Friday, 24 October 2014

Virtual FantasyCon 2014: Where are the female friendships?

Kirk and Spock, Luke and Han, Frodo and Sam – epic friendships between men are common in fantasy, but friendships between women, or platonic relationships between men and women that stay that way – are much thinner on the ground. The panellists discuss why it matters and examine some of the rare exceptions.
Roz Kaveney (m), Mhairi Simpson, Glenda Larke, Charlaine Harris, Den Patrick [with rather more interjections from Megan than usual]

You could look at this question as an extension of the Bechdel test - Frodo and Sam, Sherlock and Watson, Aragorn and Boromir... It's easy to list male pairings, so where are the female equivalents? Charlaine Harris wrote a female friendship with Souki and Tara; perhaps part of the reason is that Souki simply has more friends than most of her female protagonists. Buffy and Willow were also real people with real friendships. Comic books have lots of good female friendships - for example, Alias and the women in X-Men - and both Frozen and Brave hinged on female friendships. When Glenda Larke started writing in 1989, one of her motivations was seeing buddy films and being frustrated at the lack of their female equivalents, which she sought to rectify in her first published book, The Aware. These examples are few, however. Even when you open the question up beyond female buddies to male-female buddies, the absence persists. When you have a male protagonist, the female characters are usually pigeonholed into Prize, Evil Seductress, or Background Decor. In Den Patrick's third book, he had two female protagonists, who both have plenty of platonic relationships with other women. Another regular trope is a woman put into a relationship between two men, so the men don't have sexual chemistry - for example, in Gangs of New York. The only reverse example the panel can think of is Bend it Like Beckham, which in its first draft had the two female characters as lesbian - and then when they were straightened out, a man was popped in the middle.

This raises the question of how to maintain platonic friendships in fiction - just "getting it on with someone else instead" isn't enough. With Larke's two female characters in her first book, she controlled how they met, with no sexual chemistry, both being heterosexual, and both having very different reasons for wanting to connect. Any really close friendship, at its basis, has a similar source, says Mhairi Simpson: it's all a question of what you want to do with that person. That's where the definition of the relationship springs from. Closeness isn't necessarily sexual, but every relationship that works will have non-sexual closeness as well. In Buffy, the sexual tension between Buffy and Faith sprang from how their dynamic changed the Buffy / Willow dynamic. [I find this an immensely frustrating discussion: why is the question "How do you stop them having sex?" That's not a question that troubles us much in buddy films. And in real life, it is NOT. AN. ISSUE. In real life, women have loads of platonic friendships, some of them extremely close, without needing some Special Reason For Not Shagging Them. So why make a hooha out of this when we're talking about women, and not when we talk about about men? Is it because we're so used to seeing women as being hypersexualised, that as soon as there's two women together, we think, "Wah! They must be screwing each other then!" I don't think we should ask, "How do you keep women's platonic friendships in fiction from sliding into sex?" I think we should ask, "Why the hell would we even ask that question?"]

One aspect of being very close, especially in a sexual relationship, is pulling as a team, having the same goal. Harris feels that part of the value of friendship is the safety of knowing that it won't get sexual. That safety of friendship, its being platonic, is perhaps more telling than the Bechdel test.  Larke offers this as one possible reason for the lack of female friendships: cutting the female protagonist off from her friends in the plot ups the ante for drama - isolating the heroine is very useful for plot tension. [Again, this issue doesn't survive the gender-flip test. If isolating the protagonist is so damned essential, then the male buddy stories wouldn't work either. Why does a female protagonist need to be isolated for drama but a male one doesn't? Well, clearly she doesn't. I feel the direction of the discussion is, however inadvertently, taking the absence of female buddy stories as inevitable and trying to explain why it has to be that way - even when the male buddy stories prove it clearly doesn't. My mind is filling up with Roland Barthes's Mythologies and a bubbling frustration. It occurs to me there's another type of character that "has to be isolated for drama": children. In children's fiction, we whisk the adults out the way so they don't just swoop down and solve it all themselves.]

