My Beef with YA: Girls Can’t Be Friends

(Note: this rant will not contain specific examples for very specific reasons. My frustration is not with just two or three well-known writers, as the tropes outlined below are becoming more and more widespread in YA, propagated by small-time authors as well as major ones. I believe that pointing fingers would only undermine any point I’d like to make and would make the issue into a personal injury for a handful of writers who at the heart of it want nothing more than to tell a story. Poking fun is not my intention, no matter how frustrating I find the content.)

Some authors get YA right.

Some of my favorite stories follow kids between 10 and 17 years old, and while you might think from the outside that those stories would be about as riveting as hearing a kid brother talk about a particular science teacher who is constantly on his case or your little niece complaining that another girl on her softball team is so mean, the scope of the story usually keeps the subject matter from being trivial. There may be a spice of adolescent drama, but it’s not the forerunner of conflict. It’s an afterthought used to round out the characters and make them appear their age as they slay dragons and hop through universes and come up against larger than life dangers. This is what makes the story acceptable and even highly enjoyable to those readers who are well beyond the age of the actual characters. It keeps these readers sympathetic with the younger characters by offering slight nods at the average trials of youth that we’ve all gone through and perhaps to some degree have passed.

But so many authors do not get YA right.

There has been a huge swell of YA fiction released in the wake of successes like Harry Potter and Twilight: The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Mortal Instruments, and plenty of others in the mixThese successes are lately cited often and in varied contexts–for myself, I am a fan of Games and Potter, with a few reservations–and chances are good you’ve already read a scathing account of at least one of these series, calling out anti-feminist values, abusive lover trends, questionable display of culture or race, and otherwise profoundly diluted portrayals of teen years as some kind of golden age wherein adults are merely blinkered sheep, obstacles to either narrowly avoid or triumphantly overcome in the course of adventure.

Or perhaps these authors do not get YA as right. There is some really beautiful and imaginative world-building at work in many of these series, not to mention fine execution of more technical points such as pacing and tension. Obviously, they are still selling copies, so I will not categorically condemn them as unreadable. All the same, I have one major beef with many young adult science fiction and fantasy series, well-known and otherwise. This crime is one I see committed far more by female authors writing central female characters than male authors writing the same, and it is a sad lot of self-congratulatory wish fulfillment. I so want it to stop.

The underlying gripe is this: Girls, apparently, cannot be friends. 

Ever. All too often, every girl but the female main character (forthwith referred to as the FMC) is portrayed as a backstabbing menace. Especially the girls that spend time with other girls. These other girls may, for a brief moment, display a touch of uncharacteristic friendliness…but you can be certain that this moment is a snare for the heroine, either as an attempt to lure her toward dire embarrassment or as an effort to gain access to something the heroine has, whether resources, smarts, or attachment to another person. They are shown as conniving gold-diggers that exist only to cause problems and make the FMC feel like scum. Pond scum of so boring a variety that even Jerry Brand wouldn’t be interested in studying it under a microscope.

Any moment of clarity about the fact that an enemy female character (if one gets around to being named) is really just a person with her own fears and issues and a soft, creamy nougat of personality underneath it all, the FMC grows up a little and the author gets to pat her on the back for braving a burdensome revelation. She realizes that other people actually exist and that despite the grievances for which the FMC seems to hold the whole world accountable, she may need to do her part and learn why others treat her the way they do and then take some responsibility for it. Naturally though, this moment is just as often shattered when the other girl, still reeling from the FMC’s glimpse into her soul, shuts down the FMC’s dutiful offers of help or friendship. Often an insult or an all-out attack follows. And so the moment is had and lost, the FMC is spared the responsibility of making good on her revelation, and the blame for the FMC’s failures in navigating the currents of adolescent femininity continues to fall elsewhere.

In light of this, boys are the only real friends. 

As a trope, there is often an Obligatory Male Bestie whom the FMC tends to emasculate by disparaging any romantic interest he might have in her, sometimes to the extent of directly insulting him for having those feelings (though using him as a boyfriend sounding-board while eyeballing other guys is shown just as often and is just as distasteful). There is also a trope of nostril-flaring jealousy should the Obligatory Bestie take the hint that it’s never going to happen and start looking at other girls: so not only is the FMC never going to return his feelings, she doesn’t want anyone else to return his feelings either. This is shown as acceptable behavior because often the FMC hates herself so much that she cannot take her Obligatory Bestie’s interest seriously, assuming he is just a boy who wants an easy lay with the ugly girl, and as such can have no investment of actual emotion in the matter of her affections–a sentiment which is often curiously absent when the Mysterious Babe Guy arrives on the scene and starts sending smoky glares in her direction (but more on him later).

