Monday, July 1, 2013

Female Friendships in Fiction

by Riley Redgate

I've come to notice, recently, a curious deficit of solid friendships between women in fiction. In fact, I think I've started searching for them subconsciously, and only realized how rare they actually are when I saw the recent comedy The Heat—which, by the way, is a hilarious buddy-cop comedy. Distressingly enough, friendships of the between-X-chromosomes-only variety seem to be overwhelmingly riddled with drama involving Y chromosomes, the rule to which The Heat was a refreshing exception. In fact, I'm having difficulty coming up with a literary friendship off the top of my head that fit these two simple criteria: 1) two non-related women are friends, and 2) they do not at some point in the book fight over or about a male. I find this rather disconcerting.

One caveat: I don't read a lot of women's fiction. But should I really have to delve specifically into a genre that's so heavily gendered that it's named "women's" in order to find strong female friendships? I don't think so. I certainly don't have to read male-gendered genres to find male friendships, although it could be argued that there really isn't a specifically male-gendered genre, just genres that seem more stereotypically masculocentric—crime, action, etc. There is certainly no "men's fiction" section at Barnes & Noble.

Anyway, a lack of girlfriends falls under a larger umbrella of problems. For anyone who hasn't heard of the Bechdel test, it's a misleadingly simple test to run on any work of fiction: do two female characters, at any point during the work in question, have a conversation about something other than a man? An alarmingly high volume of books and films don't pass the test. It's not necessarily an indication of a feminist work—Iron Man 3 passes the test, for instance—but it sure is interesting that this is even a question, in our modern age.

I got to thinking about female friendships, honestly, because I found the friendship in The Heat alarmingly noteworthy. I say 'alarmingly' because a story where two women are friends really shouldn't have to be noteworthy. I also realized that while our culture has a specific word for close-knit male friendships—bromance—it has no female equivalent, which upset me until I realized that given the lack of fictional friendships that would fall under that umbrella anyway, we don't particularly need a female equivalent yet. This upset me further. (I was thinking the popular term "girl-crush," but it doesn't really work as an equivalent; it implies idolization rather than an actual deep human link.) Look at the broad array of fascinating, nuanced friendships between men in fiction: Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway; Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee; Kirk and Spock; Harry Potter and Ron Weasley; Sherlock Holmes and John Watson; Seth and Evan from Superbad (yes, er, that one in particular is fascinating and nuanced). That was right off the top of my head, and yet I'd be hard-pressed to name one female friendship that has the level of widespread adoration that these bromances have collected.

Inevitably, when girls are portrayed as friends, it hops right back to the Bechdel Problem: they bond over men, rather than inherent traits in themselves. Male characters rarely have this problem. For instance, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers from the Avengers team start out as having issues with each other in the recent film because of Tony's sass and comedic immaturity and Steve's overdeveloped sense of duty/loyalty. They clash initially, but through fighting the villain's troops, each comes to appreciate the other's strength and courage, and they become friends. Not even a whisper of a romance being slightly relevant to their bonding.

By contrast, many fictional female characters seem isolated, turned into islands who have an inability to relate to other women except via the relationships they have with men, and an inability to relate to men except in the eventual context of romance. Even Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, one of my favorite characters of all time, has a sad deficit of onscreen interaction with other ladies. This is partially because of the close-3rd narration from Harry's perspective, of course, but it's still disheartening to see her most noteworthy interaction with another girl her age being the typical jealousy (over Lavender Brown getting together with her crush). And to address a recent YA trend: personally, I find it crippling and largely unnecessary for great characters like Katniss Everdeen, who are strong in and of themselves, to be yanked into a love triangle situation, in Hunger Games' case with a (male) best friend and a (male) survival mate. I really never stopped wondering why she needed to have a romantic interest in her best friend at all—and while her friendship with Rue was fantastic, Certain Plot Events promptly removed that as a factor.

