The Friendship that Dares Not Speak its Name: Female Friendship in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Xena Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless Angry

“Is anyone here going to be my friend? Anyone? I have a shiny sword!”

[Content note: This is another one of my giant tl;dr posts of doom. Be forewarned before you venture into the abyss]

I’ve decided that I don’t want to be a Sci-Fi/Fantasy hero. Sure, the armor/spacesuits/dresses would be cool. And I’d like to fight a glorious battle. Or meet an alien. Or turn into a dragon. Or turn into a dragon while I meet an alien and wear a cool spacesuit dress.

But.

I’ve been noticing something weird about SF/F heroes. Specifically the female ones.

They don’t have a lot of friendships with other women.

Hell, there are some SF/F movies/books/etc. where the women barely speak to each other at all.

Is it just me, or does it sometimes feel like all those heroines have been cursed by a horrific spell? A spell that prevents them from making friends with other women without dying instantaneously?

Or do they just all have allergies to other women?

Because something’s going on. And I’d like to know what.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy has quite a few iconic male friendships – you’d be hard-pressed to find a book, tv series or movie that didn’t have a prominent friendship between two men.

Frodo and Sam. Spock and Kirk. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. Ender Wiggin and Bean. Hugo and Charlie on Lost. Saul Tigh and Bill Adama in Battlestar Galactica. Magneto and Professor Xavier.

But iconic female friendships?

I can’t think of many.

And lest you ask, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. When I first got the idea for this post, I went through my reading lists for the past three years. I scoured the web. I look through my bookshelves. I looked through my brother’s bookshelves. I lurked around Amazon.com for three hours.

After a good week of research, I concluded that not only were there very few Sci-Fi/Fantasy narratives where female friendships featured prominently, there were very few Sci-Fi/Fantasy narratives where female friendships featured at all.

Black Widow Scarlett Johansson

” Look, it’s not that I don’t want to be friends with women, it’s just that for some reason, I’m never allowed to talk to them onscreen.”

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that women are still underrepresented as characters in Sci-Fi/Fantasy. We’re still stuck in the “lone woman” or “exceptional woman” phase of gender equality. Consider all the movies/books/comic books etc. where there is exactly one major female character. Black Widow in The Avengers.* Trinity in The Matrix. Wonder Woman in the early years of The Justice League. Petra in Ender’s Game. Molly Million in Neuromancer. Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings. 

[*Emphasis on major. I liked Maria Hill and Pepper Potts as much as anyone else, but they weren't on the same level of importance to the narrative as Thor, or Black Widow, or even Nick Fury]

Hell, Mulan in Mulan, while we’re at it. Even feminist narratives often have “lone women,” because so many of them tell stories of the first woman to join the army/become a knight/become a scientist/fly to the moon/play professional foozball. And, don’t get me wrong, stories about how women overcome the odds to join male-dominated professions are important.

But what about the stories after that one? What about the one where there are finally two female superheroes? What about the one where the science lab has a 50-50% gender distribution? What about the one where the army has an entire squadron of female knights?

Where are the stories about women mentoring other women? Where are the stories of women who have been best friends since childhood? Where are the stories where two wacky women are thrown together on an intergalactic adventure? Where’s my female Sherlock Holmes and Watson duo?

Where are my stories of epic sromances (rather than bromances) where the (female) hero would cut through entire armies to save their (female) friend?

[By the way, I fully purloined the term "sromance" from a blog post written by the fabulous Karen Healey]

Mulan Sword reflection

“Touch my BFF, and I will cut you.”

Those stories are a lot rarer.

We’re not that interested, it seems to me, in telling stories where there are many women, not just one. We’re not that interested in portraying worlds where women are the norm rather than the exception. We’re still stuck on the “lone women” phase of gender equality.

We’re not that interested in portraying relationships between women. We’re still stuck on how women relate to men.

***

Even when there are multiple women in an SF/F narrative [HALLELUJAH], they rarely ever meet. Or speak. Or have any kind of relationship. Maria Hill and Black Widow in The Avengers? Never say one word to each other. Eowyn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings? They’re in love with the same man, they’re fighting the same enemy… they never speak. In the Game of Thrones series, there are several important female characters, but they’re rarely in a room together. And if they are, they’re not friends. They’re enemies.

You would think women in Sci-Fi/Fantasy narratives would have something to say to one another. Even if it’s along the lines of:

“So, what’s it like to be the only woman in a group of superheroes?”
“Oh, you know. It’s not bad. Reminds me of that time I was stuck in an airport in France…”

Or:

“Hey, you know where I can get some tampons in the middle of this god-forsaken wilderness?”

Or just a plain, normal, non-gendered conversation like:

“Wow, we’re about to get eaten by a dragon.”
“That’s a problem.”
“We should run.”
“I agree. RUN!”

But no, apparently not. Apparently women just can’t talk to each other in SF/F.

It’s very bizarre. Because – and I hope SF/F authors and scriptwriters know this – there are a lot of women in the world.

It is practically impossible for a woman to go through her life without having a conversation with another woman. It is practically impossible for a woman to go through a single day without talking to another woman. Women are everywhere. Heck, I’ve even  heard they make up 50% of the earth’s population.

Given these parameters, it makes absolutely no sense that the majority of female SF/F characters almost never talk to women. The only way they could pull it off is if they were actively avoiding talking to other women.

