Thank you for the kind words! I like your tumblr name.
And I apologise for what I am about to do, which is turn my answer to a perfectly lovely ask into another loooong essay on my thoughts about feminism!
Sorry in advance! This seems to be the way I roll now.
I have divided my essay into four points!
1) Boys’ Girls, and Why They Might Be Popular.
2) Condemning Other Women.
3) The Only Bad Female Relationship or Character Is An Unexamined Female Relationship or Character.
4) Finally, Some Actual Recommendations, Jeez Lady, Took You Long Enough…
1) Boys’ Girls, and Why They Might Be Popular
I mentioned my asker’s tumblr name before—for those not as nerdy as me, it is a reference to the excellent love story of Kili the dwarf and Tauriel the elf in the Hobbit movies.
Tauriel is a boys’ girl—there literally aren’t other girls for her to interact with. Tolkien didn’t think to write any in the Hobbit: Tauriel herself was added by the movie makers. And the initial response to her was not ‘She should be given some girl friends!’ but ‘What a hideous error putting a girl in this story is—cut her out!’
(My opinion of the Hobbit movies, by the way: well they could be improved. However Richard Armitage’s face cannot be.
Katniss of The Hunger Games is a boys’ girl in that her only friend is a boy… she’s also someone super traumatised who finds it hard to make friends. It’s possible that there are more lonely people without friends’ groups in dystopian fiction (discuss!) because a dystopia means everything is terrible.
Mako Mori of the movie Pacific Rim is a boys’ girl, and has to deal with dudes being overprotective of her and throwing slurs at her in her work environment, as well as needing (and often getting) respect from dudes. She’s also super-important because she’s one of very few ladies of colour in a blockbuster leading role.
Alanna of (Trebond! Ahem, they’re some of my favourite books) Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series is by necessity a boys’ girl, as she’s entered a boys-only knighthood-training programme while dressed as a boy. So is Kel of Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series, though to a lesser degree—she’s the only girl in the programme even when girls are allowed. Like Mako, these heroines’ experience are a commentary on how it is to be a girl in an almost all-male environment, what you have to struggle with to succeed.
Black Widow, of the Avengers and related movies, is a boys’ girl. She’s a very popular character, amazingly played and super important to the stories she appears in—but she gets a lot of unnecessary flak about how she dresses and acts, and there’s a reason she doesn’t have her own movie unlike the vast majority of her male peers.
Having one girl be important is a risk in itself, as audiences are more likely to dislike and dismiss girls. Having more than one means audiences are twice as inclined to dislike—and to dismiss the whole piece of media as ‘girls’ stuff’ (meaning silly, not quality, not interesting).
It’s tricky because
a. there are often legitimate reasons to have boys’ girls—their stories need to be told too and can be fascinating—and girls in mostly-male environments, to highlight these issues. Some of my favourite stories, and some of the stories I consider most feminist, are about boys’ girls. Don’t ask me how many times I’ve watched this fanvid about Black Widow in her boys’-club-environment! Don’t ask me because the answer is embarrassing!
b. it’s sometimes a terrible compromise I understand people feeling they have to make (‘if I can get this one really cool girl to a LOT of people, is that better than not having the book published/the film made—or having them published/made but not supported—and not getting any girls to anybody?’)
Getting Katniss to a lot of people did HELLA WORK and thank God for that.
And yet… it is a terrible compromise. It is not someone anyone should have to make.
I’m not saying there isn’t a problem: there’s clearly a problem, from that statistic alone, and I definitely do not want to belittle that. But I think it’s important to be very clear that we are saying ‘I’d love to see people celebrating girls’ relationships, to enjoy a ton of media with a lot of girls’ relationships, and to see even more fiction heavily featuring girls’ relationships be super successful—I’d love to see media about girls’ relationships be a PHENOMENON, which is rare, and let’s talk about why it’s rare’ and that we are not saying not ‘Look at all this bad fiction in which girls have primary relationships with boys (meanwhile, fiction about boys continues on its merry way, especially if it’s written by boys).’
