” and Carol teasing back, “Can you handle a redhead?” But there’s actually something radical going on here. It’s no small thing that they have each other, two women who like women, can talk openly about redheads or Therese or any number of topics without fear. There is a special kind of trust there, an implicit safety.

It’s mutual recognition, too. Abby can call out Carol, the coolest of customers, can challenge her with, “I know you don’t like driving alone” because she intuits Carol’s intentions perhaps before Carol herself is ready to admit them. And she can because she has to do it as well, play the game of keeping anything flirtatious or suggestive understated, let it thrum only beneath the surface like a quickening pulse below the skin.

In each other, they see reflected back what they’re both attempting to perform, and perhaps hide, in their own lives as gay women. Despite what they’ve gained by refusing to conform to the sexual expectations of the time, they both know what stands to be lost. When Abby says to Carol, “She’s young. Tell me you know what you’re doing,” she’s cautioning against something very present that she has reckoned with, the particular pain of a heartbreak that will have to remain largely unnamed and unacknowledged. And when Carol responds, “Did I ever?” she too is confronting it, staring down the barrel of that same gun.

Abby is established not only as a friend and confidante, then, but as a fellow queer woman who deeply understands the struggles Carol is inviting into her life — and, more importantly, why she’s doing it. And we know in this way that Carol is not alone, that neither one of them are. Each has someone she can turn to. Abby not only deftly and indifferently handles an enraged Harge who pounds on her door and makes childish demands of her, she then drives across multiple state lines to pick up Carol’s lover and deposit her back in New York. I can only imagine the phone conversation between the two of them when these arrangements are made: Carol not saying much and Abby emitting a small sighing noise, both speaking quickly and quietly into a crackling line. And Abby’s answer is, as it will always be, yes, I am here, I am coming. The stakes are high, but they are not impossible.

In some criticism written about the movie, Abby is posited as the jealous, “other woman” who is still in love with Carol, and skeptical of Therese based on that fact. And in an interview with Paulson herself, she discusses two Abby-related scenes that were ultimately cut from the movie, and which would have perhaps made this perspective more warranted. (One was a scene in which Abby confronts Therese about Carol directly, before their trip, and the other is a moment during which Abby floats the idea that they try something again and Carol rebuffs her.)

There are layers upon layers at work throughout Carol — which is part of the reason it’s such a terribly beautiful and nuanced film — so this relationship should be no exception. But I find myself wanting to reject this idea that Abby is only there for Carol because she’s still in love with her. To me, that reinforces a narrative that is frequently projected onto female characters, that they have to be in competition. Carol and Abby’s friendship is bigger than their fling, is bigger than whatever inevitably happens between Carol and Therese.

Paulson herself says of the Abby and Carol, “It was definitely an example of beautiful female friendship and loyalty. Yes, this friendship did have a romantic component at one time, but it was not something that was going to cause the relationship to dissolve because it didn’t work out romantically. They had a bigger bond than that.”

Abby is, after all, Aunt Abby, the godmother of Carol’s daughter. There is something essential and unshakable between them. And the fact that this friendship exists between two gay women in a mainstream Hollywood movie, and remains largely unmarred by drama or a romantic entanglement, is pretty damn special too.

Because we need our queer friends. We need the people who give us the space and safety to explore whatever it is we need to explore, without judgement or explanation. And we need those same people, who have been there, who have grappled with it all too, to remind us firmly and tenderly of any precipice they think we might be standing on — romantic or otherwise. We need people who also understand the singular experience of walking through the world as a queer woman. Carol and Abby are in this thing together. They share a perspective, a history, a struggle. They share a context.

These are the friendships that fortify us, that give us strength. I’d like to think it’s the kind of strength Carol summons in that pivotal moment when she stands in front of Harge and the lawyers and tells them, in no uncertain terms, that she will never hide who she is for any reason. Her actions echo the sentiment she shares with Harge early on in the film when he tries to manipulate her into spending Christmas with him. “I’m not alone,” she tells him. “There’s Rindy, there’s—” Harge finishes the statement for her: “Abby. There’s always Abby.”

Indeed. There’s always Abby.


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Maree lives in Berlin and is usually carrying some sort of Tupperware product on her person. She's written for Marie Claire, The Rumpus, and Teen Vogue, but still has not fulfilled her lifelong dream of seeing a real blue-footed booby. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter and probably the dance floor.

Maree has written 24 articles for us.