This is why I suspect that female heroes of SF/F are all under some terrible curse that prevents them from speaking to other women. It’s the only logical explanation.

[[It's either that, or most authors are doing a terrible job of representing women's reality... and since authors have never historically struggle with representing female experiences, I think we can safely rule this explanation out. Right?]]

So. There’s a curse.

And if there is, I must be honest with you: I don’t think I want to be an SF/F hero anymore.

Because I wouldn’t want to live a life without female friends.

It would be horrible. Are you kidding me?

For one thing, how the hell am I supposed to go into battle and save the world without my female friends by my side?

Don’t get me wrong. I have friends who are guys. I would not want to give up those friendships either; some of my best friends are men. But women are friends with men in SF/F narratives, so that’s not really an issue.

[I feel like all my guy friends who read this are going to go: "You don't love me? " and run away. So, pre-emptively: "NOOOO, guy friends! I do love you! Don't leave me!"]

But frankly, most of my closest, most important friendships have been with other women.

The friends who know my deep, dark secrets? Mostly women. The friends who know that I spent a year of my life breaking into my house through a window instead of telling my parents I’d lost the keys? Mostly women. The friends who have survived my propensity for seven hour walks? Mostly women. The friends who put up with my social anxiety, my inability to answer emails and phone calls? Mostly women. The friends who tortured me with high-school drama? Mostly women. The friends who listen to me rant about stuff they’re completely uninterested in? Mostly women.

The friend I have epic conversations with when we pull simultaneous all-nighters? A woman. The friend who talked me through my academic insecurities? A woman. The friend who rearranged my work schedule when she realized I was exhausted – even though it meant she was picking up extra hours? A woman. The friend I went camping for (I hate camping)? A woman. The friend I went running for (I hate running)? A woman. The friend I stopped writing a paper for so that I could help her find her cat? A woman. The friend who turned me into a compulsive biker? A woman.

If I were an SF/F heroine, I would want these women on my team. I’m just saying.

That’s, I think, why the lack of female friendships in SF/F is so striking to me. When I look at the friends I would walk through fire for, the friends I would fight armies for, the friends who I cannot imagine life without – most of those friends are women. And when I look around me at women I know, I see that yes, in fact, these women too, have friends who are female.

Women are friends with women. Imagine that.

Female friendships aren’t an urban legend. They aren’t a statistical anomaly. They’re not all hiding in the forests like werewolves. Unless the nine places I’ve lived in my life have been exceptions to the norm, female friends are a fairly common phenomenon.

Elizabeth Swann Pirates of the Caribbean Keira Knightley

“Where the frack are all the other women in this blasted movie? Did they get eaten by the Kraken?

So just for the sake of realism, there should be a few more female friendships in SF/F.

Not to mention the fact that female friendships are interesting.
They’re fun. Exciting. Dramatic. Low-key. Tense. Anguished. Tortured. Competitive. Sweet. Bizarre. Twisted. Cool. Captivating. Multifaceted.

If you’re not writing about female friendships because you think they’re boring? You’re not too clever. And if you’re not reading books with female friendships because you think they’re boring? You’re missing out.

Isn’t it sad that we can imagine faster -than-light-travel, fire-breathing dragons and cyborgs, but we can’t imagine two women talking to each other?

Is there really a curse? A curse that says: two women can’t be friends in SF/F? Two women can’t speak in SF/F? Women can only relate to men, and to no one else?

Well, if there is, I’m sick of it. I want to see as many awesome female friendships in SF/F as there are awesome male friendships.

I’m breaking out the curse-breaking equipment, people. I’m compiling a list. A list of SF/F narratives that do have awesome female friendships.

Because it’s time to end the darn curse.

Here, in no particular order, are nine SF/F narratives with prominent female friendships. Seven books; one TV show; one Comic Book series.

I know these are not the only SF/F narratives with prominent female friendships. I have not read everything. I have not seen everything. Heck, I haven’t even ever seen Star Trek (I’m working on it!). So this list is not meant to be comprehensive. I’m sure I’m missing things – and I’d love to hear suggestions!

Curse-breakers, unite!

[And now I feel like I'm either in Pirates of the Caribbean or a Tomb Raider movie. For the record: if this curse-breaking turns into an epic quest where we all become living skeletons and have to pour the blood of Orlando Bloom on a giant pile of gold to end the terrible curse... my apologies]

****

1. Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce

Trickster's Queen cover Tamora Pierce

This was a tough one, because Tamora Pierce always does a fantastic job with female friendships. Keladry and Lalasa. Keladry, Yuki and Shinko. Alanna, Thayet and Buri. Alanna and Daine. Sandry, Tris and Daja. Beka Cooper and Clara Goodwin.

Pierce’s female friendships are all the more impressive because most of Tamora Pierce’s protagonists are women entering male-dominated professions. Two of her series (Song of the Lioness and The Protector of the Small) follow the journeys of the first women to train for Knighthood. Yet even though Alanna and Kel are surrounded by men (and make friends with men) they managed to be friends with women too. Female friendships are the norm in Pierce’s writing, not the exception.

The Trickster duology, however, probably has more friendships between women than any of Pierce’s other series.

After being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Copper Isles, Aly discovers that the Raka natives are finally ready to throw their luarin overlords. And they need a spymaster. Aly, through bad luck, trickery and manipulation, gets herself that job.