Opposite the friendzoned Obligatory Bestie, there is the First Love Bestie. He has known her forever and is as yet ignorant of her feelings toward him. He can be found waggling his charming, caddish eyebrows at other girls even as he begins to drift away from the FMC by collecting male friends. Even the company of other dudes threatens FMC’s sense of possession when it comes to First Love Bestie. His supportive attitude when she tries to make him jealous by talking about another guy sends her into a rage. Every moment spent with him is a lifetime of emo-torture because she finds herself so viciously unattractive/spotty/boring/unfunny/drab/dumb that she can’t get up the guts to say: “Hey best friend: here are ALL THESE HOTS. I HAVE THEM FOR YOU. Mind taking a few off my hands?” 

If the FMC is taken to task for a poor choice or action by another female character, the reader should really consider hating that character:

Most times in these stories, the FMC is emotionally unstable, brash, or unacquainted with the new world or laws of magic to which she has recently been introduced. It is natural that certain mistakes would be made, but as another symptom of the ego-stroking, the FMC is rarely held accountable or asked to learn from these mistakes. If she is, the deed is often done by a Mean Girl side character whom the writer goes to great length to vilify, usually by depicting her as a slutty, jealous temptress who is only trying to make the FMC look bad in front of Mysterious Babe Guy. In truth, the Mean Girl is usually a veteran of the world to which the FMC has just been introduced, and as such would naturally have much more at stake and much more to lose, and therefore ample reason to shout down a brash newb who appears to be keen on foolish or impulsive or flat uninformed behavior. Even more frustrating, Mysterious Babe Guy usually comes to the FMC’s rescue, soothing her battered ego and in turn shouting down the Mean Girl’s objectively valid concerns.

Girls are the real enemy for being aloof and cruel and unapproachable, but somehow that same behavior is not only appealing when acted out by Mysterious Babe Guy, it’s downright panties-be-droppin’.

From the first moment the Mysterious Babe Guy appears on the FMC’s radar, he’s alternately ignoring her, looking at her like he might look at a piece of gum stuck to his shoe, ridiculing her, and showing bare disdain for her presence. In essence he is the only person in the story who treats her like the person she believes herself to be (except of course, for the nameless droves of other women who seem to get off on sadistic treatment of a sad underdog): drab, annoying, unworthy of notice except in the most unappreciative of ways. This often gives the FMC leeway to surprise him with a power or insight or some other display of hidden quality, usually surprising herself in the process. And so she begins to show a little defiance, and defiance grows to confidence, and then the Babe Guy begins to find her “interesting.” Because she’s just so different from other girls. All other girls. Bringing us back around to the premise that the entire world is made up of harridans and harpies, and those not clever enough for treachery exist solely to flirt with taken boys while flaunting short skirts and listening to vapid music.

For good measure, Mysterious Babe Guy is almost always exceptional in (at least) one of three ways which serve to rationalize his misbehavior, although the same courtesy is rarely extended to disagreeable female characters:

1) He has…no one (wistful gaze), because he is extravagantly wealthy or powerful or beautiful. Others just can’t handle his presence. They’re just too scared or too jelly. Even the company he keeps is a facade.

2) He has…no one (sad smile), because he’s actually over a hundred years old and everyone he’s ever loved or let in has died. Despite being at least seventy years past the age when most folk lose interest in highschool drama, he readily involves himself in exactly that by diggin’ on a sixteen year old. Perhaps it’s because he still looks seventeen…

3) He has…no one (deep sigh), because he’s hiding a mysterious secret/curse/disease. No one close to him is safe, so he acts the ass to push them away for their own safety. He must now endure a lecture on the selfishness of making decisions for those who just want to be there for him.

The tenacity with which the FMC pursues this mewling, hackneyed pseudo-Darcy undermines the proposition that she has to stay away from other girls “for her own protection.” She follows him into danger, picks apart his defenses, and pretties her way into his heart and hidden depths, all accomplished between longing gazes cast here and there like stray buckshot. That is, until…

FMC’s infatuation (often cloaked as ‘curiosity,’ ‘concern,’ and my favorite ‘morbid fascination’) is interrupted by a sudden incursion of doubt/distraction/caution/misunderstanding/standard-grade sanity, or simply a short period of time wherein the FMC is sufficiently un-besotted to question Babe Guy or perhaps her own interest in him. Usually this is just after the FMC has come very close to death or dismemberment, either by the recklessness of Mysterious Babe Guy or by an outside danger that is ruthlessly put down by Babe Guy’s abilities or powers. There is a short span of time after the FMC witnesses and processes this event and the Babe Guy’s ferocity of response, during which she may experience a waning of interest in him and sometimes life in general. It’s called shock and is generally considered to be a pretty legit reaction to extreme duress by sane people. Babe Guy, being very probably not sane, takes immediate offense to her would-be rejection, and either storms off or slinks away emo-style, leaving her enraged, or feeling unsettled and wistful, or fearing that she has disappointed/offended him or failed some manner of personal test, all during a time when she should be focusing on not developing PTSD.

