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]

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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


Why I Don’t Read Comics (A Call for Recommendations)

[This could be more accurately titled “Why I don’t read American Superhero Comics”… but I’m lazy]

“So,” you ask. “Why don’t you read comics, C.D.? ”

Me: “Because I hate fun, that’s why. I’m a fun-hating, humorless feminist who couldn’t recognize a good piece of work if she tried. And I live a miserable, miserable, funless existence. With no fun. Did I mention I hate fun? ‘Cause I do. I hates it with every fiber of my un-fun-having existence.”

You: “…well, yes, but that’s pretty obvious. Any other reason?”

Me: “You really want to know?”

You: “I really want to know. Why don’t you read comics, C.D.? My existence will be meaningless if you do not answer this question.”

Me: *Sigh* “This is going to be a complicated one. And  rage-filled one. Are you ready for the rage?”

Hulk rage Avengers Loki

And you wouldn’t like me when I’m rage-filled

You: “Hey, I read your American Idol coverage. I can handle the rage.”

Me: “Okay… you asked for it. It’s time for some serious epic-ranty writing: I’m turning on the Daft Punk-and-Xray Dog itunes playlist.

You: “NOOOO! NOT THE DAFT PUNK AND X-RAY DOG PLAYLIST!”

Me: “TOO LATE! *maniacal laughter*

***

This post has been a long time coming. I’ve basically been planning to write it since last summer… back before I had a blog. Heck, I’m not sure I didn’t get this blog just so I could write this post. So, you know. There’s some bottled-up rage coursing through the prose. And some bottled-up fangirl SQUEE too – but mostly rage.

Part 1: My (Sordid) History with Comic Books

At some point during DC’s reboot last summer (*shudder*), I thought: “I love superheroes with the fiery passion I usually reserve for flourless chocolate cake and the writings of Tamora Pierce. So why don’t I read comic books?”

And then I thought: “Wait. I do read comic books. I’ve been reading comic books my entire life. I remember reading comic books before I remember reading actual books.”

Well, frack me. I do read comic books.

And I love them.

Madly.

The thing is, I didn’t read typical American comic books. My family is french, and I spent a good part of my childhood in France. I also had access to my mother’s massive collection of french BD (Bandes Dessinee = “drawn strips”). So I wasn’t reading Captain America and Uncanny X-Men and Wonder Woman. I was reading Tintin and Lucky Luke and Asterix.

And I was reading Roger Leloup’s Yoko Tsuno.

Yoko Tsuno is quite possibly the best thing ever. Don’t quote me on that. The heroine, Yoko, is a japanese electrical engineer who comes to France looking for work, and who ends up having a series of very science fictional adventures (in the first book, for example, she discovers that aliens are living under the surface of the earth after having escaped their dying planet).

Yoko Tsuno Les Trois Soleil de Vinea Roger Leloup Cover

[Hey, look at that semi-realistic anatomy!]

Yoko is my go-to archetype for action heroes. She practices aikido and kyodu (japanese archery); she can shoot a gun and handle any alien weaponry you give her; she flies helicopters and gliders; she rides a motorcycle, and she can fix her darn coffee machine when it breaks. Despite her many martial talents, she prefers using compassion and intelligence to solve problems. She’s fiercely loyal to her friends. She’s also prideful, egocentric, dangerously curious and puts personal honor above everything else. Which gets her into immense amounts of trouble.

I love her, and I am so annoyed there aren’t English translations, because I think other people would love her madly too.

I was also reading Sailor Moon. [A japanese manga, not a french BD] Which: say what you want about the ridiculousness of the heroes’ outfits, but that was a well-drawn, fun, intelligent manga that portrayed a group of competent women saving the world. It had awesome female friendships, it had lots of weird-ass mythology (like Usagi’s future daughter traveling back in time. Fantastic WTFrackery.), it had a male hero who in no way took away from Usagi’s agency, all the female characters were different and interesting…

[Are you noting a theme? I’m noting a theme]

WITCH Cordelia Will

As I grew older, I started reading WITCH. Sure, WITCH would not win a “realistic portrayal of anatomy” award – I, for one, would like to know where the girls store their organs when they transform – but it was another group of cool, interesting young women saving the world. With SUPERPOWERS. And awesome clothes [fashion junkie. Can’t help it]. I’ve got three giant piles of WITCH comics on the floor of my room because I’d collected so many of them that they broke the bookshelf.
I’m not even joking.