The Raka rebellion aims to put a Queen, not a King, on the throne of the Isles. It’s quite a gender-equal revolution: women and men both act as warrior, spies, mages and leaders. Not surprisingly, Aly cultivates quite a few important friendships and alliances with other women, from her cautious loyalty to Duchess Winnamine (the stepmother to the potential heiress), her easy camaraderie with Chenaol (Aly’s first friend in the Copper Isles and the rebellion’s weaponmaster), her wary “please-don’t-hit-me” friendships with Ochubo (head of the Raka mage network) and Junai (her bodyguard) and her long-distance friendship with Daine.

Aly’s most important friendship, however, is with Dovesary Balitang, a clever and wise thirteen-year-old half-Raka noblewoman. The rebels believe Dove’s older sister, Sarai, is the prophesied twice-royal Queen. Aly’s relationship with Dove is arguably the most important relationship in the book, full stop – the two women’s admiration, wariness and respect for one another is fascinating to watch. And their evolving friendship becomes integral to the rebellion’s success.

It’s a genuine sromance. And it always makes me tear up.

“I don’t need a maid,” Dove said. “I need a friend.” [...]
“I will be your friend till the end of time,” Aly told the younger girl.

2. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens Libba Bray Cover

Friends don’t let friends wear Maybelline

Picture this: a plane full of teen beauty queens crash-lands on a desert island. They must survive. They must practice their pageant walks for the Miss Teen Dream pageant. They must keep exfoliating. And they must foil the plans of an evil organization of evil people hidden in a giant evil volcano at the center of the island. [ Yes, this is speculative fiction. It's a dystopia. Don't argue with me]

And there are explosions.

I know you just ran away from the computer screaming “WHY HAVEN’T I READ THIS YET?” I know. I feel your pain.

This novel is a high-wire act. It would have been so easy for Bray to spend the story making fun of the teen pageant queens and their silliness. But no. Beauty Queens is a satire, yes, but not of the teen girls themselves. It’s a satire of everything in our society that constrains them, that dis-empowers them, that puts them in competition with one another, that forces them to conform to silly gender norms.

Instead of being a “let’s make fun of the silly girls who parade around in swimsuits and sashes,” book, Beauty Queens is about how all these women – the dumb ones, the blonde ones, the silly ones, the mean ones, the women-hating ones, the ones with trays stuck in their head, the ones who love lipstick and the ones who love swordfighting – are actually awesome. It’s a book that’s incredibly supportive of girls and their friendships and their culture. It’s a book that’s also incredibly good at portraying a diversity of female experiences – we have, among others, a transwoman, several women of color, a lesbian character, a deaf girl, a die-hard beauty Queen and a girl who hates beauty pageant (among others). And it’s a book that manages to be critical of oppressive gender norms all while being fantastically optimistic about the potential for making those gender norms explode (and the potential to live fulfilling lives in spite of them).

As the book goes on, the teen beauty queens stop being wary acquaintances playing their prescribed pageant roles and learn to respect and like one another as real people. These developing friendships allow the teen beauty queens to unravel the secrets of the island – and the secrets of their own identity. They discover who they are outside their beauty queens personas. And then they blow things up.

Empowerment and blowing things up.

You want to read this. Trust me.

Mary Lou: “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.”

3. Power and Majesty by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Tansy Rayner Roberts Power and Majesty

In Power and Majesty, the first book of the Creature Court trilogy, Velody, a dressmaker, discovers that she is the potential new King of the Creature Court, a group of magicians who defend the city of Aufleur during the night. The Courtiers are almost all men; the King has always been a man. Should she become King, Velody would be the first woman to ascend to the throne.

Power and Majesty is one of the rare books where a woman enters a male-dominated profession yet still manages to maintain her old female friendships. She beats the curse! Whoo!

Velody lives with her two best friends: Rhian, a former rich girl whose family disowned her for going into business, and Delphine, a florist recovering from an old trauma. Rhian and Delphine are as important in Velody’s journey as the beautifully dangerous men of the Creature Court.

Rayner Roberts’ portrayal of Velody, Rhian and Delphine’s love and loyalty for one another is beautiful, smart and insightful.When Velody enters the Creature Court, her first priority is protecting her friends. She battles other Courtiers to keep them from hurting Rhian and Delphine.  When Rhian and Delphine discover that Velody’s the (potential) new King, their first priority is protecting her. They enter into the dark world of the night to support their friend (as best friends do).  They enter into the world of the Creature Court, I should add, almost completely defenseless, since Rhian and Delphine, unlike Velody, have no magic. But they want to protect their friend, and they find ways to do it. Because that’s what you do for your best friends. You go into the night and you fight the bad guys and you find ways to protect them. No matter what.

And it proves that yes, stories about women entering male-dominated fields are not incompatible with stories about powerful female relationships. It’s sad that more writers haven’t realized this.

I haven’t read the next two books in The Creature Court trilogy because they are only available in North America via kindle, and my kindle is down for the count (if anyone knows where I lost my power cord, please tell me!) But reviews assure me that the Rhian/Velody/Delphine relationship remains a huge part of the series. I can’t wait.

“From that day forwards, Delphine pretended she had intended to take the ribboning apprenticeship all along, and neither Velody nor Rhian every challenged her on it.
That was what friends did.

4. Air by Geoff Ryman

Air Geoff Ryman cover

I’ve talked about Air before, in my “Eight Great Books of Science Fiction for Women” post. Possibly because I love it madly.

