Mar 9, 2012
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Feminist SFF: Female Friendships

About a year and a half ago, I stumbled upon an article in The Times entitled “Mean Girls: can women ever be bosom buddies?”

Just… ponder that for a moment.

While I did not go on to actually read the article (I hope you’ll understand why), its title left me with a bitter taste in my mouth that still hasn’t gone away. Because, yes, of course women can have meaningful friendships, what the fuck?

But there is this idea of women’s relationships as these catty things where we want to stab each other in the back all the time – over men, naturally, because men are the sun that our volatile Mercury-selves must revolve around – and I really hate it. People sometimes ask me however did I survive 5 years in an all-girls school? Wasn’t it so horrible with all the bitchiness? Not really. I was socially awkward and mostly friendless, but I did okay. This obviously isn’t every awkward girl’s experience, but it was mine, and I hate how the assumption is that all the girls were hateful to me – while the boys at the co-ed schools were lovely, I suppose?

Getting treated to sexist “jokes” on a daily basis and being regularly groped by one of the boys was awesome, yo. Go co-ed.

~

I want to talk about this idea of female friendships specifically in relation to SFF fiction, because SFF is such a major part of my life – and so are female friendships – and SFF really badly fails to represent these.

Rose Lemberg recently wrote a fantastic essay about the need for a greater diversity in the representation of women, and I think one of the biggest problems we face with female representation is the Smurfette Principle. If you didn’t watch The Smurfs as a kid, the basic idea is that there’s this village of blue dudes and one of them’s smart, one of them’s dorky, one of them’s moody – and one of them’s a girl. A while back I read an excellent essay by Max Berry about this, so I’ll just quote him because it’s perfect:

“I have been told that this [the Smurfette Principle] is a good thing for girls. ‘That makes girls more special,’ said this person, who I wanted to punch in the face. That’s the problem. Being female should not be special. It should be normal. It is normal, in the real world. There are all kinds of girls. There are all kinds of women. You just wouldn’t think so, if you only paid attention to … Smurfs.”

YES PUNCH THEM ALL IN THE FACE.

When you have only one girl in a sea of boys, she starts being defined by her girl-ness – rather than her intelligence, her fear, her love for chemistry, her musical talents, her combat skills, her anger, her calmness, her motherhood, her choice to be childfree, and all the other things that make her an individual person with individual passions and strengths and failings. And when you have this, you automatically don’t have a diverse range of women/girls. You have The Girl. So you define her by major Girl tropes, rather than writing about individual women. When Rose asks for all sorts of women, what she’s implicitly asking for is that more stories have more than one woman in them. Because then you get the neurotic Professor and the disabled botanist and the warrior balancing war with a child and the artist who has no interest in children, and you stop getting The Girl.

And what you also get, when you have multiple women, is friendship between women.

I’m sure most – if not all – of you know about the Bechdel Test? It’s where a movie/book/etc has:
– At least 2 women
– Who talk to each other
– About something other than a man

So, so many stories do not have this very basic thing. They have The Girl in a sea of dudes. And they have male friendships. Men talking to each other about guns and heating bills and the weather and all the things real people talk about. You have only to look at the power of the bromance to see how much people – and not just men – love male friendship. I love it too! It is one of the major reasons I re-watch the Sherlock movies – their bromance is the best crack ever. It makes me all giggly and fangirly.

But where the fuck are my sromances?

Where are the women who mess each other about but, at the end of the day, are absolutely devoted to each other? Where are the women who tear their friendship apart in horrible ways, but work hard and fix it back together again? Where are the women who mourn the loss of a friendship? Not lesbians or bi women in sexual and/or romantic relationships (though I’d love to see more of those too!). Friends.

These things exist in the real world. Really. I know, you’ll need a moment to get over the shock.

I have done that second scenario. I have fucked up a friendship, very badly. I have talked to the friend and listened to what she said and worked hard at changing my attitudes – and it was so worth it, because she’s important to me and I want that friendship to be as excellent as it deserves to be.

