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Female Friendship in Fiction
How often do we see women being friends with other women in our fiction? How often do we see it depicted realistically with all of its glories and pitfalls? How often does it pass the Bechdel test? Why are so many female-female relationships seen as frenemies instead of friendships? So many stories, even ones with strong female protagonists, focus more on female-male and male-male relationships than on female-female ones. Let's share some examples of books, movies, TV shows, and more that give us good examples of female friendship—and critique some of the ones that don't.
M: Becky Allen. Jess Adams, Nivair H. Gabriel, Naomi Kritzer, Effie Seiberg
#femalefriendshipfic for twitter
[Finally a panel I was not ON and therefore have some decent notes for! I'm bad at getting all the rec's down, so do check the twitter tag if you want more!]
During introductions, Becky noted that her first book (out soon! yay Becky!) did not have enough female friendships in it. When she realized that, she decided to fix it for the second one.
Effie talked about growing up on fantasy and fairy tales where even the female protagonists did not have female friends.
Naomi talked about female friendships being a central element of her own works.
Nivair said that she has a lot of female friendships in her life but does not see them reflected in the fiction she consumes - especially when women characters are engineers or mechanics (IIRC she stated that she was herself and also knew a lot of female engineers and mechanics).
Becky asked the panelists to dig in to the tropes around female friendship.
Nivair talked about not passing the Bechdel test, and also about how often female friendships feel like queer baiting (example: Rizzoli and Isles). She noted that we are starved for female relationships - romantic and platonic ones - and we need much more of both. Becky agreed "we want both!"
Naomi spoke about the broken trust trope of female friends telling each other's secrets (example: None of the Above, a book where a female friend tells about her friend being intersex).
She also brought up the trips to the bathroom trope where the female characters often fail the Bechdel test, but how realistic those bathroom trips are, too. Which led to another point - the positive trope of female friends being protective of one another.
Effie talked about the trope of female friends undermining one another - especially when in competition for popularity or a male's affections (though this doesn't happen in stories where competing for a woman's affections). The backstabbing and sneaky woman tropes.
She talked about how these stories are geared to a male audience. It's often about how one of the friends plants bad ideas in the other's mind, causing insecurities, or "neuroticizing" their female friend.
Another trope is the "token female friend" who is "not like other girls". Then the one other more "standard" female character is only there to be her rival. She is condescended to for being too feminine.
Naomi spoke to the trope of the one friend who ruins stuff for the other as happening a lot in fictional male friendships as well (example: Jean Ralphio on Parks and Rec) and this is more a symptom of not valuing friendship itself enough.
Becky talked about the mean girls trope of the girls in a friend group not actually liking one another. Where does this trope come from?
Effie said the mean girl trope is a cheap drama lever to use.
Naomi added that the "not like other girls" thing is a way to keep us from uniting together. An example is Jill in the Narnia books who is "just as good as the boys" - The Problem of Susan is brought up.
Naomi talked about having one daughter who is more girly and how she'll call herself "shallow" and feels badly about her girlishness, and another daughter who doesn't like girly stuff as much and she gets judged on the other end, too. She had suggested roller derby as way to embrace femme stuff as powerful and strong.
Nivair said she only really feels comfortable doing femme stuff as WisCon because [I may have this part wrong but...] working in aerospace engineering and having gone to MIT - she received messages that girly stuff is bad.
Becky brought up Tamora Pierce's Protector of Small series - there is a female character who does "boy's" training and purposefully wears a dress at dinner so that they know she's a girl. [I feel like there was a counter-example there too?]
Next on to more positive tropes...
Nivair talked about Ellen Kushner's Privilege of the Sword and the protective female friends working together trope.
Effie talked about The Hunger Games and the protectiveness between the sisters. Often this trope is between genetic sisters, but it can be in found family type relationships too. Example was Zoe and Kaylee in Firefly - they are not seen as equals but were protective of one another.
Nivair added that Orphan Black does this well, too.
Naomi brought up (and many of the panelists enthused about this as well) the tumblr post about how it should be a thing that a woman who has someone creepy following them around should just be able to walk up to another woman and pretend to know her until the guy goes away. Some of the panelists had examples of this happening to them and it working!
Becky said that this shows us that despite these ugly tropes about women hating and being mean to one another that essentially we want to protect and be there for one another.
Nivair discussed how the "not like other girls" thing comes from a denial of oppression.
Becky asked if social media has changed some of this and Naomi said it makes it more visible - we can find one another more easily.
Effie talked about the anonymity of the internet and how dudes can use a female name on a site and see how much more hate the get, for example, to understand it better.
Nivair said that gaming gives us a way to sort of experience things from other's points of view, as well.
Becky mentioned a good trope that seems to be growing is the female comedy duo. Examples: Parks and Rec, Broad City, Girl Meets World [I later shouted out Playing House as another example of this]
Effie talked about stories that show women solving problems together such as police procedurals and Buffy-type shows. You get that professional respect between multiple female characters on the job together.
