On Fictional Female Friendship

Before I say anything else, let me draw your attention to the title and clarify that when I say “Fictional Female Friendship” (whoa the alliteration), I’m talking about female friendship that appears in fiction and not implying that female friendship is fictional (which if you read enough YA novels can persuade you is true). Right? Right!

A week or so ago, I was browsing my feed on Instagram and I saw that my friend Brigid had posted the picture below and added the sad fact that while friendships between boys can be described as done below, friendship between female characters in books, particularly YA as that is the genre I am most familiar with, rarely gets the same attention and acceptance. (The book is The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater and is most excellent.)

 

Photo Credit: She_is_Brigid
Photo Credit: She_is_Brigid

We’ve all heard of the Bechdel Test, right? No?

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Where communication between two or more women is limited/constrained/bound by the men in their lives. As in, the subject of every conversation they ever have is about a man and not, say, books. Ahem. This is not a tough test to pass; in fact, it is so ridiculously easy that you could pass even without intending to. And yet, modern media keeps on failing this test thereby perpetuating the idea that the most important things to women are the men in their lives, or the men they want to be in their lives or the men who used to be in their lives. Women are not real persons unless they are somehow attached to men which is an idea I find deeply offensive.

Without naming names, many YA novels fail The Bechdel Test because there are only twice the female protagonist seems to need her female friend: once when she is having romantic troubles and again when she needs to be encouraged to go after the love of her life.

The Bechdel Test aside, there is a far more insidious way in which female friendship is not just undermined but made very improbable in a lot of the YA novels I have read. This is when every other female character becomes the standard by which the protagonist measures herself. That is, for the protagonist to be something, the other female characters have to not be that something. If the protagonist goes au natural, then the other females will all belong to the makeup users club. If the protagonist is clumsy, the other females will be full of grace. The other female’s sexual empowerment will be seen as promiscuity (read: slut shaming) in order to make the protagonist seem pure and as such more deserving of the Brooding YA Hero. Now that I think about it, any time a female is assertive, confident about her looks and sexuality, she is somehow…evil.

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Hmmm….

There is no room for friendship when the only way two females can relate to each other is as rivals. There is no room for friendship when one character is developed at the expense of tearing down the other. And there is definitely no room for friendship when two female characters have only one true goal to their lives which is: winning the love interest’s attentions. The one who wins him wins everything and the one who doesn’t has nothing. And the one who wasn’t able to win the hero has nothing to offer the protagonist who is too busy redefining her values and person to suit the changes in her position now that she is Ms. Girlfriend.

It is sadly difficult to find examples of friendships where both people are actualized and capable people in their own right and not used as foils for the other. Examples where both girls have their own people and not used to build up or break down the other female characters.A friendship of equals rather than a lopsided friendship where one friend is the more desirable/sexy/slutty/whatever one.

am generalizing though and YA has taken great strides to portray friendship in a better manner than it used to. However, there are still too few examples of genuine friendship between fictional female characters. Some of the more notable ones that I can remember off the top of my head are:

  1. Zuzana and Kaoru from Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy.
    They are a fantastic pair and I wish more friendships like theirs existed.
  2. Jo and Meda from the Soul Eater trilogy by Eliza Crewe
    This series needs to get more attention from readers. True, Meda and Jo have their problems, one of them is a demon and the other a crusader sworn to kill all demons…but the friendship is real and all the more splendid for the realness.
  3. Cat and Bee from The Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott.
    I’ve said this a hundred million times but Cat and Bee are probably my one platonic OTP. And yes, I am cheating because the trilogy is not YA but hey, my post, my rules.

And there you have it. My thoughts. I hope they give you something to think about.

  • Yash

    Kami and Angela though! (And later, Kami and Holly!) Also, all the girls in The Diviners? They are all so vastly different too. And the best of all– THE BEAUTY QUEENS! <3

    • Okay, I haven’t read the Brennan trilogy which I really have no excuse for. Hm, were the girls in The Diviners friends? I don’t remember. I will have a skim through before the next book is out. And argh, I need to finish The Beauty Queens. Just Libba Bray, right? Actually, Bray’s earlier trilogy, the Gemma Doyle trilogy, has pretty decent friendship.

  • I definitely agree we need more female friendships in fiction, but I have two questions for you: 1) how would you feel about female friendships that grow into a romantic relationship with each other? 2) and any thoughts on the portrayal of friendships between boys and girls? I am always interested in the way friendship between young children is portrayed, because at that age it is very natural for boys and girls to be each other’s friends, only for it to become stigmatized later in life. Which is a crying shame.