Don't get me started on removal, either. The erasure of a healthy, strong, or even competent mother figure is almost hilariously prevalent in YA (although admittedly this extends somewhat to healthy father figures, too). Dead, missing, or neglectful mothers, or mothers who fall into easy stock character territory, comprise a vast majority of the moms I've read, but that is actually another issue entirely. The romanticizing of dead or missing—and, therefore, totally inactive/helpless—women is even obvious from YA cover art. Check out this brilliant, thought-provoking article on the issue, complete with a plethora of dead-girls-in-pretty-dresses examples.

I think part of the reason girl friendships are so rare is that society is only just starting to adjust to the notion of women with agency, who can be strong and important and psychologically fascinating on their own. It's still depressingly easy and accepted for writers to fall back on the notion that femininity equals passivity, and if an author does happen to do that, it makes it tough for female friendship to be as engaging as two more active characters' friendship would be. As such, since society at large is still trying to catch up with the concept of active women, we as writers have a responsibility to help them along. I'd argue that the most important questions we ask about our characters is how accurately they represent real humanity, which means we need to remember the importance of including ALL realistic situations, like, say, supportive lady friendships that can stand alone. Otherwise we face the glum potentiality that all literature will have the same types of characters and relationships in the spotlight until kingdom come, when there's no reason for other characters not to have the spotlight too.

Meanwhile, I'm going to make it my new side project to come up with a catchy girl equivalent for "bromance." If you have a suggestion, I'd love to hear it in the comments!

Also, if you can think of an awesome girl-bromance, please do leave that in the comments too, to restore some of my faith in humanity. (Bonus points if one of the ladies involved is a person of color or not heterosexual.)

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She is represented by Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Sporadically and with occasional weirdness, she blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.


Madeline Claire said...

Hate to blatantly self promote (lol jk I love it) but the novel I just released (THE HIEROPHANT) has a sweet lady-bromance between the main character Ana and her bff Kyla, a POC lesbian (who shares MC status in the sequel). They both have missing parent figures, but those characters and their absences are figural in their lives and in the story. Just sayin'!

jwtroemner said...

I had a quick "hoSh*t" moment and went over my current WIP to check if it fits the criteria.

I do end up having a lot of non-romantic M/F bromances and some F/F friendships... but I'm not sure I would call the all-lady ones bromances.

Honestly, I think another part of this stems from that old belief that the highest thing a woman can aspire to is to snag herself a man. Sure, she can be an astronaut/president/scientist/pro-wrestler/ballerina, but if she got herself a great boyfriend (or better, a husband!) then she has truly succeeded. And that's honestly very sad.

R.C. Lewis said...

It could be argued that "BFFs" is predominantly a term for female/female friendship, and that "bromance" was spawned as a male/male counterpart. That's the evolution *I* saw in the terminology, at least, but I don't live anywhere along the cutting edge of lingo.

And since the rest of your post holds way too much water in a bucket that I'm sad even exists ... yeah, just ignore my pedantry above.

All my mss thus far have female MCs, so I just thought through them all, and I'm kind of proud of myself. The vast majority have a definite female-best-friend-of-the-MC character, and none of those get dramatic over a boy.

But then there's my novel being published next year. Very male-heavy by necessity, and the only other major female character is (literally) an evil stepmother. I wouldn't change any of it for that particular novel. But I'm glad it's not a rut I'm stuck in with ALL the things I've written.

Sandra Almazan said...

Some urban fantasies and mysteries do have BFFs for the female MC, though it's too early in the morning for me to think of names.

Friends often seem to be used either for support or as a colorful sidekick. Perhaps more time is spent on developing the romantic plots because authors and publishers think that's what readers want (and apparently, a lot of readers do want that). That's fine, but yes, I would like to see more stories with female friendships. So I write them. I'm working on a fantasy series with four female magicians; their relationships with each other affect how well they work together. Although my SF series features a male MC, the friendship between his sister and other teen will be important in another story.

