All friendships are complicated—but female friendships in particular are perceived as being competitive and difficult. It’s a trope that has colored many a storyline and plot point, and it’s an idea I couldn’t escape growing up, even in the books I read. Whether it is a story of people who have known each other since birth or a tale of budding friendship, books have an amazing way of catching us in our feelings and helping us recall our own friendships over the years–the good and the bad. On this last day of Women’s History Month, I would like to celebrate books that depict friendships between women as strong bonds that can survive even the most perilous of circumstances. Those are the stories we need to see more of in pop culture, and those kinds of stories mattered the most to me when I was growing up.
From a pair of magic pants to a daring all female crew on the deck of a pirate ship, solely positive representations of women’s friendships can seem rare. Too often, there is a falling out, a friend turned traitor in favor of the more popular girl, and, yes, the fight for a boy’s heart. I want the narratives that show women supporting women, girls supporting girls, and strong relationships that help protagonists overcome danger. I grew up surrounded by women who embodied this—they supported each other and used their strengths to help instead of harm. It is empowering to see these kinds of mindsets and messages reflected in the books young girls are reading.
I want to see stories like 2018’s The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, written by New York Times bestselling author Mackenzi Lee. In this novel, the only men that main character Felicity is interested in meeting are the doctors keeping her from medical school. When she is denied by every institution she applies to, she decides to take matters into her own hands and find out why, uniting her with fierce friends along the way. A boldly feminist novel, one of the most powerful points of the plot is the immense differences between the three female leads and how each embodies the title of “feminist” in their own way.
When asked about strong female characters, Lee told HelloGiggles that, growing up, she noticed a limited number of traits revolving around female leads.
In particular, they all had traditionally masculine attributes. Lee said, “When I was a kid, the media I consumed and loved taught me that, in order to be a strong female, I had to be a masculine female. I had to take on traits traditionally associated with masculinity. I had to wear pants and carry a sword. I had to fight. I had to want to be the only girl in the room because being able to keep up with the boys made me tougher than other girls.” Because even when women were strong, they were always coded as being the exception to the rule.
Reading stories like The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy can help dismantle the idea that, in order to be the best, you have to be unlike “other girls.” Reading has been proven to help people learn and empathize with the characters they interact with. These narratives can help women stop seeing each other as enemies or competition.
“I continue to work through them—just like she does. I think breaking out of these subconscious patterns of girl hate is something it takes so many women most of their lives to overcome—just realizing you’re doing it is a huge first step,” the author further explained.
By expanding the discussion and opportunity to see different female friendships, we are also able to break down some expectations and internal prejudices that we hold about one another as well. For Anna-Marie McLemore, the writer of queer Latinx fairy tales Wild Beauty and most recently Blanca & Roja, part of her writing process involved looking at her favorite childhood fairytales and imagining what they would look like if the characters were supportive women, rather than characters pitted against one another.
Her most recent novel, Blanca & Roja, revolves around a pair of sisters who support and protect each other, though one of them is destined to become a swan. “In the same way that gender gets oversimplified into binaries, women and girls are so often oversimplified into contrasting types,” McLemore told HelloGiggles. “This was something I had to look hard at as I wrote Blanca & Roja, both as a woman and as a queer woman of color. Blanca & Roja is a queer Latinx reimagining of Snow White & Rose Red meets Swan Lake, and both those original fairy tales put certain values on their main characters in the same way society often puts them on us.”
Both these novels (and many more) challenge how women are taught to view one another. They show us what could happen if women support one another before they compare themselves. In the era of movements for transparency, diversity, and accountability in the media we invest in, it’s good to see literature that defies the tropes we’ve so tirelessly had to work to dismantle.