Chung Mae lives in Kizuldah, a small village in the fictional country of Karzistan. One day, the authorities conduct a world-test of a new technology called Air. Air is like the internet – in your head. The villagers, who don’t own computers or television, are thrown into a panic by this test. One person dies.

Chung Mae, who is nothing if not resourceful, realizes that the village needs to adapt quickly if the villagers are going to survive the full implementation of Air. She launches a large-scale campaign of preparation. And the people she recruits for her campaign?
Other women.

The women are the engines of change in Kizuldah; it is through their relationships, their ambition and their pragmatism that the town survives. Chung Mae and her friend Wing Kwan, for example, use the television to set up a fashion business selling traditional clothes to fashion houses in the USA. Chung Mae and her friends – and rivals – fight and bicker. They create alliances and friendships; they hide their activities from men; they roam out in the world; they help one another protect their families. It’s one of the most realistic portrayals of female friendship I’ve ever read. These relationships are familiar to me. The women are  real people, and their friendships ring true – intense, fulfilling, and sometimes destructive.

“Kwan looked sober. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
“Oh! You could say that ten times and it would still not be enough.”
“But we came through.”
“We came through.”
Kwan hugged her. “You can stay, you know.”
Mae touched her arm. “I really do not know what I would have done if my friend Wing Kwan had not been so kind. There would have been nowhere else for me to go.”

5.The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

delia Sherman freedom maze cover

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that three of the nine things I’m recommending are young adult novels (The Trickster series, Beauty Queens and The Freedom Maze) Young Adult SF/F tends to do a lot better in the female friendships department. Perhaps because YA has a wide female readership and authorship, and female friendships have become an established YA trope.

The Freedom Maze is a very recent read of mine, and I can’t recommend it enough. Sophie, a teenager living in 1960s Louisiana is spending a long, boring summer at Oak Cottage while her mother takes accounting classes in the city. One day, Sophie wanders into the garden maze. When she comes back out, she’s been transported to 1860 – the adventure-story-loving Sophie assumes this is the start of a grand time-travel trip.

But things go wrong very quickly: the Martineau family mistakes Sophie for a slave because of her tanned skin, and put her straight to work.

Sophie begins to form friendships with her fellow slaves – specifically with Africa, a smart, strong hoodoo practitioner who helps protect other slaves from their white owners, and with Antigua, Africa’s headstrong daughter. As she becomes closer to these two women, Sophie moves deeper into the reality of slavery. Like Kindred (another time-travel slave-narrative), The Freedom Maze pulls no punches in its depiction of slavery. Sophie’s experiences as a slave are horrific, a far cry from the “Gone with the Wind”-esque picture of happy darkies she’s been taught.Her allegiance to her old ideas of racial politics, her family (the Martineaus) – and even the time period of her birth – begin to fade away. Instead, Sophie relies on Africa and Antigua’s help to survive – and in return, helps devise a plot to save Antigua from being sold downriver to New Orleans.

The novel is very much concerned with the similarities (and disparities) of women’s experiences across races and time periods. It’s also a brilliant portrayal of the way black women’s friendships and relationships helped slaves survive, and even gain agency, under horrific conditions.

“Come with me then,” Antigua turned to her, eyes glinting in the lamplight. “Come take the boat with me, we be free together.”

6. The Female Man by Joanna Russ

The Female Man Joanna Russ

The Female Man is one of the most important SF/F works of the 20th century. It a difficult, confrontational, knotty novel that will chew up your brain and spit it back out. And it’s almost entirely centered around women’s relationships with other women.

The story follows four women on four parallel worlds. Joanna lives in a world much like ours. Jeannine lives in a world where the Great Depression never ended and Adolf Hitler died in 1936. Janet comes from Whileaway, an all-woman planet where the men died in a plague eight hundred years ago. Jael’s world, meanwhile, is a dystopia where men and women are engaged in a literal “battle of the sexes.”

Near the beginning of the novel, Janet mysteriously shows up in Jeannine’s world, then manages to drag Jeannine to Joanna’s world (our world). Eventually all three women end up on Jael’s world. The four women become friends and allies (with varying degrees of success) as they try to understand their predicament. The novel is, essentially, an incisive and moving examination of how women relate to other women. Who are these women to one another? What are their experiences of womanhood? Can they understand one another across these vast cultural differences?

Complex interpersonal relationships between four women who are essentially the same woman (they share the same genes)? Parallel worlds? Feminist utopias?
Count me in.

7. Yoko Tsuno by Roger Leloup

Yoko Tsuno On the Edge of Life Cover Roger Leloup

I almost didn’t include Yoko Tsuno -  though it includes some of the most interesting and intense female friendships I’ve encountered in Science Fiction – because it’s a french comic book series.

And I didn’t think there were any English translations.

BUT THERE ARE.

Two of Yoko’s alien adventures have been translated as “The Adventures of Yoko, Vic and Paul.” Six of her other books have English translations – The Frontier of Life, The Time Spiral, The Prey and the Ghost, Daughter of the Wind, The Dragon of Hong Kong and The Morning of the World. Most of these are out of print, but you may be able to get them at libraries or amazon (I saw some cheap copies). I don’t know if the translations are any good, so this isn’t a ringing endorsement… but I’ll try to find out.

