Female Relationships

| Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Today's Tune: Wannabe

I'm on a serious 90's music kick lately. Not sure what that's about.

Building off Monday's post, I thought I'd talk about female friendships today. I have to admit, I find it incredibly disheartening how infrequently I see a focus on building female relationships in all sorts of media. We're all probably familiar with the Bechdel Test, which largely pertains to film. Unfortunately, I see a lot of the same criteria left unmet in YA. With female protagonists. Written for girls. Written by women.

I adore literature that seeks to explore female relationships beyond the superficial. Sisters, mothers and daughters, friends, girlfriends, or any other female relationship imaginable. It feels like they're so often overlooked in fiction in favor of male love interests or other predominant male characters.

Many secondary female characters (aka, not the protagonist) seem to fall into specific categories. The wisecracking but sidelined "best friend" who all but disappears when Male Love Interest comes onto the scene. The catty bitchface mean girl who hates the protagonist because she decided to exist. The overhanging but useless plot-point of a mother figure. Annoying little sisters. Slutty slut-whores who want to ruin everyone's lives. Cold, aloof, nasty antagonists who usually want to destroy the protagonist because, of course, they want The Love Interest.

The focus always seems to fall toward a lone female character and... a lot of male characters. Or one specific male character. The other female characters flit in and out of scenes, dropping necessary plot points or snarky one-liners before fading into the background. When female characters do have a moment to themselves, it's often devoted to talking about a male character.

This isn't a blanket statement! There are several recent YA releases that relish in building female relationships of all stripes. It's a trend I hope to see more of. I'm tired of female characters who don't interact. I'm tired of female protagonists who find no value in members of their own sex. I'm tired of girls who undercut one another and fight for the affection of a male character. I'm tired of characters in general who exist as props and nothing more.

If you find your female character is the lone lady in an ocean of testosterone, ask yourself why. If all the other females are one-off appearances or dead weight or antagonists, ask yourself why. Why do we spend so much time carefully crafting a half-dozen male characters, but can't be bothered to hone more than one female character? It's not that female characters are more difficult to write, although I hear that excuse AN AWFUL LOT. Maybe, just maybe, it's that we're subconsciously (or actively) valuing males over females?

In the end, writing female characters is very much like writing male characters: you write a person. You write a human being who is shaped by their circumstances. There's no secret code to crack. There are no extra-special complications. A layered character is a layered character regardless of sex.

Let's break that pattern. Let's relish in building female companionship. Women don't have to exist to tear each other down or serve as a conduit to finding a male mate. We matter. We matter on our own, and we matter to one another.

Do you have a favorite female relationship? Any kind! Please share :)


{ Lucy V Morgan } at: February 15, 2012 at 5:09 AM said...

Yes. I have written something very similar before. Romance fiction in general tends to be a bit of a sausage fest; YA is a little more flexible for whatever reason.

I think one of the most feminist things we can do is to point out that women don't always need to battle with or better each other. I have some wonderful female relationships with my sisters, very old friends, my writing partner and even my mum (these days. Ahem). They were consciously built and I'm grateful for them all.

{ Magan } at: February 15, 2012 at 7:45 AM said...

The cast of Bridesmaids :)

{ prerna pickett } at: February 15, 2012 at 7:58 AM said...

I'm with you. I want more strong female friendships. NO more of the superficial. I had a group of female friends I spent all my time with in HS, and we didn't go around stabbing each other in the back.

{ Matthew MacNish } at: February 15, 2012 at 8:01 AM said...

This is why I love George Martin. Yes, they're oversexed, but his female characters are some of the most dynamic I've ever read, even if they don't get a long with each other.

{ Seabrooke } at: February 15, 2012 at 9:29 AM said...

This has crossed my mind about my own work - in retrospect, I definitely see a tendency to emphasize males among the cast. It's not deliberate, I don't start out thinking "okay, I need a best friend; what sex should I make them?" and choosing male. It just kinda ends up that way.

