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,, 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 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 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.