Speculative Fiction: where there are more believable portrayals of time travel than convincing depictions of friendship between women.
What I’m about to talk about is probably the subject of many a thesis. As you read this there are likely hundreds of wide-eyed, caffeinated students across the land scribbling away furiously on this very subject. To all of those students, researchers and critics, budding or otherwise, I apologise if I have missed something glaringly obvious.
Two things happened of late which caused my thoughts to converge and settle on the interesting question of female-to-female friendships in speculative fiction. The first, and definitely less important, is that I re-watched The Walking Dead (a bookshop favourite) and had all the feels for Rick and Shane’s tumultuous relationship. The second, and by far the more important, is that my amazing – feels like some of our brain cells got mixed up at the human factory – friend returned to her home city of Toronto. Clearly, since I myself am currently living in Barcelona, I understand the hypocrisy of my feelings on the matter – but, it still sucks to know that she won’t be there whenever I go back; with a bottle of Tesco’s Finest vino collapso and some righteous records to make shapes to (that’s dancing for anyone who’s curious).
Anyway, one day I was sitting on the loo having a good old think about how great zombies are, how great pals are and various “what would you do” apocalypse scenarios (cry because I’m here and not in lovely, sparsely populated Scotland is my best guess), when my mind wandered onto the subject of friendship in general. Two things struck me. Firstly, if someone asked me, off the top of my head, to list some of the qualities of a great friendship I would march headlong towards the path of “Brotherhood”. Think classical Romano-Greco relationships; loyalty, honesty, honour… etc (and let’s not get bogged down in what those things actually mean or whether or not they’re actually bullshit for now). Secondly, if that same person asked me to give them some examples of that kind of friendship I might reply with; Frodo and Sam, Hamlet and Horatio, Romeo and Mercutio, Harry and Ron, Rick and Daryl… all fine examples of BFFs but – all male. I started to think a little harder and realised I couldn’t easily bring to mind any examples of lead characters who exhibited the kind of qualities that I instinctively (and rightly or wrongly) associate with that sort of idealised, classical friendship which I seem to have seen so often portrayed in male leads.
By this point, I had been hogging the bathroom for quite some time so took my thinking elsewhere. Later that evening I asked my partner, a well-read type if ever there was one, for his thoughts. Can you name a female-female “classic” friendship that isn’t centred around or caused by men? Nothing came immediately to mind but after a beer or two he said “What about Thelma and Louis?” So, what about them…? Well, yes! They’re great friends, they go through tough times together and yes, they stick together through thick and thin but, aside from the fact that it’s a film so wasn’t really what I was looking for, aren’t the two women sort of brought together by men… specifically abusive men, and aren’t they both, you know, kind of escaping the patriarchal society that brought them down in the first place? Considering all that, I couldn’t really see how Thelma and Louis could fit the bill for what I was looking for… I mean, Rick and Daryl aren’t “brothers” because they both suffered terribly under a matriarchal society – unless zombies are an awfully unclear metaphor for women. I started to realise that what I was looking for was a kind of “Bechdel Max” (the Bechdel Test requires two female characters to have at least one discussion that does not involve a man in order to pass), What I wanted was more than that, I wanted a non-sexual female relationship that had not been caused by, influenced by, or centred around any male character. I wanted two women to make their decisions and have their stories guided without the input of a bloke. If writing a story revolves around cause and effect I wanted the cause to be anything other than a man’s actions.
With Thelma and Louis disqualified I decided to consult the internet and hit up Google, despite the fact that I ought to have been exercising one of my few consumer rights and boycotting it after it last year deemed “bisexual” a word too naughty for inclusion in its new “child-friendly” search engine for “concerned” parents. Anyway, a bit of searching confirmed my worst fears (actually my worst fear is that humanity drowns itself in its own rubbish but I thought we needed to pause for dramatic effect there). It seems like there’s an awful lot of people out there who’ve noticed the same thing, with some people even listing the three categories of female character you’re most likely to find in literature as; “solo-survivor”, “sisterhood bond” and “damsel in distress”. “Huh”, I thought, “Really?”
It all seems pretty limiting, I mean, let’s take my pal and I as an example and imagine we were characters in a novel – what would we be doing if we were to be categorised as “sisterhood”, or “solo-survivor” for example? What if we were solo-survivor characters? Well, I guess the first problem with that is that we wouldn’t be pals anymore because only one of us gets to make it to the end, which sucks. Maybe in novel world one of us goes from the kind of gal who knows where the shovels are kept to someone who inexplicably keeps stopping off to buy frilly knickers or something utterly cliched like that. So, what about sisterhood then? Would we exist in a bubble of womanhood? Talking about ovaries? Having sleepovers and planning the next move in our eternal quest to become sassy, young, independent women with a stylist and a high-powered job? There’s something about the whole concept of sisterhood that makes me feel a little uncomfortable, like we ought to be sewing tapestries together or focused entirely on our beautiful relationship as women and not just as a pair o’ dorks who both have wombs, get paid the same as people who don’t have wombs (snark, snark), and also get along really well. To elaborate on this a bit – It’s not that I’m all out bashing the term “sisterhood”, it’s just that I once came across this Bindu quote regarding it –
“Love is the essence of being a woman. We must be that light of love that seals the bond and unique beauty of our sisterhood.”
and immediately thought “Give me a fucking break Bindu”.