58 Comments

  1. I love this and agree with every word. I couldn’t help but see that maybe there was a shred of romance for Carol still in Abby’s heart but that in my mind can be part of a deeper and less conditional platonic love and friendship. (where is the line between platonic and not anyway?)
    I am glad they cut those scenes in the end though.
    Even more so it is powerful to see that even with that history of romance it can be put aside in honour of the need to care for each other and defend each other.
    I’m sure lots of us felt that this was a wonderful representation of queer women’s friendships as they actually do happen; built in history, yes maybe messy, maybe slightly ambiguous, but always steadfastly supportive when looking to the bigger picture and defending our queer women friends against outsiders.

    • Re: Platonic and not — WHERE INDEED.

      I agree completely about those scenes, and I also agree completely with: “it is so powerful to see that even with that history of romance it can be put aside in honour of the need to care for each other and defend each other.” Yes. Exactly this. This is what I feel like is too often in queer narratives is sacrificed for the sake of plot, or intrigue.

      Thank you Jessica Marie!

  2. I watched and read a lot of interviews with Sarah which informed my perspective as Abby still being in love with Carol. When I asked my girlfriend who hadn’t been following those if she thought Abby still had feelings for Carol she said no, she felt it was a friendship.

    • Oh that’s so interesting! I definitely came into the movie with less outside context, so I think I didn’t pick up on that immediately because I wasn’t looking for it. Also, I think it’s portrayed somewhat differently in the book, which I haven’t read in years and need to go back to…

  3. I first watched Carol recently, with no outside context and it hit me just how pure her relationship with Abby was.

    Even if there was romance before, all that was there was this love and care. The way that Sarah played Abby, the acting in the whole movie was stellar but, this obvious protectiveness and the fact that it could be easily seen that their friendship runs deep. Their interaction, the ease in their behavior around each other.

    I have a lot of feelings about it.

  4. I too had only just watched the movie cos it only premiered in my country early Mar.

    Carol is very fortunate to have Abby to lean on, and I totally agree with you that we need a ‘Abby’ or more in our lives. Carol and Abby are not soulmates, but they understand what the other is going true and they have so much history together (since they were 10!). Abby will always have a place in Carol’s life and heart, not romantically like Therese, but like family. She is the family that Carol chose and kept.

    Alas, not everyone is so fortunate. I didn’t know any LGBT person until my thirties, not until I told a close friend that I am gay (and she told me she is bi). Maybe I didn’t open my eyes enough or maybe everyone are presumed to be hetero in my society/country/region.

    • “She is the family that Carol chose and kept.” This is such a lovely way to put it.

      I hope it’s getting easier nowadays, at least in some places, to find and connect deeply with other LGBTQ people, but what you describe isn’t uncommon in what I’ve seen and experienced and heard about. I think there’s also something very special about a close friend you’ve known for a long time coming out, which I had the experience of in my mid-20s. I am so glad you had that connection with your friend too.

  5. I just finished the book yesterday, actually, and almost the only major difference between it and the film is the depiction of Abby. While it’s not a “love triangle” there’s definitely some jealousy from Abby and some aggression on her part toward Therese. It makes sense, and doesn’t read as unrealistic, but I really, really, really like that the movie didn’t have that.

    Also having just read the book – my god, was Cate Blanchett the perfect casting choice! In general, I’m seriously impressed with how direct of a translation from page to screen the whole thing was. Preserving the tone of a novel is hard to do (or, at least, most films don’t do it), and ‘Carol’ nailed it.

    • Just finishing up the novel before allowing myself the film.. and you’re very right, Highsmith makes it clear that Abby is allowing her jealousy to influence her protectiveness. (And I think this is heightened by Therese’s strange, nervy narrative voice) In the novel, Carol also tells Therese about Abby in a way that’s all about disavowing queer solidarity: that Abby was always ‘like that’, that Carol had a sense of needing to keep her distance and avoid that part of Abby’s affections.

      It comes up again and again in the novel: the anxious recognition of other queers and the need to avoid seeming like them, make sure you’re not as obvious as them, keep away and keep safe. I mean, it’s obviously the poison of the times, and there’s an ambivalence, a wish this weren’t so, but it’s heartbreaking all the same. (And how marvellous and strong Carol and Abby’s friendship is to manage the vitality and intimacy it does have in the book, in spite of all of this.)

      But I’m so glad that the film gives us this gift that the present allows, a queer friendship without these distortions. That’s wonderful. I always think of Virginia Woolf’s bit in “Room of One’s Own” where she imagines the radical novel in which “Chloe liked Olivia.” Not only the romantic potential of that, but just the powerful acknowledgement of female friendship and community.

    • But at least the novel gives Abby a personal motivation. In the novel Abby is a depressed partier who is still in love with Carol. In the movie she’s just “loyal friend”. There’s not a lot there.