I wonder if part of it may be my own experience. I have one really close friend, who happens to be female, but other than her, both in high school and university (and to some degree, post-university) the friends I was closest to were all guys. I don't know why, but I've just never connected as easily/well with girls as with guys.

{ Jennifer Fischetto } at: February 15, 2012 at 3:10 PM said...

OMG, thank you. My hair's my favorite feature. How'd ya know?

Okay, in all seriousness, if that's possible, I hear this among a lot of adult romance writers where the hero and heroine's POVs are both written. I don't understand it. As a woman, if I'm going to pick up a romance novel, it's not because I want to understand the guy. It's because I want to live through the woman. Um, because I am one.

Which may be why I'm not a huge adult romance reader. ;) I love women. I love sisters (always wanted one), daughters (I have the best) and girlfriends are pretty darn cool. Guys are great, but in my stories, even when the protag has a male love interest, my girls are always saving their own day.

{ Janna } at: February 15, 2012 at 3:22 PM said...

"In the end, writing female characters is very much like writing male characters: you write a person. You write a human being who is shaped by their circumstances."

Reminds me of this classic Onion article: http://www.theonion.com/articles/firsttime-novelist-constantly-asking-wife-what-its,4/

{ Megan } at: February 15, 2012 at 7:59 PM said...

Most of my favorite books have a strong female friend or sister relationship- I think because of my relationship with my own sister I gravitate towards them. Some favorites are Enna and Isi from Shannon Hale's Books of Bayern, the Gallagher Girls novels from Ally Carter, Jaclyn Moriarity's The Year of Secret Assignments, Katniss and her little sister Prim from The Hunger Games, and Rosie and Peony from Spindle's End by Robin McKinley.

{ We Heart YA } at: February 17, 2012 at 9:31 AM said...

A) WOOHOO for the Spice Girls!

B) "I'm tired of female characters who don't interact. I'm tired of female protagonists who find no value in members of their own sex. I'm tired of girls who undercut one another and fight for the affection of a male character. I'm tired of characters in general who exist as props and nothing more."

That's true of real-life females too...

C) Like you, we ADORE "girl power" fiction. Stories that examine relationships between women. Mother-daughter is probably our go-to, but sisterhood is another powerful theme, and just plain old female friendship.

Off the top of our heads, here are some relevant YA titles we liked: Wither (sisterhood), Imaginary Girls (sisterhood), Hold Still (friendship), and The Host (uh, body-sharing? haha let's say friendship).

{ Rachel Stark } at: February 19, 2012 at 8:49 AM said...

I recently read and loved A LOVE STORY STARRING MY DEAD BEST FRIEND. It explored all the complexity of female friendships, especially in the teenage years, and took a strong and sensitive look at the very blurred line between love and friendship that exists for so many young women. A lot of us experienced friendships that bordered on love or infatuation as teens, and a lot of us still do, but books so often shun those relationships in favor of traditional, cisgendered and uncomplicated romantic love, which may or may not be nearly as powerful or influential in our lives.

{ Mrs. Silverstein } at: February 19, 2012 at 4:40 PM said...

I really like Hana, protag Lena's best friend from Lauren Oliver's DELIRIUM, so I was really pumped to see that Oliver actually has an e-book short coming out from Hana's POV (called HANA if you want to check it out.) There was a lot of boy talk, sort of necessarily, but Hana and Lena's relationship was also important to Lena and to the book.

{ E.Maree } at: February 21, 2012 at 3:32 AM said...

This is an issue I struggle with daily. Like Seabrooke, I'm a girl, but all my friends are guys and my female friends are few and far between.

And I feel really guilty that my books tend to reflect this, but at the same time... I think it's important to show a girl being equal to the guys and socialising without any differences. And I think a younger me would feel a bit better, reading a book and seeing a protagonist hanging out with the guys and not worrying about female company.

But I still really need to work on my male/female balance, and it'll be fun to create as many kickass and wonderful ladies as I can. :D

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