Are there parallels to this kind of relationship process for women in fiction?

Well, yes!

With men. Generally speaking, romantic relationships with men.

No no no no no. Fixing that friendship was as important to me as fixing a romantic relationship (more so, actually, as I’m yet to be in a romantic relationship I want to fix as much as I wanted to fix that friendship). There is nothing lesser about a serious friendship. Romantic relationships are only one type of relationship (and some people don’t want them at all!) but, if most fiction’s to be believed, they’re the source of all our happiness and grief, and they’re the only type of relationship we can have that’s worth devoting time to. Women’s relationships with men in fiction are improving to the point that we can be friends with them and not want sex/romance, but what this still omits is the fact that we can be friends with women too. Our female friendships can be among the most important relationships in our lives.

I want, so much, to see more SFF where the friendships between women are given as much time and attention as any other relationship. It does happen, but it’s still far too rare. I want women forging alliances. I want women as enemies, too. I want women grappling to understand each other across privilege and cultural gulfs. I want women having lots of friendships with other women. I want lonely women who long for friendships with other women. I want women with vastly different interests finding common touch-points. I want women bonding over fibre crafts and sport and science and children and war and travel and stand-up comedy and books and internet memes and everything else that women bond over in real life. I want women helping each other to survive in the direst of situations. I want women saving one another. I want women being horrible to each other – because of course women are also horrible to each other in real life, but it’s not some kind of special female superpower. I firmly believe that the only reason it becomes gendered is societal. SFF gives us the opportunity to go beyond that! SFF also gives us the opportunity to examine that in careful, nuanced detail. What I don’t want is women being horrible to each other because that’s “our nature”.

I want, as Rose does, for SFF to treat women as it does men: as a massive range of totally different individuals. And I want those women to have all sorts of relationships – including all sorts of friendships with other women.

~

I think that a lot of what I’ve said here also applies to other under-represented groups: people of colour, queer and genderqueer people (I’ve talked about men and women here, because that’s the outdated dichotomy this particular problem usually manifests in, but I really want to see more genderqueer people in SFF too), disabled people, people of various religions and cultures and linguistic groups, people of all social classes, and all other people whose voices and experiences are not depicted often or well or ever. They too should appear in greater numbers in SFF, with friendships and other important relationships with characters other than the white cissexual people. Alaya Dawn Johnson suggested the Johnson Test, which applies the same principles as the Bechdel Test but with people of colour talking to one another about something(s) other than white people. The same should apply to all people. And, of course, female friendships overlap with the above; I would love to see more women than just otherwise-really-privileged white women.

And, no, of course every story does not have the space for every type of person. But when the default is white straight males – when there is a default at all – there is a big problem. No one should have to scour every crevice of every novel to find people like them in relationships like theirs.

24 Comments

  • YES YES YES YES

    • =)

  • […] ETA: Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote an excellent and important follow-up entry on female friendships. I did not want to discuss female friendships in my entry, because Alex raised this point in the […]

  • This, exactly this so much. When we look at many of the heroines that people cite as exemplary, we too often see that those heroines exist as lone islands in a sea of male characters. I’d love to see many women in every book, and women interacting with women. Sure, there are examples of people doing this already. But we need more.

    • Absolutely.

  • Perhaps if I had ever seen a female friendship modeled positively in fiction (i.e. one that didn’t revolve around things I don’t care about like shopping and fashion), maybe I’d have a few in real life. I think I’ve been subtly conditioned all my life to think that all women are like the worst of the spoiled backstabbing debutantes at my (Southern, private, all-girls) high school, and therefore to fear them. I turned my shy self into a huge flirt because it meant boys would hang out with me, and at least I’d have someone. It took a while for me to figure out that the scary side of boys is just as scary, because the media doesn’t usually bother warning us about that except in a completely joking “this-is-totally harmless” sort of way.