  6. you know how sometimes you can know a thing, you think you’re really conscious of it, but then you read something, and you realize you weren’t really aware of it, the gravity of it, the reality of it?

    that’s how i feel right now, thinking about the lack of queer friendships in media. like, i knew, it’s something i’ve talked about before, how unrealistic it is that media doesn’t acknowledge that we travel in packs, that we form these families for ourselves, that we only live in isolation when we can’t help it.

    and it’s not really a surprise, because media focused on lgb characters tends to be about one main romance between the only two lgb people in a sea of heteros or whatever. and to show a queer group, the queer characters would have to be the focus, really, and that doesn’t really happen much. they’d have to intentionally craft a queer world, and they don’t want to do that.

    but this is something else – two wlw allowed to exist together in a hetero world without being the main romance. that’s not something media even acknowledges can exist. and yeah, of course there’s something to the realism of dating/screwing within your group because you’re the only queer people you know or whatever, but that’s not the point of their relationship, in their lives or in the story. they’re allowed to have these shared experiences and support each other and understand each other in a way no one else can.

    and yeah, carol IS, you know, gay media, but even within gay media how often does this kind of a dynamic exist? it certainly isn’t allowed to exist outside of it. i’m just newly frustrated by this divide, one that i’ve known about but also feel like i’m somehow just now seeing. queer people aren’t allowed to have platonic queer friends in media that’s not 100% queer. i wonder how much of that comes from, you know, just the fact that we’re not allowed to be happy in media, and how much of that comes from the hetero belief that men and women can’t be friends and so two wlw clearly can’t either.

    anyway. i just watched carol like four days ago and i’m happy to get to read these posts now. thanks for this, because i’m definitely going to move forward with more of a drive to fix this specific issue in representation.

    • It becomes really glaring, this absence, doesn’t it? And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head — we see it, and now we’ve got to fix it.

      Also I am so glad that I wasn’t the last one ever to see the movie which I definitely felt like for some time.

  7. Oh man, this is the review that has made me go “yeah I should watch Carol sometime” to “I NEED TO WATCH CAROL NOW” because friendships are SO IMPORTANT to me and queer friendships are so, so important to me. I hate how friendships, in general, are minimized and made to be not-important compared to whatever romance is there, not only in media, but in real life. It’s just so rare to see media that validates the friendships we have as important and real, and friendships between queer folks? Hahaha they’re essentially non-existent. So you’re telling me that Carol has hit the lottery not only with lesbians who don’t die and end happy, but also queer women who are friends and it’s not a weird love triangle? I need this movie in my life.

  8. I am also glad they got rid of the more obvious Jealous!Abby scenes from the film. I think that there was a hint of jealousy and romantic interest and attraction between the two of them, but that in no way negates their friendship. I was so pleased to see that because friendships between women who like women often fall into this middle ground in a comfortable way (I mean, look how many lesbians are friends with their exes) that rarely seems to exist in the straight world (where ‘can straight men and women be friends without sex getting in the way?’ still seems to be a question, bizarrely)

  9. This makes me so happy and validates my own friendship with my ex. It’s amusing that all my straight friends are baffled that we’re still close, but all my queer friends aren’t surprised. I’m lucky that I’ve kept my Abby.

  10. i remember a podcast, i think it was either this american life or radiolab, had interviewed a few older citizens in a group home. one lovely woman mentioned that it was difficult having deep friendships with people because they’d all met each other at the home and what makes friendships great are experiences together over time. this was something i hadnt thought of and ofcourse my heart broke a little for her. getting old isnt for the weak.
    anyway, the proverb blood is thicker than water used to mean “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” meaning, relationships formed by choice are stronger than familial bonds. ( the exact opposite of how we use it now). but for some queer folk, the original sentiment is one we agree with completely.

  11. YEES! I think we gained so much from the adaptation opening up to Carol’s point of view and this is something we have Phyllis Nagy to thank for! WLW friendships are still so important to us in media these days, but with such an added impact while portrayed in a cocktail bar in 1950’s US. Thank you for writing this!

  12. This is a great example of why media representation matters. Often enough I notice straight people reading my female friendships as romantic when they’re not – sometimes when my friend isn’t even queer! As if every relationship I have with another woman is automatically about sex.

    If they saw us represented as we are, with our whole queer family around us, we might be seen more often as whole people IRL, too, instead of only through the lens of romantic relationships. 

  13. I loved this article so much.

    For me, Abby was one of the things the film did better than the book, and I agree strongly that the reason is the sense of community. Friends are so, so important and the film captured that sense that it would be so very rare for a woman like Therese to be able to aspire to have a community like the community Carol and Abby form between them. But it’s there! I loved that.