Anyways. Back to the point. The series, which served simultaneously as my introduction to science fiction and as my introduction to comic books, follows Yoko Tsuno, an electrical engineer  who has a propensity for getting herself involved in epic adventures. It’s an action series, and a science fiction series. But it’s also a series which, at it’s core, is about friendship. Yes, Yoko has her constant traveling companions, Vic and Paul. But Vic and Paul are a background noise; they’re not central to the series. Yoko’s most important friendships are with women: of the 23 books I’ve read, 18 feature a prominent friendship between Yoko and another woman.Indeed, most of Yoko’s adventures come about because she’s trying to help a friend.

And instead she ends up in the middle of a volcanic eruption.

Yoko is deeply, fiercely, uncritically loyal to the women she becomes friends with. It does not matter if you’re a criminal, an heiress, a time-traveler, an alien, an assassin or a rogue scientist: if Yoko likes you, she’ll be friends with you. And once she is, she will walk through fire for you. Or travel to a galaxy a hundred light-years away for you. Or fight the devil for you (this is an actual plot; I am not even kidding). Or time-travel for you.

Honestly, Yoko is a bit like James Bond. Every movie, Bond has a different girl he sleeps with; every book, Yoko has a different woman she become friends with. Unlike Bond, however, Yoko stays close to these friends, who remain important characters throughout the series. Her navigation of her complex relationships with a diverse group of women is a highlight of comic books.

James Bond. Except with less sleeping around. And more awesome.

Yoko Tsuno Khany Roger Leloup

Yoko and her friend Khany, the leader of Vinea

Eva: “Careful! Do you always drive this fast?”
Yoko: “Yes – when I think I’m about to find a friend.”

8. The Orphan’s Tales by Catherynne Valente

Catherynne Valente The Orphan's Tales In the Night Garden Cover

Someday, I will stop raving about Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. But today is not this day.

Yes, on top of being a feminist retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, The Orphan’s Tales features women who talk to other women. Lots of women who talk to other women, in point of fact. There are many tales, and there are many female friendships. There are also many male friendships and many male-female friendships, all of which are rendered exquisitely by Valente’s  storytelling.

Listing the many female friendships in this series would take far, far too long. So I’ll just focus on the crew of the Maidenhead.
The Maidenhead is an all-female ship: the Captain, the navigators, the deckhands – all of them are women. All of them are also monsters – satyrs, three-breasted women, fox-women etc. They go around the world, rescuing other monstrous women and welcoming them into their ranks. They mentor one another – one of the most important friendships is the one between Tomomo, the Maidenhead’s first Captain, and Saint Sigrid, the Maidenhead’s second Captain. And they become renown the world over… before disappearing mysteriously in the deep blue sea.

Sigrid, an old woman who worships Saint Sigrid (and who used to be a bear), befriends Snow, a white-haired orphan. The two of them go on an epic quest to discover the location of the Maidenhead; they eventually get themselves swallowed by the same giant whale who swallowed the Maidenhead a few hundred years ago.

This is an epic, “fight-armies-for-you,” “get-swallowed-by-a-whale-for-you,” group of awesome, loyal, sromantic female friends. The kind I always look for in my fiction.  And it is glorious.

“Of course we’ll take you,” The Saint said. “Tommy bade us never turn away a recruit. We are a family of monsters, and the birth of new beasts is a cause for joy.”

9. Xena: Warrior Princess

Xena and Gabrielle

Don’t mess with success

I couldn’t make this list without putting Xena: Warrior Princess on it. Xena and Gabrielle are perhaps the only truly iconic female friendship in SF/F culture.* They’re our Kirk and Spock, our Frodo and Sam, our Holmes and Watson.

{when I say “iconic,” what I mean is: everyone knows about them}

And yes, I know. They’re sleeping together. We all know they’re sleeping together. It’s a truth universally acknowledged in Xena fandom that Xena and Gabrielle are a couple.

But despite all the queer subtext, the two women never have a relationship on-screen. As far as the show is concerned, they’re just very close friends. Very, very close friends. So  I think it’s safe to call them friends for the purpose of this list.

Besides, they started as friends.

Xena: Warrior Princess follows the travels of Xena and her companion, Gabrielle, as Xena tries to make up for her dark past as a warlord by saving the helpless. There are a lot of explosions. And swordfighting.

The two women are constant companions. Gabrielle is initially a naive farmgirl who joined Xena to have adventures (and avoid an arranged marriage), while Xena is… a formerly evil warlord. Many of the individual stories involve Xena saving Gabrielle (or Gabrielle saving Xena). And the major emotional arcs in the series center around Xena and Garbrielle’s friendship.

They’ve died for each other. They’ve fought armies for each other. They’ve saved – and killed – each other’s children. They’ve gone to heaven and hell together. They were crucified together. They raised a daughter (Hope) together. The show calls them “soul mates.” They’re reincarnated together.

They’ve got the most epic friendship of all times, is what I’m saying. As far as I’m concerned, Kirk and Spock, Frodo and Sam and Holmes and Watson can all go take a hike. It’s Xena and Gabrielle all the way for me.

Xena: “Gabrielle, the love that we have, it’s stronger than Heaven or Hell. It transcends good or evil. It’s an end in itself! Our souls are destined to be together.”