I know, asker of starlight, that you said boys’ girls were great and I agree they are. So that brings me to point two…
2) Condemning Other Women
So why, since the asker and I agree on this, did I start this essay going ‘rah rah girls’ boys!’? Well, when it comes to feminism I feel we are all in one very unsteady boat in treacherous waters, and we spend a lot of time rushing from one side of the boat (more weight that way! OH GOD NO TO THE LEFT!) to the other.
We go ‘Look at this! We’re all forcing girls to wear pink and wear make-up and be sweet and that’s awful!’ and then we go ‘Uh-oh, now the girls who wear pink and make-up are the enemy, and they’re definitely only pretending to be sweet, and the girl who doesn’t wear make-up or care about clothes is “not like the other girls” and that’s sexier (to the boys, naturally, because secretly their approval is STILL what matters) than all those scantily-clad tarts. Wait, no, that’s not what I meant!’
Often I say ‘I don’t really like this kind of story, I like this other kind of story’ or ‘this kind of girl character troubles me’ and then later I see people saying: this kind of story is bad, this kind of girl character is bad, and I feel like I’ve made myself part of the problem and not part of the solution.
I don’t want to be cool by virtue of saying that other women aren’t cool, and I don’t want my female characters to be used as a way of saying other female characters aren’t cool. We all know where that leads.
We’re all more likely to be hostile to girls, because we’re socialised to think we’re in competition and that it’s no use to be hostile to dudes (we’re not in competition with them) and also trained to believe that we can feel good about ourselves if we establish ourselves as good and certain other women as bad. It’s called horizontal hostility:
It’s why I always get messages telling me that other girls’ books are bad, and that I should say the books are bad and the girls are bad too, and I never get messages telling me that boys’ books are bad and the boys are bad. It’s why my own brain betrays me and criticises girls more—their looks and their books and everything else.
Our impulses to horizontal hostility have to be fought, because it gets in the way of women succeeding and women cooperating, and leaves us with the same lousy system of it being difficult for women to succeed that we have now.
The whole system of sexism is set up to get us coming and going—that’s why it’s a system, why it’s so complicated, and why it’s so hard to escape. Cages have many sides.
(Another side of the same attitude. We’re all meant to be super nice and not seem too ambitious, and yet meant to succeed despite the obstacles of sexism, and yet if we both project niceness and are secretly ambitious, we’re catty and two-faced—it’s in our nature:
3. The Only Bad Female Relationship or Character Is An Unexamined Female Relationship or Character.
I’ve been trying to keep my own female characters and their relationships out of this essay, because though instarlight’s words were very kind, I sure do not want to come off as going ‘that’s right! I am the winner at feminism! Praise me!’
(Believe me, I know what happens to women who the internet imagines think too well of themselves!)
But I *know* a lot more about responses to my own work than anyone else’s, and I know the things that trip me up and discourage me better than I know what trips up and discourages others, and I also don’t want to talk that much about ‘crappy stuff other people’s female characters have done’ for obvious reasons. So: warning. WARNING FOR ME.
Now, this is the internet. Nobody escapes criticism. Nobody except for Tom Hiddleston.
(And while Tom Hiddleston seems like a sweet lovely super-talented gentleman… one notes that he *is* a dude. Ladies do not get this much love, or this little hate.)
Ladies do get criticised differently, and to a greater extent.
I mentioned Katniss earlier. Katniss gets it in the neck for not being kind enough, empathetic enough, smart enough, not being sympathetic enough about the boys’ feelings, for leading the boys on even though leading Peeta on in the first book was genuinely the only way she had to survive, and to help him survive. At the same time, I doubt if Katniss had been more ‘typically feminine’ whether she could’ve been the phenomenon she is now, because people dislike what they regard as feminine at the same time as disliking girls for not being feminine enough. Because the system is rigged so women can’t win, and by the way fighting a battle that cannot be won is exhausting!
I like the TV show Teen Wolf, and I remember in season two I was pleased when the heroine Allison had one of those Dark Awakenings that happen to heroic boys all the time—lost a loved one, went on a quest for vengeance that devolved into madness, lost herself and had to claw her way back. But then I was reminded of why female characters don’t often get those story arcs: #killAllison trended on twitter worldwide.
