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.