Suzie F. said...

Have you read Code Name Verity? by Elizabeth Wein? Excellent YA novel about the friendship between two courageous young women and romance is nearly nonexistent.

Vicki Weavil said...

I am proud to say that my adult scifi trilogy has a very significant F/F friendship that never involves fighting over a guy and also some other fairly significant F/F relationships -- as well as the M/F variety -- that have nothing to do with sexuality. Because that's my experience of reality, to tell you the truth. I do think it's sadly lacking in a lot of YA and adult lit., though.

Stephsco said...

Great thoughts. As writers, specifically if we are women, I think being aware of how our girls/women interact in fiction is so important. Are they only bonding over men? Even if it's a romance, I appreciate books where the characters have their own thing going on and have conversations with other characters about stuff other than the central romance.

Maris McKay said...

The only book I've been able to think of so far is the friendship between Mara and Inanni in Mara: Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.
I read something about this once before (can't think of where though). Since then, I've tried not to completely isolate my female MC unless it's crucial to the story. My mostly finished novel has a a few F/F friendships, but they're not nearly as strong as her friendship with the man she eventually marries. Another novel that I've been blocked on for some time has a strong female friendship, and that's one of the main reasons I want to finish it someday.

Sophie Perinot said...

I've actually given this some thought as well in the context of portrayals of siters as "rivals in chief" as opposed to "allies in chief" (which is my experience of sisterhood [ blogged about it here why can't sisters be friends ] And I think you've hit on something. I make a very conscious effort to portray female friendships and support networks in my own writing. And that isn't as hard as it seems because in a royal court the households of the primary women provided a large group of interdependent females where woman-on-woman bonding was common.

LD Masterson said...

Hmm, I don't see this problem in mystery/crime fiction. JD Robb's long running In Death series has Dallas and Peabody. James Patterson has the Women's Murder Club. Tess Gerritsen has Rizzoli and Isles. Maybe it's a genre thing.

gideon sockpuppet said...

Of course there is L.M. Montgomery's Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in "Anne of Green Gables," as well as the group of female friends in the popular children's series, "The Babysitter's Club." Also, Harriet the Spy has two best friends, Sport (male) and Janie (female). However, when I really think about it, most of the strong female protagonists in classic children's literature -- Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz; Alice in Alice in Wonderland, Wendy in Peter Pan, the two sisters in the Narnia series -- do not have a close female friendship.

Thinking about adult novels I have read recently, "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett, and "Every Last One" by Anna Quindlen both represent female friendships well. However, I read a lot of novels, and I cannot think of many that feature female friendship as a central element.

I think you are onto something....

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Elizabeth J. Neal said...

I don't think so. I certainly don't have to read male-gendered genres to find male friendships, although it could be argued that there really isn't a specifically male-gendered genre, just genres that seem more stereotypically masculocentric—crime, action, etc. online dating

capitolathais said...

Excellent post. Too many girls are taught they are incomplete until they've landed a man--or a romantic partner--which instantly places their girlfriends in a lesser status. The stories I'm working on now emphasize healthy friendships between girls, with no fighting over boys; the romances that develop between these girls and boys are secondary.

This is a discussion about the socialization of girls AND prejudices within publishing that deserves more blog time. Thanks again for bringing it up.

One more thing: As a kid I LOVED 'Mara: Daughter of the Nile.' How cool that another commenter brought up this too-often-overlooked gem.

Eliza Serena Robinson said...

In my novel Consequence, there is a strong female "bromance" between the characters Phoenix and Persephone. I don't know what motivated that particular storyline, because I myself have never had a strong lasting friendship (female or otherwise). But the friendship between Phoenix and Persephone was one of the core points of the book, and it carried on throughout my Three Stages trilogy, even though Persephone died at the end of the first book. Sadly, though, only 40 people in the entire world have read my books, so this example of female friendship in a book is not going to be a widely seen example.