Female-Centric Relationships

| Monday, June 25, 2012
Today's Tune: Many Moons

If you've followed my blog for a while (or any blog that occasionally/often talks about feminism and pop culture), you've probably heard of the Bechdel Test. If you have not, here's the gist: the representation of women in film is generally lacking, and this phenomenon can be observed through a three-step "test" for any film. 1) Does the film have at least two NAMED female characters? 2) Do the female characters talk TO EACH OTHER for more than a few seconds? 3) About something OTHER THAN A MAN/BOY?

The Bechdel Test is not a foolproof way to determine whether a film is good or feminist, but it is a way to observe a noticeable pattern in the way women are portrayed in film. Similar tests can be conducted around race and sexuality.

Books are, thankfully, somewhat different, as they often rely more heavily on dialogue and character building than a 90-minute film. Even so, we can still witness a similar pattern emerging, particularly in romance. And yes, a romance is primarily about THE ROMANCE, but even so, female characters can still be seen talking about something other than their angst over whether Super Hot Boy likes them or not.

My point in all this is leading up to the fact that I saw Disney's Brave this weekend, and I found it to be generally beautifully animated and entertaining. However, my favorite part of the film was Disney's divergence from their usually romance-centric Disney Princess films and bringing a female-centric relationship (mother-daughter) to the forefront.

It's unfortunate that it feels so rare to see a real, genuine relationship between mothers and daughters or sisters and female friends without a film or book being relegated to the eye-rollingly othered "women's fiction" or "chick flicks." It seems men are allowed films where they bond and get to be bros without dissecting their relationships with women to death, and this is accepted as normal and interesting. But if there aren't any penises involved? OMG women's issues.

I would love to see more relationships between women and girls explored in a larger variety of ways. I would also love a romance between two women. Given the wide breadth of YA fiction with female protagonists, it's amazing how often the female relationships are relegated to such tired tropes as Emotionally Absent Mother, Prissy Holier-Than-Thou Sister, Blonde Cheerleader Bitch Who Hates Protagonist, "Quirky" Best Friend Who Protagonist Forgets About Almost Immediately, etc.

Women and girls spend so much of their lives being taught that femaleness is boring, inferior, and silly. This is so engrained in them that many, myself included, go through a phase of "girls are so totally stupid and I just can't relate to them AT ALL despite being one myself and I just get along with dudes waaaaaay better because they are less catty/vapid/high-maintenance/insert stereotype about femininity here." We're taught to relate to one another in the context of men. Is this woman going to get in my way of male validation? Are men going to prefer her because she's pretty or funny or whatever? Is she single or taken, and should I help her find a man or be glad she won't get in the way of finding mine?

This comes across in the way we write female characters. Our protagonist is the preferred character, so she's a "down to earth," sweet, unhateable girl. Maybe she has a best friend, but that best friend is boy-crazy or selfish or just doesn't get what the protagonist is going through. She can't talk to her mom because her mom is never around. Her sister's a giant jerkface. There's some asshole girl at school who is SO JEALOUS OF HOW AWESOME THE PROTAGONIST IS and always has to take her down a peg or flirt with her love interest. They're empty filler relationships.

Maybe we could aim to round out these female relationships a little more. I'm not suggesting that we make all the women perfect and the best of friends at all times. I'm suggesting that we examine the relationships in our own lives a little more closely. It's likely that we all have women in our lives for whom we care a great deal. Why do women like that so rarely make it into our stories? Cute boys are all well and good (and fun to read about), but our mothers have been there since before we were born. Our sisters grew up beside us. Our friends are the ones who remember our birthday and sing us songs about rocket dogs to cheer us up on bad days.

What's your favorite female relationship from a book you've read?


{ Miss Cole } at: June 25, 2012 at 5:12 AM said...

There is a distinct lack of female relationships in the media. You're right - bromances are everywhere but the second it's about female friendship it's seen as not for males. We need more balance and, like you say, less cliche in our female characters' lives.

{ Becky Mahoney } at: June 25, 2012 at 6:40 AM said...

Yessss! We totally need the female version of the bromance. (And we also need a female equivalent of the word 'bromance.' Maybe 'womance?')

Also, since I see a Legend of Korra reference in your Twitter sidebar, this seems like a good place to mention that I am pulling for Korra to interact more with Lin and Asami next season. Maybe the three of them can just go on adventures together and bond over how awesome they are.

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: June 25, 2012 at 7:00 AM said...

this is very, very interesting. i'd never heard about that test, but now that you mention it... wow...

{ Stephsco } at: June 25, 2012 at 8:39 AM said...