Anyway, I still wasn’t getting anywhere with finding a good example of what I was looking for so I decided to dial in my search a little and concentrate solely on sci-fi and speculative fiction. Reasoning that I might get better results because, you know, you can write about literally anything you want to in those genres (I have to add that at the time I had, in a moment of madness, forgotten that sci-fi hasn’t traditionally been noted for impeccable gender balance or equality despite the seemingly endless opportunities.) I started off by taking a quick look at some of the “classics”; Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984… etc. No joy there, but, I thought, a lot of those books were written by men so maybe they deserved a pass (let’s just ignore the fact that it seems to be “easier” to write from an alien’s point of view than from a woman’s shall we?) What of the many amazing female writers currently working in the genre; Margaret Atwood, Emily St John Mandel, Leona Carrington, L. Timmel Duchamp, Nnedi Okorafor, Alice Bradley Sheldon, Connie Willis and Karen Russell to name some examples. Well, all of these authors have written some great stuff – Margaret Atwood is probably one of my favourite authors to date and Emily St John Mandel’s Station 11 was one of my favourite books of 2014. However (and I have to admit I haven’t read everything by these authors) it felt like there were a lot of solo-survivor stories being told and not much focus on really strong female-female friendships. Which is fine.
By this stage, I was getting truly frustrated and felt like I kept hitting dead-ends. It shouldn’t be so difficult, should it? I turned to my bookshop colleagues and asked if they knew of anything. From Dale’s colleagues at Yorkhill Fire Station we got our first genuine suggestion (shout out to Davey here), Gotham City Sirens, a spin-off comic book series starring Catwoman, Harlequin and Poison Ivy. Initially promising, it soon became clear that a) there’s a romantic dynamic involving Batman and The Joker which influences the friendship between the three women, b) they’re all villains so not strictly what I had in mind but, you know, whatever and c) the three of them all fall out over a guy anyway in the “Division” edition.
Next, I turned to a few friends whose opinions on feminism, politics and all things in general I respect and asked for their input. We had a few decent initial suggestions but nothing that quite matched up. The relationship between Enid and Rebecca from Ghost World, was mentioned, but in the end theirs is more of a coming-of-age story than that of an iconic, long-standing friendship. Other shouts included “Endless” (sibling-vibes), Daria and Jane (coming of age/cynical teens vibes), The Elegance of the Hedgehog (mother-daughter/mentorship vibes) and a fair few more. For a while I wondered if the Vuvalini of Many Mothers, the band of women featured in Mad Max: Fury Road might qualify but it seemed a little like clutching at straws since they’re not even lead characters. We got chatting about Ursula Le Guin, who seemed like promising territory, until my pal pointed out that despite including many female leads she doesn’t really cover female friendships: one possible example being the relationship between Tenar and the witch, Moss, in Tehanu but, and to quote my pal, “It wasn’t anything mega deep”. Likewise, the four “Joanna’s” in Russ’s The Female Man, weren’t really friends. It was starting to feel like a fruitless search until a writer pal suggested the YA novel “Codename Verity which is set in World War Two and focuses on the friendship between two young women. “Yasssss!” I thought: someone has finally been able to say “yep, try this one out”. And yet, I was still left disappointed. Codename Verity is a historical novel and, while I’m a fan of that genre, I had really hoped that with all the limitless possibilities of sci-fi we would have been able to find something within the genre without much hassle.
I know that there may well be an example out there (and please do send us your suggestions!) but, and I don’t want to want to blow our brass section too hard, we all read a lot. Collectively, we could mastermind the shit out of a University Challenge literature round. So why on earth did it take such a group effort to find a book that features the kind of female friendship that aint all that unusual in the real world? It shouldn’t be so hard to come up with a few examples off the bat and it certainly shouldn’t turn into the kind of exercise where you have to message all your pals, should it? And so, I end this article with a call to arms (or pens?). Because future Jen thinks it would be cool if her next quick think on the loo about this didn’t end up with her emailing everyone she knew. In the meantime, the hunt for a spec fiction novel with female-to-female friendships I can relate to and look up to continues.
If you have any suggestions or comments please add them below! I will definitely check them out.