    Maybe if I’d read one book, one, where girls were kind to each other and worked out their problems even if one of them was ugly (or God forbid) brainy, I would have stubbornly kept looking for a good female friend the way I wasted ten good years of my life looking for a guy who was brooding and dangerous on the outside but really just a cuddly teddy bear.

    • WORD. Though the boys treated my shittily at my co-ed secondary school, I sought out their friendship much more than I did the other girls’. I valued friendships with boys a lot more, for years, and considered my closest friends to be boys.

      It was a big shock when, a few years ago, I realised that almost all of my closest friends were women. I hadn’t thought that was possible! But I’d gone and met like-minded women, and started shedding the internalised misogyny that made me think women weren’t as interesting as men.

      I bet it would’ve helped tremendously to read more stories where girls have intense friendships (like I did, before I went to the co-ed school and wanted relationships with boys instead) and fuck it up and work it out and bond deeply. I recently wrote a first draft of a YA novel, and there are several important female friendships in it, and it was so amazing to write that. I hope that, if it gets published, it helps girls see the value in their female friendships as well as their male friendships/relationships.

  • Great post – multiple ladies FTW! Writing multiple female characters is definitely key to writing diverse female characters – otherwise, who else do we have to compare them to but men?

    • Thank you! =D And absolutely.

  • Wow. Thank you. This solved a casting problem I had with my novel in progress. I had a great concept for a novel with all kinds of wonderful themes – a good plot, a great mcguffin, ties in with my future history, everything about it shined and it had the funniest chapter I ever wrote in it. Fortunately I remember the gags.

    I lost it half finished and at last I’m glad I did. I could not have done its multi-ethnic cast justice back when I first got the idea. I had to know real people to draw the characters on. Only two survived from the original cast, but the heroine who did is awesome – middle aged menopausal Hindu genius with grown children and a progressive view of Hinduism.

    You just made me ask myself who her best friend is – and a lousy cardboard Big Black Guy that was in the original cast just changed gender to the Big Strong Black Woman. She went live. She gained a practical streak and more of a temper. Most of all, she’s smart and just as bossy as the Doc, so someone will be able to stand up to her high-speed genius monologues and call a halt when she starts falling in love with her theories.

    No one in the story gets out of fighting or running away from beasties so there will be plenty of life-saving going on throughout. I think if I start with the women my cast will be stronger.

  • Oh, and I am the guy in the power chair. So I definitely want to see more of HIM in SFF and especially I want to see him survive the book. Come on. When I’m in the power chair I can carry a whole lot of arsenal. I’m a rolling turret, a mini tank. Just like the brother always gets it, the wheelchair guy always gets snatched off the big black brother’s back by the aliens/demons/beasties etcetera. After all your white cisgender couple are the only survivors of the film most of the time.

    I’d love to see the wheelchair guy live, and not only live but use all of the adaptiveness he’s had to have all those years dealing with the disability to successfully face the Menace. Of all the folks in the party, the disabled guy is least likely to be Overconfident.

  • Or her of course. My hat’s off to Stephen King for Susannah Dean. She was awesome. Just pure awesome.

  • Posts like this make me want to write and write well in the hopes of adding to the lamentably small pool of books where female characters are interesting for reasons other than their gender. Thanks for writing things – you’ve made me think about things that need to change in this writing world and, better still, you’ve made me feel that I could actually do something about it, too.

    • you’ve made me think about things that need to change in this writing world and, better still, you’ve made me feel that I could actually do something about it, too.

      I’m glad this post is helpful and thought-provoking. =) And, yes, we totally can do something about it. There are gatekeepers, of course, but if enough of us write amazing stories that include diverse women having diverse friendships, eventually some of those stories are going to get past the gates and reach an audience.

      Good luck writing yours. You seem to have plenty of great friendships with other women (your failboats posts are much fun to read), so I can imagine your work being rich with female friendships.