I personally kind of wanted more of Allison’s dark descent and redemption—but did the show feel they could go there, given audience reaction? Would the actress have been able to go forward with it and be okay? Hatred is hard to cope with and it comes to women/female characters in the public eye so easily, as the lead actress of Breaking Bad wrote about movingly in the New York Times.
'At the end of the day, she (Skyler) hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter.’
One more reason for boys’ girls is purely logistical. Protagonists cannot have as many people in their lives as real people do—it’d be confusing and overwhelming. So it’s conservation of characters—if a guy is around and can play both love interest and trusted BFF, you don’t need two characters.
A solution I have to that issue is: more bisexual or lesbian ladies! A lady can play trusted BFF and love interest!
But that comes with its own baggage, because that means MORE LADIES, which as we’ve discussed in 1, is complicated—even aside from the homophobia directed at any LGBTQ characters (which means less likely to be published and promoted, more likely to be set on fire for corrupting the children). People respond badly to one lady, and even worse to several. I’ve had my own LGBTQ lady characters often get ignored or dismissed: there’s a lot of general uninterest in ladies and their relationship with ladies (‘Will you ever have a MAN fall in love with another MAN,’ someone wrote to me once, wishing to make themselves clear. It was clear all right!), on top of dislike for whatever action a lady has happened to commit. Because the more ladies there are, the more stuff there is for ladies to do.
Let’s talk about ladies making mistakes.
I had Mae of the Demon’s Lexicon flirt with a boy who had been cruel to her brother, because she was directionless and unhappy, and mad at her brother and didn’t know how to express it. It was a crappy thing for her to do.
I had Kami of Unspoken unthinkingly judge her friend-to-be Holly (because Kami was a girls’ girl, and Holly was a boys’ girl). It was a crappy thing for her to do. (And a boy called her out on it—and on one hand I am not the hugest fan of boys scolding girls, not that he meant it as scolding but it could be taken that way—but the boy’s the one who empathised about Holly’s class issues—and all relationships are about making the people in them better people otherwise what’s the point—This is an insight into the writer’s brain. This stuff is complicated!)
My female characters do crappy things. My male characters do crappy things too—but people notice the crappy things less, and forgive the crappy things more, and sympathise with their pain more. And it’s the same for every character in every piece of media I’ve seen.
I do not know how to describe the way my brain twists into a pretzel when people say ‘I don’t like that female character because they did this crappy thing and this crappy thing and because they’re too perfect.’
One reason I think Frozen was such a popular movie is because a ton of people empathised with this: the pressure to be perfect (which nobody can be) and the fear that nobody will love you even if you do manage to pretend perfection.
Every time I make a female character do or say a crappy thing, I know she’s going to get more hate for it than a male character would get. And I worry about the bad response, because I want people to like the books and like the characters in them.
And when women talk about hatred for the female characters they write, or the female characters they portray onscreen, they are dismissed as whiny bitches who cannot take criticism. (We can criticise without condemning, is my point.) Not like the dude writers, largely writing dudes, who are so much better.
Of course male writers don’t complain about that particular topic! That’s like saying ‘This person who’s getting their leg cut off is complaining a lot more than that other person! You know, the one not getting their leg chopped off.’
This is the way it works in the real world too, of course. There’s this celebrity gossip site called Oh No They Didn’t, and I used to follow their YA track because—hey, I like YA… oh wait, I’d made a terrible mistake, they don’t like YA at all. I then kept looking out of horror.
(Don’t worry, I did stop eventually. Now I only know what’s going on there because people tell me.)
I said stuff they disagreed with, and they decided they didn’t like me. John Green also said stuff they disagreed with, and they decided they didn’t like him. But notably… they didn’t say he should shut up about sexism. They did say I should shut up. They didn’t make fun of a picture of him. They did make fun of a picture of me, right after my last essay on feminism and fandom.