Oh, and then I discovered Les Passagers du Vent. Super-inappropriate for a ten year old to read (Rape! Sex! GRAPHICALLY PORTRAYED Sex! Really accurate depictions of torture and violence!). But also one of the best BD series of all time (yes, I am willing to go there). It takes place in the 18th century, and follows the adventures of Isa, a former noblewoman whose identity was stolen by her best friend. Isa is a bit like the count of Monte Cristo… if the Count of Monte Cristo was a bisexual, cross-dressing adventurer-turned-abolitionist. You don’t want to mess with her. She comes up with the most creative (and vicious) forms of revenge. Isa was my first introduction to the twisted, tortured action hero, and I never turned back.

Les Passagers du Vent La Fille Sous La Dunette Francois Bourgeon

Not to mention the artwork, which is stunning

So my introduction to comic books involved a whole lot of strong, competent female superheroes and action heroes. And a lot of female-led titles. And even though these women all fit pretty standard “beauty” norms (thin, young etc.),  they also weren’t overtly sexualized. They were smart, competent, interesting women who happened to be beautiful. They weren’t posed specifically to show off their “sex appeal.” They made things explode and they punched people and they were awesome. [Nothing induces hero-worship in a ten year old so much as someone who can make things explode

Catwoman zero cover

What? The Everloving? Frack?

When I came back to the States, I started watching the Batman TV show (whichever one was on in the 90s). And I loved that too. Because Bruce Wayne was all brooding and efficient, and he had the best theme music ever (Na Na Na Na Na BATMAN). Plus, he was great at making things explode. This led to my discovery of the X-men: Evolution TV show. I became a huge fan of the X-Men in general, and of Rogue in particular.

Part 2: The Rage

Now, here’s where we’re going to get away from the SQUEE portion of the post and into the RAGE portion.

I was informed by a helpful friend that the X-Men TV show was based on a comic series.

And that’s when all the trouble began.

First I tried reading the X-men comics. The problem was that at the time, they were running the “House of M” arc. Which is a terrible place for a newbie to come in. I spent the entire time going:

“Well, this is boring. Who are these people? And where the frack is Rogue? Where’s Rogue? Where’s Rogue? Where’s – ”

But, you know, stuff like this happens. So I tried some other comics. And I inadvertently managed to land on a group of comic books with some real WTF posing and major sexualization of female characters. I honestly can’t remember what these comics were, because I was so appalled with what was happening that I blotted the whole thing out. I’m talking MAJOR costume fails (and when I say costume, what I really mean is: lack thereof), and enormous breasts on top of tiny, tiny women, and… yeah. I wish I could remember the name of the comic, because it’s begging for an Escher Girls post.

Let’s be clear: I’d spent years seeing naked women in the Passagers du Vent comics with no problems at all. But these comics were just – they were so ridiculous. I could not take the superheroines seriously. Who in their right mind would go fight the Big Bad Guy wearing four-inch spike heels and a bra? A bra, which, I might add, provided no breast support whatsoever (because the breasts were practically popping out). The men in the comics, on the other hand, were fully covered, and stood like normal human beings do.

I probably could have overlooked this if the female characters themselves were good, but TWO of them were killed off in the same issue. And the third one was completely incompetent.

I was done. I went straight back to my Yoko Tsuno and Les Passagers du Vent, and I stopped trying to get into American Comics.

Until last summer.

Last summer, I heard that DC – one of the two major comic book companies – was rebooting and revamping all of its monthly superhero books. “Well,” I thought. “That would be a great way to get into American superhero comics! I’m going to keep an eye on that and see how it evolves.”

[Terrible ideas. I have them all the time]

Anyone who is at all interested in comics and/or feminism knows what happened next.

First hint that things were not going to end well: People realized that DC was going from 12% female creators (terrible) to 1% (even MORE terrible). Out of 160 artists and writers… three were women.

Second hint: the de-paralyzing of Barbara Gordon, AKA Oracle. Barbara Gordon was once Batgirl, before she was shot by the Joker. She survived, but was paralyzed and started using a wheelchair. She then became an icon for the (real world) disabled community when she got back into crimefighting, wheelchair and all, as a member of the Birds of Prey team.
And the DC 52 reboot completely got rid of that history and turned her back into Batgirl.
People were not pleased.

