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?
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.