[Ares, upon discovering that Xena is pregnant]
Ares: “I didn’t know you were looking for a father.”
Xena: “I’m not.”
Ares: “Well then, someone clearly has the job.”
Xena: “Yeah, Gabrielle. “

Xena and Gabrielle Friends

Xena: “So… you’ll be my friend?”
Gabrielle: “Sure! I love a woman with a shiny sword.”
Xena: “HAHA, we’ve beaten the curse!”
Gabrielle: “The curse?”
Xena: “The curse that says no two women in SF/F can speak to each other without dying.”
Gabrielle: “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s a myth.”
Xena: “Uh, Gabrielle, we live in ancient Greece. One of our best friends is a Centaur. The other ones are Amazons and Gods. It’s quite mythic around here.”
Gabrielle: “Okay, so it’s not a myth. It’s an urban legend.”
Xena: “You’re an urban legend.”
Gabrielle: “Oh, ha-ha. You’re lucky I like your sword, or I’d go find a smarter friend.”

Edited To Add:

I’m keeping a running list of all the books/TV shows/whatever with prominent female friendships that I remembered AFTER writing the list. [I'm only adding things to the list that I've seen or read, just because it's the only way I can vouch for their...veracity. Doesn't mean I don't agree with other suggestions!]

1. Cold Magic and Cold Fire by Kate Elliot. How could I forget about this series? (which I love) Cat and Bee 4ever!

2. Sailor Moon. For obvious reasons.

Related Posts:

Why I Don’t Read Comic Books: A Call for Recommendations 

May Reading Roundup: Who Saw the Fantasy?

I Never Wanted to Be A Boy (A Tribute To Authors)

How the Power Rangers turned me into a Feminist


33 Comments on “The Friendship that Dares Not Speak its Name: Female Friendship in Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

  1. I would add Maggie and Carole from Elizabeth Scarborough’s Song of Sorcery & The Unicorn Creed, the eponymous pair from E. Hoffmann Price’s The Devil Wives of Li Fong, Kate and Cecelia from Patricia Wrede and Carol Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecilia, Sera and Elsie from Teresa Edgerton’s Goblin Moon & The Gnome’s Engine, and of course Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg from Terry Pratchett’s many “witches” books starring that pair.

  2. worldweaverweb says:

    “Where are my stories of epic sromances (rather than bromances) where the (female) hero would cut through entire armies to save their (female) friend?”

    Might I suggest a little known book called “The Secrets of Jin Shei”, and the (stand-alone) follow-up to that called “Embers of Heaven”?

  3. You could make an argument for Janeway and Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager. Seven, who was assimilated by the Borg as a child and grew up in their hive mind, enters the series with no understanding of what it means to be human, and slowly over the next four years Janeway shows her. You could make an argument that it’s the deepest, most thematically important relationship in the Star Trek universe.

    • C.D. says:

      I’ve never seen any of the Star Trek’s (except the recent reboot) (I know. Someone should rip my “Sci-Fi Fan” badge into shreds), so I can’t comment on the nature of Janeqay and Seven’s friendship, but it sounds quite interesting. Particularly since I had a much harder time thinking of female friendships in Science Fiction than I did in Fantasy. So yes, maybe I should try watching Star Trek: Voyager.

  4. Lyssabits says:

    No Farscape? I’ll grant you that the Aeryn/John romance and the John/D ‘Argo bronance are more prominently figured, but I don’t think that Aeryn’s friendship with Zahn should be discounted. Zahn’s pretty important in Aeryn’s evolution from Peacekeeper to person. And there’s Chiana and Sikozu and Jewel and the old lady whose name I never remember who all take turns being on Moya. ;)

    • C.D. says:

      In my defense, I’ve never seen Farscape, so I… actually have no idea who Aeryn and Zahn are! It was certainly not a voluntary exclusion. But now, of course, I’m interested… I’ll have to add it to my ever-growing list of TV shows.

  5. [...] The Friendship that Dares Not Speak its Name: Female Friendship in Science Fiction and Fantasy. (culturallydisoriented.wordpress.com) [...]

  6. scrivener212 says:

    Terry Pratchett’s MONSTROUS REGIMENT, which is subversive on I don’t know how many levels, and starts with a young woman disguising herself as a man to join the army to find out what happened to her brother, who joined the same army and has gone missing in this apparently endless war. I can’t tell you why the novel is rife with female friends, but it is.

    Pratchett also scores well on this front with the Tiffany Aching YA series, where Tiffany makes friends with her fellow witching students. We also get to see the friendships of the senior, much older, witches in the background.

    Thank you so much for the mention of my books! I grew up in the Eowyn time, and it’s always been really important to me that my heroes have female friends–I don’t think I would last without mine. I also think our female friends draw stuff out of us that our male friends don’t necessary bring out.

    I just finished Nnedi Okorafor’s WHO FEARS DEATH, where the central character is friends with the other three girls who were circumcised at the same time she was. It wasn’t necessarily the basis *I* would have chosen for a lifetime of friendship, but it worked for these four African girls!

    At the risk of tooting my own horn, when my SpouseCreature and I got our hands on writing White Tiger as a woman for 6 episodes, we gave her a female friend–Black Widow, who was very much present in the DareDevil universe then. They even had a girl’s afternoon out, which for then involved shopping for a superhero costume, then going to a bar for shots, snacks, and stories. Fun!

  7. Shauna says:

    Mercedes Lackey’s books tend to be littered with female friendships: Tarma and Kethry (Oathbound/Oathbreakers/Oathblood), Talia and Elspeth and Talia and the Queen and Talia and Keren and others (Arrows’ trilogy and elsewhere), Keren, Ylsa, and Sharon, although they’re side characters, –there are a lot just in the Valdemar books alone, and that’s not even going into any of her other worlds.