[It should be noted that my understanding of the Barbara Gordon canon is… less than perfect. If you know more than I do, please call me out on my mistakes]

Third hint: the cancellation of major female-led titles like Power Girl. The disappearance of major female heroes like Huntress and Stephanie Brown.

Fourth hint: the really gruesome treatment of female fans at Comic-Con when one of them dared to ask DC creators: “where are all the women?”
Turned into a PR disaster, because the creators and execs were downright rude and insulting.

Fifth hint: the books come out. The Catwoman and Starfire comics were complete and utter debacles. See photo of Starfire below.

Starfire DC 52 reboot

Starfire… I don’t even know.

Let me put it this way: I went to three comic book panels at WisCon, and the panelists were all STILL MAD about the reboot. A year later.

To be absolutely fair, the DC reboot was thrown together in such a hurry that they can’t possibly have had time to pull together a misogynistic conspiracy to alienate and exclude female readers. It all just happened by accident! Imagine what they could have achieved if they had been trying!” (Andrew Wheeler at No More Mutants)

Seriously.

Look, I understand if I’m not DC’s primary market. I think it’s a stupid move, personally, because comic books are dying and DC could use new customers… and you know who isn’t reading comics? You know what vast untapped group of potential consumers might start reading comics if the industry made a decent effort to market to them? [Yes, that would be women]

But okay, if you don’t want to appeal to women directly, that’s your terrible business decision. I’m not asking you to suddenly start catering to my every desire. I’m just asking you to stop actively offending me. It’s really not that hard.

To quote Lara Hudson at the Comics Alliance:  “(I have long maintained that to bring in more female readers, superhero comics don’t even need to specifically target women as much as they need to not actively offend them. This is not an insanely hard to thing to do, and yet here we are.)

When you make no effort to hire female creators, you show that you don’t care about women. When you cancel popular titles led by female heroes, you show that you don’t care about women. When you treat female fans rudely – refusing to answer their questions, dismissing their concerns, making pseudo-excuses about how DC is the ‘most diverse’ comic book company – you show that you don’t care about women.

When you take comic books that women could easily get on board with – like Catwoman – and you spend the first two pages of the comic showing shots of Selina Kyle in her lingerie (mostly of her breasts and butt) while refusing to show her face –

You’re showing who you do care about.

And it’s not women.

Here’s the thing, Mr. Comic Book Executive/Business Guy/Whatever
When they tell you that your artistic depictions of female heroes are losing you customers, they are NOT JOKING.
When they tell you that turning your female characters into a giant fanservice for straight men turns women off…
They are not joking.
I know you don’t get it. But trust me. Most women don’t want to see themselves portrayed just as fanservice. They don’t want to see female characters depicted as pure objects of male desire.
I can hear what you’re thinking:”She’s just sexy! You must hate sexy! You hate sexy women because you’re jealous! And you hate sex! You’re a slut-shamer!”
*Deep breath* There is a major difference between a comic where the female character is smart, competent, powerful and also sexy… and comic book where the first priority, in all cases, is to show the female character as being sexy.
Natasha Romanov/ Black Widow in The Avengers movie is sexy, because she’s a sexy woman. But she’s not fanservice.
Batman, when he stands around looking all broody, is sexy. But he’s not fanservice. He’s not being posed for the sole purpose of being “sexy.” (here’s what that would look like)

Catwoman up there?
Is fanservice.

Women want to connect with characters.
And it’s pretty hard to connect with a character when all you see of her for three pages are her boobs. I mean, nothing against boobs, but they don’t do much for me.

The DC reboot was hell on wheels. The months of internet debate, the accusations, the “all you humorless feminists just need to get laid” (ad infinitum) etc. Watching DC rolling out their products, and seeing that yes, in point of fact, women were right to be mad, women were right to be afraid, because they really were screwing up…

I gave up.

I stopped trying to get back into superhero comics.

Because I couldn’t take it anymore. I honestly couldn’t. I couldn’t take loving a product that was explicitly marketing away from me. That dismissed me as a potential consumer. I couldn’t take being in a fandom where I was treated like a unicorn, like an exception. I couldn’t take being in a fandom where people said: “but no women read comics anyways, so it doesn’t matter.” I couldn’t take loving a medium that uses female characters solely to appeal to the desires of straight men. I couldn’t take loving a medium that doesn’t care about me, that treats women as windowdressing or as cheesecake. That throws good female characters overboard to motivate the “emotional journeys” of male characters.