    I think in a way, the fact Abby may still be in love with Carol, doesn’t matter. The point is that she keeps being a friend, because being a friend is more important, ultimately, than the rest. That’s how real love works, obviously, but women are rarely shown to have that generosity on-screen.

    So glad to read this article.

    • Yes, exactly. And I love imagining a version of this story in which Therese had access to that kind of a community, to a friend she could talk to about Carol — who, let’s be honest, probably would have said, Girl do not go on this road trip.

  14. This is so fantastic, thank you for writing this. I think you’ve really articulated a huge reason that I liked the movie better than the book, because I did feel in the book that Abby was absolutely still in love with Carol, and her actions/dialogue towards Therese felt more jealous/resentful instead of “*sigh* yes Carol I will fix your screw-up because I am your best friend and I love you.” I also love that it depicts the legitimate and real and important reality of staying friends with your exes as a queer lady. This is another thing that I don’t think straight people tend to understand, but to me it makes perfect sense that our found queer family and people who really *get* us would be a precious resource that we wouldn’t want to throw away just because the romance didn’t work.

  15. “play the game of keeping anything flirtatious or suggestive understated, let it thrum only beneath the surface like a quickening pulse below the skin.” Thank you for such a fantastic line.

  16. You know what’s glaring and insulting about this piece? The word “lesbian” does not appear in it. There’s “queer”, the latest one-size-fits-all terminology; and “gay”, the one-size-fits-all from the good ol’ days of taking the homosexual women in the crowd for granted. Is there a problem with using the word “Lesbian” to describe lesbians? Is lesbophobia slowly creeping into the language of LGBT-speak? You can label Carol and Abby “queer” and erase what’s most important about them with it, but not in a million years would non-heterosexual women in the 1950s refer to themselves as “queer”.

    • I use the word lesbian to describe myself all the time. Sometimes I use gay.

      I appreciate this article using queer though because, while it may be fair to describe Carol and Abby as lesbians, it compares their friendship to our real-life friendships and how dear they are to us. And the queer friendships that are so valuable in my life don’t just include lesbians, so a broader term seems fair play to me.

      What’s funny is this site uses the word lesbian all the time and often get yelled at for bisexual erasure.

      Maybe you’d enjoy this article/conversation on labels if you haven’t already checked it out: http://www.autostraddle.com/labels-for-lgbt-people-elle-magazine-asks-3301119/

      • Thank you for your comment.

        I, myself, only use “lesbian” to describe who and what I am. I always disliked using “gay” because it became associated with male homosexuals in the 20th century and continues to be — whereas “lesbian” derives from the Isle of Lesbos where Sappho was born and where her all-girl band had a grand old time. The chicken AND the egg word came first for the homosexual female of the species.

        We all stand on the shoulders of lesbian foremothers who often paid a high price for being lesbians, and the shoulders of lesbian activists who fought to have lesbians recognized as a population uniquely distinct from the one-size-fits-all non-hetero pie.

        For those who balk at using “labels” let me just say what I always say to those who wag their millennial generation finger at me: every time you use a word to describe yourself, it’s a label. Brunette, blond, redhead, blissfully bald? All labels. Atheist, agnostic, pagan, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc? Labels. Black, Latina, First Nation, Chicana, etc? Labels. College graduate? Label. MA, MBA, PhD, JD, MLS, MS, MSW, etc? Big-arse labels. Feminist, antifeminist? Labels. Trans? Label. Y’all get the point.

  17. Book!Abby actually has a personality and personal motivations. She is unhappy. She is bored and so she fills her time in with partying when she really just wants another business. She still holds a flame for her recent ex. Which makes her actions in act 3 of the novel to help Therese mean a lot more. There was a real character there. The movie (understandably since a movie is 2 hours and the novel takes 4-5 to read) just sorta takes away Abby’s personality away and makes her the “loyal friend”

  18. Yes, thank you. I go to a women’s college and queer friendships are the backbone of my community here, which is made easier because the women’s college environment means I’m surrounded by queer-identified people. I’m terrified to move out into the “real world,” because I’m scared it means losing that queer community that is helping me survive.

  19. Well, I haven’t seen Carol, but I added it to my “Have to watch” list after reading this wonderful review. Besides, recently I helped one student to write an essay about friendship and we had a discussion what film could we take as an example, on our forum: http://essay-writer.club/forums/t/can-anyone-help-me-write-200-words-essay-on-friendship/ Now I imagine what an interesting essay can be written based on the story of this film! Thanks for writing this review!

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