  8. TheDeviantE says:

    Some more for fantasy lovin’ peeps:

    Except the Queen by Jane Yolen is centered around 2 fairy sisters who are banished from Faerie by the Queen of fairies and their friendship with each other, and various other female characters. I really really liked that when they are banished their youthful looks and “beauty” are taken away and both of them spend the rest of the book navigating what it is like to be an old woman with bone pain and fat and wrinkles and less than “perfection.” It’s also a YA book

    The Kate Daniels series by Illona Andrews (a wife/husband writing team). Kate Daniels is a total baddass warrior/magic user who becomes friends with Andrea, a knight with the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid (who are generally not actually all that merciful). I won’t give spoilers, but their relationship as friends deepens throughout the series and Andrea is a fun character.

    Lastly, the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire has a number of female friendships. October is a changeling who can’t quite fit in with humans and can’t quite fit in with other fey. The first book is set off because of October’s relationship with a murdered (female) friend Countess Evening Winterrose. In the series there’s also a friendship/mentorship with Lily (an undine), the the Duchess of Shadowed Hills (and that relationship has a whole lot of twists and turns throughout the series), April O’Leary (a computer network-bound Dryad), her fetch May Daye (a character who is sent as a walking, breathing portent of her death), the Luidaeg (a First-Born Faerie who is called the Sea Witch and is basically thought of as one of the most dangerous of all fey), even Marcia a mostly human changeling starts to have a real relationship with October through the series.

    • C.D. says:

      I’m devouring the October Daye series (I’m on book three), and I find Toby’s relationship with the Luidaeg fascinating. Now that I think of it, Book three is really chock-full of female-female relationships. Does this mean May Daye is sticking around as a character? Ooooo, that’s interesting…

  9. Myriad says:

    DAMN YOU C.D. MY BOOK LIST IS LONG ENOUGH ALREADY *frantic scribbling*

    Anywho. I would say both Charmed and Buffy have examples of strong female friendships (okay, on Charmed they’re sisters, but still). I guess fantasy is ahead of SF in this area, at least as far as mainstream media is concerned? I can think of minor examples from lots of shows, but none that I would really put on the same level.

    Also, I want you to know that you are seriously messing with my novel-writing. Which is a good thing, but sheesh. Can’t a girl finish a monkey draft in peace? ;)

    • C.D. says:

      I basically started blogging in order to get revenge on all the OTHER bloggers who had turned my book list into a twelve-document, two-hundred page monstrosity. I’ll admit that that was a terrible plan, but there you are.
      I agree that fantasy is ahead of SF here (at least from personal experience). I could have easily made a ten-book list with only fantasy novels; I had a really hard time thinking of ANY SF novels that fit the bill.
      And I’m sorry about your draft! BOOO, me. BOOO.

  10. Podkayne says:

    I literally just finished reading “Air” and I have been raving about it in my own head the whole time and since. An older woman protagonist! Who is friends with some women and doesn’t get along with others! And there are reasons for these things! Like it’s a part of life and no big deal! The greater world of the novel is great, the ideas it discusses are fascinating, and I wish a book like this could get better mainstream circulation.
    And I worshipped Yoko Tsuno as a kid. It’s weird to find out there are English translations, I might pick them up for friends.

    I might recommend the Weetzie Bat books, by Francesca Lia Block? The first book doesn’t have many female characters, but all the characters are their own people, and these are people who love each other.

    • C.D. says:

      Aha! I’m not the only person who has read Yoko Tsuno! (not that I thought I was, but growing up in the USA it’s hard to find other Yoko Tsuno readers). I also find it weird that there are english translations… in a good way? I’m not used to the french-language books I read being available in english.

      Air is absolutely fantastic; I love it with a great passion and I wish more people were reading it. It’s such a wonderful example of what SF is capable of as a genre. And I actually met Geoff Ryman last year… before I was aware of him as an author. I’m now really glad I hadn’t read Air at that point – I probably would have started babbling like a dolt when I realized who he was. It would not have ended well.

      Have you read anything else by Ryman? If you haven’t, I highly recommend The Child Garden. Female relationships are central to that novel as well; although in this case, the relationship is romantic.

  11. Lacey says:

    Came to add Mercedes Lackey’s Oath series, but I see someone’s beat me to that :P So instead I’d add Lois McMaster Bujold – Cordelia and Dru, Dru and Princess Kareen, Cordelia and Alys in Cordelia’s Honor; Elena, Elli and Taura in all the Mercenary books (odd friendships because they’re all interested in the same guy, and a lot of their talking goes on off-screen because of the spastic little MALE main character dragging everyone around.) – and most importantly Ekatarin, Kareen and Martya in A Civil Campaign – Ekatarin was never permitted female friends while her husband was alive, and is slowly coming out of the trauma of her marriage with him, so she’s LONGING to be friends with girls again :)

    • C.D. says:

      I actually thought of putting the Cordelia’s Honor omnibus on the list, but even though I love Cordelia and Drou, I felt they weren’t as central a friendship as some of the other ones… but it was somewhat of a coin toss decision! I’m making my way through the Vorkosigan saga, and I haven’t gotten to see Elena, Elli and Taura’s frienships (or Ekatarin, kareen and Martya), but I’m really pleased to know that there are some interesting friendships on the horizon (I just finished Ethan of Athos, so I’ve a ways to go).