I cannot even get into the bullshit of the “but women don’t read comic books” argument. First, it’s not true.

And second: Yeah, lots of women don’t read comic books.

And this is part of the reason why.

Mr. Comic Book Executive/Business Person/Whatever.
Here’s the thing: I would like to read comics. I would like to read comics very much.
I have money I would like to spend. And I would like to spend it on your product. And I think you would like that.

But I’m not going to spend it on a product that couldn’t give a rat’s ass about women.

You are driving female readers away. You drove me away, and I have a pretty high tolerance for this sort of stuff. I read Science Fiction. I participate in SF fandom. It’s not the most female-friendly place on the planet.

*deep breath*

Okay. I’m calming down.

I know I’m being unfair. I really do. I know that –  if I take time, if I do research, if I find like-minded fans – I can find superhero comics that aren’t offensive. That tell great stories without turning the female characters into window dressing. I know this because, as previously mentioned, I am a science fiction fan. I spend a lot of time dealing with friends and acquaintances who don’t understand my love for the genre because they think science fiction is a sexist medium.

But as a fan, I know science fiction isn’t inherently a sexist genre. It has a lot of really problematic stuff, yes. The vast majority of the big-name series are headlined by white men, yes. The genre has a problem with self-examination and with accepting female fans as equal to male ones, yes. But there is space in science fiction for women. It’s not “inherently” a man’s genre. There are many wonderful feminist science fiction books. There are many wonderful feminist science fiction fans.

And I’m sure that the same thing is true of comics. In fact, I know it is – most of the comics I read when I was young had positive portrayals of women. if I put the effort in, I’m sure I could find some wonderful feminist superhero comics.

Part of the problem, frankly, is exhaustion. There’s only so much I can do. Unlike a straight white male comic book fan, I do have to put significant effort in if I want to find series with protagonists who look like me. I have to put even more effort in to find female protagonists who are portrayed respectfully. And since I already spend a lot of time doing that in the science fiction field…

I’m sort of sick of it.

Because I want to read comics to have fun, darn it. I know I joked about being a humorless feminist at the top of the post, but a big part of the reason I avoid comics is because they’re not fun anymore.

I don’t want to be angry all the time. I don’t want to be dissecting gender roles all the time. I don’t want to post five thousand word rants about how black female heroes are portrayed as animals. I don’t want to have to spend hours on the internet, sifting through reviews to try to find the three non-offensive superhero titles.

I want to have fun. I want to pick up a random comic book and see a bunch of awesome people having awesome adventures. And see things explode. A straight white guy can pick up almost any comic book and find people like him – straight white men – portrayed in a respectful, intelligent fashion. But I can’t do that.

It’s not fair to continually ask female fans – or POC fans, or queer fans, or disabled fans – to put more effort in, and to deal with more BS. It’s just not.

It shouldn’t be this hard for potential fans to engage in comics. It shouldn’t be this painful. It shouldn’t be this rage-filled. Because yes, some female fans will put the effort in, but a whole lot of them (like me) will look at the industry and say “if it doesn’t respect me, why should I put the effort in?”

So.

That’s why, three thousand words later, I don’t read comics. Or rather, why I don’t read American Superhero comics. I still read my french stuff.

Part Three: A Call for Recommendations

Here’s where it changes.

In the past few months, I’ve decided that I would like to give comics another try. I’ve taken a careful stock of my patience – and my rage – and decided that yes, I can, for a short period of time, put in the requisite effort to find the good stuff. For a few months, I can handle the female-unfriendly comic book fandom. Just long enough to see if it’s worth it. To see if I can handle it full time.

Because I do love comics. I do. I wouldn’t put this much effort into a medium that I didn’t love with a mad passion. And I miss them. I keep hearing people talking about Batgirl and Oracle and Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers), and I want to read those books so much.

More importantly, I believe in comics. I know that they aren’t an inherently misogynistic medium. And I know that the way to change comics is to get involved. It’s to read the works. It’s to support the good ones, and recommend them to others. It’s to call out the problems and cheer on the solutions. Not everyone can. Not everyone has the capacity to do so.

But right here, right now, I do.