It didn’t bother me particularly. They make fun of many pictures of many women, sometimes pictures of celebrity ladies who are amazingly beautiful, and people who are not pleased with Selena Gomez’s face and body aren’t going to be impressed by mine! But it illustrates something I already knew—if you’re a lady, and you do something people don’t like, people will feel justified in raining down unholy fire in a way they just won’t with guys. It doesn’t occur to them to treat guys that way.
I know John Green does get a ton of rubbish thrown his way due to being popular and outspoken, and that must suck. But it is *different* rubbish.
It’s a tangle, and one that’s extremely difficult to sort out—it means fighting our own ingrained impulses to be hard on ladies at every turn.
Think of Mean Girls—there are hardly any uncomplicatedly good female friendships in that movie. It’s full of girls doing crappy things to each other, making terrible mistakes, working against each other in ways that are ultimately destructive to all of them, until people start speaking honestly to each other. And because it dares to do and be all that, I think it’s a very feminist movie. Plus: it is hilarious.
I’m so pleased you like the relationships between girls I’ve written. (‘What?’ murmurs a hapless reader. ‘What’s she talking ab… oh, the ask. It was so long ago. So long.’) I agree that they’re super important. I did really work on them—and I worked on making them flawed relationships between flawed people—and when I was writing Unspoken I thought that I wanted to make female relationships integral to the whole series, in a way I hadn’t with my first series. Because every story’s different, and different relationships are right for each of them.
I’ve written girls’ girls so far, but I want to write a boys’ girl heroine one day, and a truly bad girl heroine one day. I want to write a vast spectrum of women, and so it’s important to me artistically as well as personally that no type of woman gets condemned.
I believe in giving women more freedom to be crappy, and for that to be OK. (Please hire me for all your inspirational speechwriting.) And I do believe we’re getting closer to that freedom.
'Suddenly, we're realizing that generally women are interesting, and they can also be weird and crazy and mean.'
Lena Headey, who has played many excellent characters excellently by working on just that principle.
4) Finally, Some Actual Recommendations, Jeez Lady, Took You Long Enough…
Your question was timed oddly brilliantly… because lots of people have been talking about this issue lately! Here’s a fabulous post about people’s different reactions to male and female characters, which I think also doubles as a recommendation for Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory.
Cassandra Clare recently got an ask about feminism and misogyny, which she brought to the brain trust of several writer friends (me, Holly Black, Kelly Link) and I helped write her response (note: Holly and Kelly of course had more excellent thoughts than mine) (note 2: my writer friend Susan Connolly helped me with this! LADIES COOPERATING. I recommend all their books.):
Her heroine in The Mortal Instruments and an important female supporting character have a conflict at first (both girls used to boys’ company, both presenting very differently, initially suspicious of and learning to love each other)—which relationship is dear to me because I! love! deconstructions! and also because these characters learning to appreciate, then love and support each other meant a lot more to me than if the characters didn’t have flaws to deal with in the first place—it shows that internalised misogyny can be overcome.
Other people who have been talking about it: renowned librarian Kelly Jensen, and writers Jessica Spotswood and Justine Larbalestier.
Leaving my humble self out of the equation for a moment, great list. You cannot swing a cat in one of Maureen Johnson’s books without hitting a female friendship. (Warning: do not swing cats.) And I would go further and say—is it rare among bestsellers? Maybe rarer… for all the reasons discussed above… definitely rarer for phenomenons… but Maureen Johnson and Melina Marchetta *are* bestselling! And that is awesome.
And you know… I think I might’ve heard Meg Cabot sells pretty well too…
I wouldn’t describe girls’ friendships as really neglected in the YAniverse—I don’t want to dismiss all these really great female friendships which exist and which are wonderful. They get dismissed enough. That is a problem—people (and by that I mean everyone from readers to writers to movie producers) prioritising relationships that involve dudes is a real problem—but they are there.