Nivair joked about female friends at work and the aspect of always having to fix problems in the workplace caused by "male ego".
Effie mentioned Inside Amy Schummer and a bit about "man goggles" which allowed the wearer to know what kind of woman to be in order to get taken seriously by the man in front of you [and to get how universal this is - the whole room made noises about this ranging from laughter to groans to knowing "ohhhh" type sounds]
Effie mentioned Uprooted by Naomi Novik - the characters are set up to be rivals, but end up being supportive loving friends.
Naomi threw out the movie Whip It! and the book Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages (I think I shouted out - also the sequel!)
Nivair said Kate Elliott's Spirit Walker and Cold Magic books about cousins, the Heather Dale song One Of Us, and Robin LaFever's His Fair Assassin series (assassin nuns!).
I've got Veronica Mars and Libba Bray's Beauty Queens written down, but not sure who recc'd them.
Becky brought up Supergirl the TV show - how she gets to have anger and jealousy but still be driven by love and protectiveness.
Naomi brought up the Ms. Marvel comics, and Effie talked about Jessica Jones.
An audience member talked about how reality TV pits women against one another as enemies, which caused Effie to rec UnREAL and how that show shines a light on that cheap drama lever.
Naomi replied that reality TV manipulates the participants and how they have to sign NDA's and can't talk about the differences between what is shown and what really happened.
An audience member asked about examples of female friendship that are messy but not in a stereotyped tropey way.
Nivair talked about Veronica Mars - Veronica and Lilly's friendship that seems uneven in a lot of ways but is not "mean girl".
Effie talked about Uprooted and also Jessica Jones.
Becky added that Veronica Mars and Jessica Jones are shows where the female characters themselves are allowed to be messy. Veronica, for example, can be awful - but she's still shown as being worthy of friendship.
Naomi mentioned the movie Bridesmaids.
Effie stated that the more writers are free to write more complex and female characters, the more we'll see this.
Naomi talked about Melissa McCarthy - the friendship between Sookie and Lorelai on Gilmore Girls, and then also the movie Spy which has lots of women in it and NO FAT JOKES!!!
Effie brought up Girls on HBO.
An audience member asked for examples of a female character that wants to be protective but is just a mess and can't be.
Naomi brought up Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl.
A member of the audience asked, as a writer, about the tendency of fans to ship platonic female/female friendships and how to cue the audience to see it as platonic. Is it good or bad if they read it another way than intended?
Nivair said it's not a problem in and of itself, it's a symptom of both of these types of relationships being underrepresented. She brought up Basic 8 by Daniel Handler - there is a female friendship throughout and a scene in the middle where the narrator character even asks herself if the people reading the story might think there was more between them.
She went on to talk about not wanting it to always be a romantic thing because, of course, there is the objectification of women at play in that too - especially true of bisexual women. But sometimes it's good.
Effie talked about when one side of a platonic relationship wants more and that how that dynamic plays out. [I think there was an example from Broad City but didn't jot it down]
Naomi talked about her first novel - she meant to write it about a friendship, but they fell in love! This was Fires of the Faithful and the follow-up Turning the Storm. Sometimes you have to listen to your story and trust your characters. As far as cues to the audience goes - you can do something simple like make it really clear that one of the characters is married.
Becky said that you can't control what the readers see and think about your work. She mentioned Susan Denard's Truth Witch about platonic soulmates. She ships it, but also enjoys the platonic friendship.
Effie said there is often fewer negative tropes in short stories.
An audience member brought up Lost Girl and said the showrunner had 2 basic rules from the start - no slut shaming, and Bo is sexual with lots of people but never with Kenzie. And the show did a good job with that - Kenzie makes it clear up front she doesn't want a sexual relationship and so Bo never goes there with her.
Nivair put out that she maybe ships female friends so much because they feel safer than the male relationships.
Audience rec time:
Roller Girl - graphic novel
TV shows with female mentor roles - The Good Wife and Nashville (both cancelled now)
The Gail Simone arc of the Birds of Prey comics
Rosemary Kierstein's The Steerswoman
Pat Murphy's Wild Girls
Disney cartoon - W.I.T.C.H.
Gunnerkrigg Court comic
Kelly Sue DeConnick's Captain Marvel arcs
She-Hulk [I have further notes here but it's illegible oops]
I plugged Playing House as a good female comedic duo, as well as Pretty Little Liars which gets a lot wrong but consistently does female friendships well
Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, as well as Juniper, Gentian, and Rose
Grey's Anatomy - always good but recently especially so
Call Your Girlfriend podcast
Bob's Burgers and Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Love and Rockets [illegible note here too]
PHEW! That's a lot of recs and a was a really fun panel. (so glad I suggested the panel idea heh)