Girl Friendships in YA

Many years ago in university I took a course called Gender & Friendship in Literature, discussing the portrayals of different kinds of friendships in literature. We read books such as Little Women, Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men, and I found it extremely enlightening. We discussed the imbalance of power in friendships at length, and how it seemed rare that two people of the same gender on exactly equal footing could maintain a legitimate friendship. Recently, after reading several different YA novels that centered on friendships, it made me start reconsidering the question of how friendships are portrayed in YA.

In Teresa Toten’s gripping new thriller Beware that Girl,Beware that Girl, Kate, a girl on the “have-not” side of things befriends “it girl” Olivia with the intention of using her to climb the social ladder at their swanky private school, and earn a spot at Yale. Her tactic is to pick wealthy, damaged girls who are vulnerable to Kate’s manipulations, and will give her what she needs. Olivia seems to be that kind of girl. Recently having returned to school after a rumoured breakdown, she quickly takes to Kate, and starts to consider her a sister. That is until the handsome Mark Redkin joins the faculty, and threatens their relationship.

Olivia and Kate’s friendship (if you can really call it that) was formed on a complete imbalance of power. Olivia is fine with being friends with Kate because she feels like she has all of the cards. She is prettier, wealthier and more popular, and likes being owed. Kate has the street smarts, is an expert liar, and needs to be in control at all times. If they didn’t each think they were getting something from the other one, the two wouldn’t ever be friends.

With MaliceWith Malice, the story begins with 18-year-old Jill waking up in the hospital after a devastating car crash to discover that not only can’t she remember the last 6 weeks, but that her best friend Simone was killed in the crash, and the media and the police seem to believe it was murder. Jill is certain that she couldn’t possibly have killed her. Simone was practically her sister. But-as Jill regains fragments of memory, and other details are filled in through text messages, Facebook Posts and interviews, neither Jill nor the reader can be sure of exactly what happened.

Jill and Simone’s friendship is also based on their being an imbalance of power between them. Jill is described as the quiet, studious and somewhat geeky girl, while Simone is a bubbly popular cheerleader. The girls were always together, but several of their classmates perceived Jill as the tag-along, hanger-on who was jealous of Simone. Simone it turns out isn’t quite so innocent. If Simone wanted something, she took it, and she lies and manipulates until she gets what she wants. Her looks and her popular cheerleader status allow her to get away with it, and that’s why suspicion naturally falls to Jill. If Jill wasn’t the weaker one in the friendship and they were on more equal footing, they could never have been friends.

The third book How it EndsHow it ends isn’t a mystery or a thriller. It’s a portrayal of a high school friendship from its beginning to its end and the stuff in between. Jessie and Annie become friends at first sight in their Sophomore year of high school. Jessie admires Annie’s confidence and beauty, while Annie is envious of Jessie’s close-knit family and good grades. They are the best of friends until suddenly they’re not.

Jessie suffers from anxiety as a result of being severely bullied the year before. She’s shy, withdrawn, and insecure, and is afraid to trust Annie’s friendship. Annie’s miserable at home with her new Step Mom and Step Sister and a dad whose never around, and she enjoys feeling like part of a family. Trouble starts when Annie befriends the girls who bullied Jessie the year before. Annie thinks Jessie is being clingy and ridiculous and doesn’t want to exclusively hang around her. Both girls make mistakes that impact their friendship, but as with the other two books, they are not simply two similar girls who become and stay friends. There is always a slight imbalance between them, and there’s no sense that if everything was simply going well for both of them that they could or would be friends.

So are any of these friendships real? Experts in Girl psychology would suggest that they are not, and that in real friendships, girls are equal. They respect each other, nobody is the boss, and they don’t do things to purposely hurt one another. That should be how it is, but when I started considering the way that girl friendships are portrayed in the majority of YA, other than Truthwitch, which is lauded for it’s strong girl friendships, I had difficulty coming up with a list where this is the case.

4 Responses to Girl Friendships in YA

  1. Valerie Jul 13 2016 at 6:46 am #

    By the sound of the summaries these friendships would put you off the notion entirely! I don’t read much real-world, no-magic YA, but I’ve seen a few great female friendships in the YA books I do read. Cindy Pon’s “Serpentine” is focused on a female friendship, and Sarah Rees Brennan’s “The Lynburn Legacy” has a great main (also female) friendship. “Uprooted” by Naomi Novik also has a heavily featured female friendship, and didn’t flinch from discussing the tension within the relationship. I wonder if real-world girls in YA have it harder? It seems strange that there would be a dearth of good female friendship in a genre so widely read by girls.

  2. Jage Jul 13 2016 at 10:24 am #

    Kate Elliot’s Spirit Walker Trilogy has a strong female friendship running throughout the series if I remember correctly (not sure if this would count as YA, but I was in my late teens when I read it), Meg Cabot had fairly positive female relatiosnips in the Mediator and 1-800 series, I believe Princess Diaries also showed a strong female friendship. Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow also has a strong friendship dynamic running through it.

    If you want to go all the way back the Babysitter’s Club and Sleepover Friends showed the interactions between different friends.

    LM Montgomery also had quite a few stories where female friendships were the core of the main character’s and who they grew to be.

    I think this might be a case of the sample group as well since the very basis of the stories seem to be conflict between the characters versus them being friends just to be friends.

  3. Katie Jul 13 2016 at 10:28 am #

    Huh, this is a really good point. I hadn’t thought about this much until Susan’s Truthwitch came out and she talked about how important it was to her to display a strong female friendship.

    Honestly, I haven’t read much YA recently, but this got me thinking about a few children’s shows I watch that I think are getting it right. The first that came to mind is Miraculous Ladybug, whose main character is a middle school girl named Marinette. She has a wonderful, mutually supportive friendship with her best friend, Alya. The other major female friendship in the show is between two girls with a similar imbalance to what you’ve described here: the rich daughter of the mayor (Chloe) and her sycophant lackey (Sabrina). But by the end of the first season, even they are shown to be close friends who genuinely enjoy being around each other and have a strong bond, even if their friendship isn’t the healthiest.

    The other show is Steven Universe, which has a plethora of amazing female characters (who are also very diverse, which makes me so unbelievably happy). Although the show’s main character is a young boy, plenty of air time is spent examining the relationships between many of the main female characters–not only their problems and hiccups and miscommunications, but also the strength of their bonds and how their relationships grow and change over time.

    Anyways, I’ve been really glad to see these children’s shows having such great friendships. Hopefully the YA market will start to take a hint and follow suit on a broader scale.

  4. Abby Jul 15 2016 at 12:11 pm #

    I wonder if it’s hard to find positive, equal female friendships in YA because there’s so little drama in happy relationships. It’s difficult to write a compelling story when everyone’s more or less satisfied. I just finished Morgan Matson’s The Unexpected Everything, which portrayed some strong female friendships that nevertheless weathered some really tough conflicts. To me, that spoke to the reality of teen girl friendships, that they’re often shifting as each girl figures out who she is.

    And that makes me wonder if these books are just dramatizing (on an exaggerated level) the challenges of having friendships as a teenage girl. To me, it feels more honest to have friendships with this kind of power imbalance in fiction because so many of the friendships I see in real life (I teach at an all-girls school) work that way, too.

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