But the desire to read about really great female friendships is totally understandable, so here are more recommendations to add to the ones I and Justine made above:
Speaking of Meg Cabot and her intensely ladyrrific books, my two favourites of hers are: Ready or Not, which is a fun, sweet, smart book which deals extensively with virginity, sex, public perceptions of ladies who might or might not be having sex (the heroine is the teen president of the UN and dating the president’s son!) and two twists that surprised and pleased me. Plus Tommy Sullivan Is A Freak (which I understand has a different title in the US but I’m electing to ignore it!) which features a heroine who is a compulsive liar and a cheater, and who does have to pay the piper when all is revealed, but who is not condemned by the narrative or her popular-girl-who-loves-designer-stuff best friend or the improbably hot redheaded hero!
I own this cover and the title is fuzzy and you can pet it.
Aaaand another bestseller which had a movie made out of it (giving us a total of three movie’d up bestsellers with lady friendships I enjoy in this post alone) is Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy. The heroine is dedicated to her best friend’s protection, born to be her sacred bodyguard! She feeds her vampire best friend her own blood and I thought it was touching and maybe a little sexy!
(Sorry, everything doesn’t need to be sexualised especially not blood loss, I’m a creature of many perversions.)
And no list of female friendships can be complete without mentioning Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, which is a smash hit book ALL ABOUT female friendship! One of the things I liked most (and by ‘liked most’ I mean ‘found heartbreaking!’) about that book was that it’s dual-friends-POV, and both of the girls think so well of their friend, and so badly of themselves. But we can see they’re both brave, and good, and that they love each other.
I mentioned Frozen earlier, and it strikes me that we might be at the point where one lady goes off on her own in the snow and sings ‘Let It Go’ and everyone sings along, and that lady looks great, and we do all feel the thrill of her independence! But the end result isn’t that lady on her own—her sister comes for her, and the end of the story is about both of them, and their relationships to each other.
I feel like where we are with media might at be at the mid-way point of Frozen. There was a long stretch of darkness in which stories were about dudes, and ladies who were controlled, and now the ladies are trying to break free but in doing this they might end up leaving other ladies behind.
But that’s changing.
Boys’ girls have room to evolve: Natasha (Black Widow) and Pepper Potts have a good relationship going on in the background (which I would like to see going on in the foreground, but it’s still a good relationship). In Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series, we mostly see relationships between boys, and between a boy and a girl, but the queens of the two countries in conflict do eventually meet and form a strong bond. (Plus: two countries with lady rulers!)
I want them all. Girls who genuinely do get on best with boys, but who get on with girls too, and don’t have bad things to say about girls. Girls who like pink and who like fighting. Girls who wear frilly dresses and hate emotions. Girls who were born in boys’ bodies (edit). Girls who have a tight-knit group of girl friends who a direct lightning strike couldn’t separate.
I want there to be a Black Widow movie, and a ton more super-successful women-led movies, and for nobody to be worried that girls, and relationships with girls, mean that media won’t be successful—for nobody to write about boys’ girls because girls’ girls won’t sell, but only because they want to write about boys’ girls for that story. There are a lot of people who are everyone’s girls (um, I mean who get on with both genders equally) and there are antisocial girls who don’t get on with many people of either gender all that well. I don’t want any girls to be judged or dismissed. I want them all to get stories.
There are huge difficulties in getting there. There’s awful stuff women have to get through in the real world, and I’m sure people will be hating on and finding female characters annoying and wishing for their death for a long time too. But we have to keep moving and keep resisting the urge to judge and dismiss.
A lady once said to me that she found it restful to read and write about men, and the relationships between men, so she wouldn’t worry about feminism. And I think, you know, that does show that sexism leaves deep scars on people. But when she asked me if I felt the same way…
I’d feel cut out of stories without stories about girls. I’d worry about feminism all the time! I want all different kinds of stories about all different kinds of girls—I think stories about girls make stories about boys richer, because we read them knowing that the female characters in them have (or should have!) stories of their own.
'Being a feminist means being aware of the inequalities between the sexes and actually reacting to that. Being a feminist is an active state, rather than a passive one.'
So… I try to act, and embrace boys’ girls, and girls’ girls. And embrace… um… writing VERY LONG ESSAYS.