    • I actually like romances that start off as friendships but honestly, I just want friendship that is uncomplicated by other feelings–something that some people believe is not possible. I think this is also the trouble with friendships between boys and girls. Platonic friendships seem to be the stuff of fairytales in fiction when that cannot be further from the truth in real life. I think it is possible to have separate romances and friendships in the same book. The world does not revolve around romance and your friend and lover can be the same person but sometimes it’s so much better when you have other friends beside your lover to talk to. Ya know?

  • Zuzana and Karou were certainly the first two that came to mind on female friendship. I adored the book even more so solely because of this!

    • Definitely. I loved how supportive they were of each other without the usual backbiting, angsting etc that usually defines female friendship.

  • You should take a look at this Goodreads list – https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/45544.Best_sci_fi_fantasy_books_about_female_friendships

    It’s about science fiction and fantasy, but maybe creating one for YA would be in order?

    My top three (all genres) would be these:
    1. Monstrous Regiment
    2. Dealing with Dragons
    3. Three Parts Dead, plus Full Fathom Five which is set in the same world.

    • Thanks! I’ll take a look at it.

      • Janet

        I second the recommendation for Monstrous Regiment and Dealing with Dragons (first in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles)! Female friendship comes to the foreground again in the third book in that series, Calling on Dragons, as well.

        • Now that Janet has seconded the rec, I *have* to take a look at these books.

  • Great post! It personally drives me crazy when the female protagonist is “only friends with boys” or “can’t be friends with girls” *cough*MortalInstruments*cough* so I hear you on this.

    Kimi ni Todoke is a Japanese manga aimed at teens, but it has a great relationship between the main character and two other girls that DOES NOT start as a romantic rivalry (which a lot of girl’s manga seems to do), thank goodness.

    • Oh yes! I’ve found that certain Manga titles do portray friendship really well. Kimi ni Todoke does, so does Skip Beat, Strobe Edge does too, as does Ao Haru Riide. Hirunaka no Ryuseii does it really well either.

  • What a great post. I agree, too often YA female friendships are about the boys in their lives. I do think some of my tea cozy novels that I’ve read in the past few years have made greater strides in this area than YA. I could name a few murder mystery (especially in the paranormal realm) stories that have strong female relationships that are pairs of women working together. True, there are some rifts, and some tropes, but a good portion of their interactions are about demons/vampires/ghosts/spirits and not just man hating or loving or jealousy. Hopefully fiction writers continue to expand their horizons on female friendships and the Bechdel Test becomes a thing of the past.

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  • I would add to your list of examples: Under the Painted Sky by Stacey Lee. It’s amazing and the friendship between the two main characters is my favorite thing.

    • I have yet to read that one but the reviews of it are great. I’m glad it has a solid portrayal of friendship.

  • Loved this post!

  • Thank you so much for this post! I rejoice any time I read a book with female friendship. Which is sad in a way, because it really shouldn’t be that rare.

  • I’m really glad this topic is being talked about. I didn’t realize how many books had this problem until it was pointed out to me.

  • Ahhh the source of one of my top 3 pet peeves: lack of female best friends. I second Yash’s outcry of Kami and Angela!! (I really think you’ll like them), and Zuzana and Kaoru are definitely another pair of favourites for me. I haven’t read the others you listed though, I’ll have to get on that.

    I have to say that some of me wonders if I have such a hard time meeting women (not to say that I don’t have some absolutely FANTASTIC female friends, because I definitely do. But I DO have a hard time making them) because consistently across every media* I come across 98% of it depicts women as rivals. I’m not certain how much of my competitiveness with other women (which is something I am deeply uncomfortable with about myself) is just something I innately have and how much of it has been fostered by culture. (And I need you to read The Lynburn Legacy already because there are THINGS I need to talk about! But I shall have to wait.)

    But beyond all of THAT, it’s just irritating to have a pointless character. And female friendships make me want to squee into my pillow. So I want more of that damn it!

    *Having read through the comments, I totally forgot about manga! And there really are a lot of great friendships in that. Kyoko and Kanae are the BEST (And now that I think about it…similar in many ways to Kami and Angela)

  • It’s sooooooo rare. The fact that I have to mention in a review/update that there is a female friendship or that men have more commonly been known to accept each other without needing to get competitive is a big fucking problem. If I have to mention it? That means there’s a problem where it concerns honest female friendships that are not used as plot points to get the girl with guy.

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