Simpson comments that Harry Dresden has a lot of female friends - but they're not friends with each other. Dresden seems a bit of a player, mind; we're not sure if they're friends - they do seem to be either enemies or there's some kind of sexual tension (or both). He's constantly getting seduced, the poor guy! "He might have thought the women were friends," a panellist comments, "But they knew damn well they were competition." [I conjure a desk up out of thin air so that I can head it. This is a shopworn view of women that seems to bear very little resemblance to reality and puts women squarely back in relation to men.] Kavanagh questions whether sexism creates sexual competition. Harris, meanwhile, feels she read a totally different Dresden series! Poor guy, he's constantly on the verge and denied. Humble, beumused by the attention...
"Yeah, but it happens a lot," says Simpson dryly.
Perhaps a degree of author fantasy fulfilment? suggests Harris. We all have our own models / structures of relationship experiences or wishes which we return to.
The question of women's "rivalry", says Simpson, is rather more from a male point of view than a woman's - perhaps the overrepresentation of that is simply a factor of male writers being overrepresented.
Larke flags up the pressure of being told, or thinking, "Don't clutter up the story with your own agenda!" Men get "representation of experience", we get "agenda". [I think of Hemingway and how the canon does rather fawn over representation of male experience.] 

I ask whether power dynamics might affect the representations of female friendships. Most of the male buddy examples listed are hero + sidekick, which creates a power dynamic. Women are socially and culturally accustomed to lacking a particular kind of power. There's a gendered history of being the helpmeet, the lovely wife, the behind-every-great-man, the wind beneath someone else's wings...   I wonder if that makes women less comfortable with a hero/sidekick power disparity between women? Simspson feels that female friendships tend to be predicated on mutual respect rather than the hero-sidekick male hierarchies, and offers Juliet McKenna's female friendships of mutual respect as an example. Someone else in the audience suggests it's easier to reach for familiar tropes, and takes an effort to reach further. Orphan Black is a great example of not relying on these overly familiar sexist tropes. This is that familiar catch-22, the cultural replication of what people are already reading, and seeing, creating a fictional norm that bears only a tangential connection with reality. After all, female friendships abound in real life.

Someone else asks whether the unequal power dynamic of the male hero/sidekick is easier to represent in a plot, with tension and so on, than a balanced relationship between equals. [I miss the panel's answer because there's smoke coming out of my ears. I believe not. Firstly, an agreed hero-sidekick hierarchy has less tension than if people are battling for pole position. Sidekicks aren't famous for adding plot tension. (Think Sam Gamgee.) Secondly, I think we're still hunting for "reasons" to defend as inevitable something that is really just a product of the overrepresentation and overvaluation of male experience, and the underrepresentation and dismissal as "agenda" of female experience. I realise that my own question did exactly the same thing.]

In many ways, I found this a frustrating panel - as you can tell by the interjections - because in reality, female friendships are EVERYWHERE.  We shouldn't be asking "Why aren't there any female friendships?" but "Why aren't they being shown in fiction?" and there the answer, I think, is considerably less to do with the subtleties of craft and far, far more to do with wider systemic issues of who gets published, who gets airtime, whose experience gets taken more seriously. (I should also point out here that systemic means it's embedded in the system: this isn't nasty men ganging up to oppress women; it's a system that, like all systems, seeks to replicate itself, and everyone takes men more seriously. But no system is absolute or homogenous, and it is changing. Vive la change.) As Kari Spelling pointed out on the panel on economy and worldbuilding, "Usually, in the real world, the 'evil' is created by the system." We look for explanations at a close-up level when actually we need to step right back and consider the whole. But even when we try to do that, the system's familiar ways of thinking pervade our thought, and we still end up talking about women primarily as sexual, primarily in relation to men, inevitably occupying whatever position society happens to have squeezed them into this century / decade, inevitably and eternally performing whatever behaviours the power dynamics of that society require of them to survive, and so the the myth persists, eternalised: there it is, essential; well-fed, sleek, expansive, garrulous, it invents itself ceaselessly.

Read more of the Virtual FantasyCon (with less of me getting steam-eared) and have a flick through last year's excellent World Fantasy Con.

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