  12. Lacey says:

    And I just remembered Inara and Kaylee in Firefly!! However, there are four women in that show, but for the life of me I can’t remember a conversation between Zoe and any other woman or River and any other woman that could even remotely hint at friendship…. but Inara and Kaylee were pretty tight!

    • C.D. says:

      Inara and Kaylee are fantastic! Whedon always seems to do a good job of highlighting female friendships (Avengers is a notable exception).
      Plus, as I recall, Kaylee and River are actually good friends; we see them playing together and talking together quite a bit. Kaylee’s one of the few people who isn’t afraid of River. Inara also has at least one conversation (that I can recall) with Zoe – but yes, most of Zoe’s relationships are with men.

  13. Fairly new author Amanda Downum has several in her second book, “The Bone Palace.” Her main character, the necromancer Isyllt, is good friends with police inspector Khelséa, and develops a somewhat uneasy friendship with the Crown Prince’s mistress, Savedra; Savedra, in turn, is friends with the Prince’s foreign wife Ashlin (actually, the two of them get along better than the Prince does with his wife, hardly surprising with a marriage more political than passionate).

    Savedra is also one of the best depictions of a transgendered woman in fantasy that I’ve found.

    Her first and third books have fewer friendships between women, though.

    • C.D. says:

      I’ve been meaning to read “The Bone Palace” since it was on the Tiptree Award shortlist a few years ago. I should really check it out; I’ve only read one book with a good depiction of a transgendered woman (Beauty Queens). Sadly, we’re still sorely lacking in trans characters in speculative fiction (unless I’m terribly misguided, in which case… sorry!)

  14. de Pizan says:

    You’re right about YA books seeming to be better at female friendships, most of the ones I can think of are also YA:
    Jessica Day George’s Dragon Adventures series; as well as her Princess of the Midnight ball series.
    Books of Bayern series by Shannon Hale
    Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri Tepper
    College of Magics series by Caroline Stevermer
    Plain Kate by Erin Bow
    Killer Unicorn series by Diana Peterfreund
    Green Grass Running Water by Thomas King
    Sevenwaters series by Juliet Marillier

    • C.D. says:

      I also think fantasy does a better job at female friendships in general – most of the recommendations in the comments are from fantasy books, and most of the ones I could think of were fantasy. I don’t know if it’s because more women write YA and Fantasy, or if it’s because more women read YA and Fantasy, or if it’s something else entirely…
      And I absolutely love A College of Magics. And Green Grass, Running Water – I wrote a giant paper for my Canadian Literature class on it. Whoo!
      Also, I really need to read Peterfreund’s Killer Unicorn series.

  15. Bellatrix O. says:

    I also second Granny Watherwax and Nanny Ogg and Inaara and Kaylee.

    But how about Buffy and Willow. The scene in season 4 when Willow comes out to Buffy is a moving acknowledgement of their deep friendship. Buffy saves Willow a lot in the first few season and then SPOLIER Willow brings her back from the dead and does powerful magiks to unleash the full power of the Slayer in to ever potential slayer, empowering them all with shining magik, goddess strength!

    The Mists of Avalon is a wonderful story of the women in Camelots court, with amazing detail of how women’s relationships work. The main character is Morgan le Fay and her friendships with women are highly varied and full of magic, and the fight against xian totalitarianism.

    And although I am not a huge fan of the show, Bo and Kenzi of Lost Girl are def BFFs, they save each others life almost every week.

    Hand of Isis by Jo Graham is also sromance of pharaonic proportions.

    And I can think of one set of women for A Song of Fire and Ice, the Sand Snakes and Princess Arriane are fiercely loyal to each other causes, both emotionally and politically. though I readily admit they are currently minor characters and crave more development. The other female friendships In the series have a lot power and classisms tied into them. one could argue that Daenarys is “friends” with her three female hand aids, but for all intents and purposes she owns them. Cersei’s relationship with Lady Taena is confusing not only beacuse of Taenas ambition, and Cersei’s knack for manipulation but because of their sexual encounters together.

  16. I didn’t see it mentioned above (apologies if I missed it) but what about John Varley’s Gaea trilogy? Cirocco Jones and Gaby Plauget are two central characters, both women, both very strong personalities, both friends.

    • C.D. says:

      I don’t think it’s been mentioned before, actually. And I don’t even think I’ve ever heard of the Gaea trilogy – shows what I know! Thanks for enlightening me!

  17. Alex says:

    Obviously very late to the party here – I’ve just discovered your blog! – and, since you already know about Tansy RR’s novel, have you read her blog? I mention it because she’s doing a series of posts about re-watching Xena, and one of the things she’s focussing on is the female relationships. All the posts are over here: http://tansyrr.com/tansywp/tag/xena/
    (Also zomg The Female Man… way to blow one’s mind!)
    (Also also, the relationship between Major Samantha Carter and Dr Janet Frasier becomes a really vital one in Stargate SG-1… since someone already mentioned Farscape :) )

  18. sarah says:

    legend of the seeker has kahlan and cara pretty good show

  19. […] …Janeway and Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager. Seven, who was assimilated by the Borg as a child and grew up in their hive mind, enters the series with no understanding of what it means to be human, and… …read more […]


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