Tiny slips of speech, petty injustices, and easily-correctable miscommunications riddle the languishing couple’s interactions to spark epic rows of feeling and latent sexual tension. This is especially unacceptable for the ‘old soul’-style Babe Guys–they’re old enough to know better. Break ups and make ups abound, ending in a climactic meltdown with tears and grievous emotional wounds, until…

Mysterious Babe Guy’s many faults all fall into perspective for the FMC. His complete lack of maturity, the absence of common sense, the disinterest in reigning in his temper, and his inability to manage what often turns out to be a textbook inferiority complex–all excused. This occurs when the FMC realizes that their inexplicable attraction to each other is at least in part due to the fact that Babe Guy hates himself as much or more than FMC hates herself. This is portrayed as, if not a good thing, then a sad fact of life that one may as well just roll with. The couple is then reunited with the understanding that, while they may make each other wholly and completely miserable, they’ll always have the ultimate aphrodisiac of “at least we’re in it together.” Sexy.

Afterward, Obligatory Bestie is released from the FMC’s shacklehood on his heart as her romantic backup plan, and the FMC may dip a cautious toe into the waters of civility with whatever girl he chases afterward. Generous.

The Precedent and the Point

With friendship being the larger part of romance, this sets a dangerous expectation (if you care about the fact that young readers learn how to interact with the world largely through various forms of escape and entertainment) for what kids and teens can expect from their peers, friends, and crushes. And if you call yourself a feminist or a supporter of equal rights and then write the kind of woman-hating nonsense that is beginning to fill so much of YA fiction, you need to reevaluate either your writing or what you think it means to support other women. If you’re going to be a YA writer who targets young female audiences, you have a responsibility to help those same young women learn to better their situation (even if it is just through the lens of fantasy), not bog them down in the belief that they’re right about the whole world being a big pile of suck. Everyone gets that feeling at some point, but that feeling will pass if one is inclined to let it.  I’m not saying every YA novel needs to read like a textbook on how to play nice with other girls, and even less like a textbook on responsible dating habits, but lately too much of it seeks to deliberately poison the reader against an entire sex, and for what? All to snatch at the lowest hanging fruit that might cause a flare of empathy between an awkward adolescent reader and and an awkward adolescent character, but is just as likely to polarize your audience and range even more readers against you.

In strictly practical terms, it’s also just lazy writing. There are plenty of ways to promote empathy with a reader that don’t involve throwing your own sex under the bus and that also do not cheapen your options for story progression. And I’m not saying to make every FMC an angel, either–some of my favorite female characters could probably be deemed psychopaths–the point is that tinny adolescent drama is a one note tune that’s been played too much already and will do neither your storyline nor society in general any favors in the end. Human emotion runs rampant with chaotic and complex motivators, even from an early age–pick one other than petty jealousy and learn to love the burn as your story evolves around it.

In summation, please stop writing hatred of other women into your fiction, and not only because many of the ideas you’re presenting as fact are patently untrue. I’ve been there–for most of my life I thought that I couldn’t trust other women as far as I could throw them–but if we can’t even get past that fear enough to set a good precedent in the stuff that we literally make up and put on a page, how can anyone take us seriously when we call ourselves feminists? How can we expect to be taken seriously as writers if we’re using tired old cheats to dredge up a reader’s empathy?

Please stop undermining yourself as a woman, and please stop undermining yourself as a writer. But please do keep writing. ❤

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3 thoughts on “My Beef with YA: Girls Can’t Be Friends

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    I don’t think it’s limited to YA, actually. I have been trying to think of examples of strong friendships between female characters and I am not coming up with much.

    Aside from stories that are set in an environment where men are scarce or nonexistent (“A League Of Their Own” comes to mind) most female characters, even if they are the main character, are defined by their relationships with men.

    One of the few counter-examples I can think of is the 2004 “Catwoman”. Halle Berry’s Catwoman takes on the arch-villain specifically to save her best friend Sally (Alex Borstein). I suspect, in fact, that’s why it didn’t do better, it was a superhero film that focused on the relationships between women, with a male character thrown in basically for eye candy. (Benjamin Bratt, who does a fine job in that role.)

    This is strange because most of the women that I have known personally have strong and stable friendships with other women.

    • Proseia says:

      You’re absolutely right, entertainment in general seems to gravitate to male-defined relationships. It’s fine to a certain extent–we’re all defined in different ways by different people we’re involved with in one way or another–but when obviously insecure and hateful heroines get paraded as feminist icons, I start wanting to hit stuff.

      In addition to Catwoman, Mean Girls is one of the few stories I’ve seen where the main cast has a nice little variety of girls who get along. Or don’t. Or learn to. It’s not a common dynamic.

      The Bechdel Test is an interesting concept, not sure if you’ve run into it: it asks whether the fiction has at least two named female characters who talk to each other…about something other than a male character. It sounds trivial, but most popular movies and stories do not make the cut.

      Only talking about guys for one reason or another doesn’t necessarily mean that the piece of fiction is sexist, but it does seem that female characters could be put to more use than that if someone took the time to flesh them out.

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