  • […] (aka how agency isn’t only limited to the Warrior Woman trope), and Alex Dally McFarlane on Female Friendships and Why They Matter. -Master of the House of Darts is up against The Wise Man’s Fear in Book Spot Central’s […]

  • oh yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes and I can continue to type this word until I fill the page but you get the meaning. I kind of got hit by this when I wrote the jin-shei books (“Secrets of Jin Shei” and “Embers of Heaven”) because the basis of what I used for the storyline was something real and once a part of our own world – the nushu written language used by the women in CHina, passed on by mother to daughter, an alphabet only legible to women through which they could pass on the things that men could not understand or did not need to know. There was an underlying idea of a sisterhood based on the exchanges of these secrets, something also explored in novels like “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” – I distilled it, in my historical fantasy, into the concept of jin shei which meant “sister of the heart”, a woman who was friend and a chosen sister even though she was no blood relation – these were friendships forged in fire, unbreakable, unshakeable. But I had to reach into China, far from the Western model, to get the idea for this kind of thing. Is there an equivalent in the western world, other than nunneries? When did those female friendships on which worlds depended become something that required a light overlayer of fantasy or otherwise exotic pixie dust to become tagged as “possible” in our own reality?

    • Nushu is the awesomest thing! I’ve only read the wikipedia page, but hnnnng I am so working that (or an other-world equivalent) into a story one day. I love the idea of women having their secret world in writing.

      However, I do think women had their own worlds throughout all history, wherever in the world you look. The problem is that, aside from those Nushu-writing women, women were almost all illiterate (So were most men, hence why history is generally that of the ruling classes. History is also that of the sedentary ruling classes, as nomadic peoples tended not to write, although there are some exceptions, eg the Mongols under Chingghis Khan.) History is very selective in the stories it tells, and generally speaking women’s stories have not been considered important; therefore they are lost to the historical record. But they existed – in cottage industries, in families, in nunneries, in farms. They have some of their own records, eg the fabrics produced by the women, many of which can only have been made by multiple women working together, and there are also some depictions of women at work if you look at, say, Ancient Egypt and Greece – but again, this is tricky to find, because male historians have long obscured and downplayed these details as less important than the other narratives. I could talk about this forever and ever, but a lot of what I’m saying here is coming from Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, which has a very European and Near-Eastern focus but is an amazing book that puts women’s narratives at the heart of its historical consideration. I heartily recommend it.

      Women have worked and loved and hated together for as long as there have been women, and especially for as long as there have been gender-segregated roles (a looong time). Their stories are far more hidden, but they are there; anyone who argues – as the grimdark rape-a-thon authors often do – that female narratives were only about oppression and suffering are ignorant contributors to our erasure.

      Also, I will be adding your books to my wishlist. Nushu ftw!

  • […] Alex Dally Macfarlane: Feminist SFF: Female Friendships […]

  • […] Feminist SFF: Female Friendships […]

  • […] Female Friendship YAY!!!  I think one of the biggest problems we face with female representation is the Smurfette Principle. If you didn’t watch The Smurfs as a kid, the basic idea is that there’s this village of blue dudes and one of them’s smart, one of them’s dorky, one of them’s moody – and one of them’s a girl. […]

  • […] sure to check out these great posts on writing female characters: – Alex Dally MacFarlane wants to see more realistic female friendships in fiction, and – Rose Lemberg follows up with what makes a good feminist character – and how overuse of […]

  • Very great article. I would love for examples of books that get this right, if people can offer examples off the tops of their heads.

    thank you,

    Saj

  • I guess the word could be “soromance” — a little awkward, but etymologically pleasing. Most of the good examples I can think of are My Little Pony and various manga, so I’d love to see more of this in written fiction too. The relationships between women may be there, but it’s a rare book where they’re not overshadowed by relationships with men.

  • […] female friendships in fiction and why we need more of […]

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