Glad to hear this about Brave; I didn't see it yet but really hoped it forged a strong female character based on her relationships as well as being a fighter. :)

{ luraslowinski.com } at: June 25, 2012 at 10:19 AM said...

I haven't seen Brave yet, but after the first couple of trailers I had some deep reservations, mostly due to the tiresome "strong female character must be better at being boyish than the boys" thing they seem to have going on. But I'm encouraged by the mother-daughter storyline so I still intend to see it.

I just finished Cold Magic by Kate Elliott, a fantasy that features a strong female friendship. Adult fantasy tends not to do the whole female friendship thing, so this was a welcome surprise. Plus it's a steampunk alt-history Afro-Celt mythology mashup, so it has a lot of uniqueness to recommend it.

{ Emy Shin } at: June 25, 2012 at 10:50 AM said...

I tend to reply to all your posts with "Yes, this" -- but I can't seem to help it. Because this is entirely spot on. I'm trying to be more conscious of the female-female relationships in my own manuscript.

(And there should totally be a female equivalence of "bromance.")

{ prerna pickett } at: June 25, 2012 at 11:32 AM said...

great suggestions. I'm working on a YA contemporary romance where the main issue isn't focused on the love aspect, but rather the relationship she lacks with her father. And instead of hating her love interets ex, they instead form a friendship. Less catty, more delving into real stuff.

{ Old Kitty } at: June 25, 2012 at 1:58 PM said...

The Tiffany Aching series - Terry Pratchett's YA series - always has great female friendships of all sorts - between Witches of all ages for eg (Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany) and the last novel "I Shall Wear Midnight" - a really sweet friendship between Tiffany and Letitia.

Great post!! Take care

{ Emilia } at: June 25, 2012 at 2:45 PM said...

I don't know if this is the best example of good female relationships, but I just finished The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson and while there is a love interest in the story, the main character spends more time with her female roommates NOT talking about the love interest. Which was refreshing and realistic, because there is a deranged serial killer and ghosts in the book.

{ Andrew Leon } at: June 25, 2012 at 4:53 PM said...

Well, you know, it's not really a Disney film; it's a Pixar film. Disney owns them, but Pixar is geographically distant from Disney, and Disney tends to let them do their own thing.

{ Yael } at: June 25, 2012 at 5:09 PM said...

I just looked through my Goodreads shelf. I didn't keep track, but what I noticed was that most of the novels with female protagonists had at least one important female-female relationship. (Usually the 'best friend.') Very few of the male-centered books have these relationships.

Now that you mention it, I really do want to go through and get some more specific numbers. Off to go make some graphs!

{ Landra } at: June 25, 2012 at 6:05 PM said...

I'm a big fan of the Little House Series as there are plenty of female-female relationships between mother and daughter, and sister to sister.
Definitely a great post S.E.

{ Janna } at: June 26, 2012 at 11:09 AM said...

I saw "Tangled" on a flight, and was really intrigued at the beginning with the Rapunzel/Mother Gothel relationship. Although obviously not ideal (you know, kidnapping, tower), it felt like one of the authentic mother/daughter relationships I had seen in a Disney movie. I was wondering the whole time how they would resolve it, and was disappointed when they totally copped out.

{ We Heart YA } at: June 26, 2012 at 11:14 AM said...

"But if there aren't any penises involved? OMG women's issues."


Don't know if it's our favorite ever, but Anne and Diana in Anne of Green Gables is pretty classic and wonderful.

Also, Nina LaCour has a variety of excellent female-female relationships in her book HOLD STILL.

Lastly, can't wait to see Brave! We're all going on Tues the 3rd.

Oh, PS (which means lastly lastly): Claudia Gray had a great feminism post that kind of dovetails with yours nicely - http://claudiagray.com/blog/?p=297

{ Kari Marie White } at: June 26, 2012 at 8:05 PM said...

I am so excited to see Brave. This is a very interesting post. I'm almost embarrassed to say I haven't thought about this much at all. But you've got me thinking now.

Great post.

{ jana.kaye } at: June 28, 2012 at 2:46 PM said...

We Heart YA, I actually love the female relationships in Anne of Green Gables and some of the other L.M. Montgomery books. Marilla, Rachel Lynde, Anne, Diana, Ruby Gillis, and the 'Patty's Place' crew of Priscilla, Philippa, Stella and Aunt Jamesina, as well as in other Montgomery stories like Pat of Silver bush and the Emily series.

Women of all different ages and places in life in those stories relate to each other not always perfectly, but the relationships resonate as very strongly female.

I was so excited to see Brave, and it is beautiful, but it did fall a little flat to me and I've had trouble articulating why...thanks for these reviews!

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