Plus, I just want to have fun. And see some things explode. And people get punched in the face. You know. The fun stuff.

Comics seem like a good way to go.

So. This is a call for recommendations. What should I read? Ideas? Advice? I really need it! I’m going in pretty cold, and although I have some leads (*cough* Gail Simone *cough*), I trust personal recommendations more than I trust the internet.

A couple things to note. I have access to a library with a fair collection of trade paperbacks, and I’m willing to invest a (small) amount of money into this venture. So nothing… super expensive, thanks.

Obviously, I am not interested in reading overtly misogynistic work. I’m also not interested in dealing with comics that have a huge amount of fanservice. Some is okay (particularly if it’s gender neutral, although I’m not holding my breath). I’m also not interested in reading anything that’s racist or homophobic. I have a very high tolerance for portrayals of sex and violence, so long as the sex isn’t pure fanservice.

If you’ve got a comic, on the other hand, that has hilariously bad portrayals of women… I probably wouldn’t mind reading one. Just so I can snark about it afterwards. I do read Escher girls, after all.

I will gladly read male-led titles. I’m going to try to read at least 50% female-led titles (since I am a feminist blogger, after all), but there are some great male superheroes, and I’d love to hear about good runs. Although I’m concentrating on American superhero comics, I will also gladly read non-superhero comics (huge fan of Alison Bechdel, for example), and non-American comics (mangas, BDs etc.) as long as they’re available either in english or french.

I honestly do not have a preference between DC and Marvel.

I would also love recommendations for any comics-related blogs that have a feminist spin (like DC Women Kicking Ass) – or that at least have an awareness of gender issues. Comics-related blogs that comment on issues of race, class, sexual orientation, disability etc. are also of interest to me!

And yes, I will be blogging about this. Hopefully, it’ll be more fangirl SQUEE and less HULK SMASH RAGE…but no guarantees.

Hulk Rage Mark Ruffalo

This is what I look like every morning after reading the feminist blogs…

All right. Here we go. The great comic experiment of 2012.

Girl your loins.

And send your recommendations.

*Turns off the Daft Punk and X-Ray Dog Playlist. Everyone else breaths a sigh of relief*


I Never Wanted to be a Boy (A Tribute to Authors)

[This post is a companion piece of sorts to my “How Power Rangers Made Me a Feminist” post, although you don’t need to have read that post to read this one. In the Power Rangers post, I discussed how sexism in TV shows had a negative effect on me growing up, while in this post, I discuss how the awesome books I read when I was a kid had a good effect on me as I grew up. You see, I don’t hate everything! Just the terrible stuff]

***

I never wanted to be a boy.

And it turns out, that’s somewhat of an unusual experience.

***

Back during my finals season (*shudder*), a series of interrelated blog posts penned by female speculative fiction authors went up. First it was Stina Leicht. Then Kate Elliot. Then Kirstyn McDermott. and N.K. Jemisin. There are probably more I missed.  I was, of course, dying of finals, so I couldn’t do anything more than gather links. But there was something so powerful, and so disturbing, about these women’s stories, that I kept on going back to them.

Let’s see if you can spot the common thread, shall we?

Stina Leicht: “[Girls] are barraged with the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place for them specifically at an early age. I have memories of such information filtering down to me at age eight through ten. So much so, that I went through a phase of denial. I took on male behaviors, thinking that would make me safe. (I was a tomboy.) I also went through a phase of not wanting to be female (…) because I was beginning to understand what was ahead and that the world did not like females.”

Kirstyn McDermott: “I was a tomboy for most of my childhood. Thankfully, I have a wonderful mother who I can’t ever remember saying that I couldn’t/shouldn’t do something or like something or be something just because I was a girl […] I do remember being told such things by lots of other people, though — including some male relatives. Although I didn’t think I ever consciously took that on board when I was a kid . . .  I reckon it did manage to seep in. And I reckon I reacted to it just the way Stina Leicht did, by rebelling against everything girlish[…] Because being a girl isn’t safe.”

Kate Elliot (guest-posting at The Fantasy Book Cafe): “What I saw was that the things I yearned for–adventure, travel, sword fights, the excitement engaged in by characters in the fiction I loved to read–and the things I had–ambition to strive for lofty goals, an inner drive, a questing mind that wanted to discover–were things that society and literature and film told me were reserved for boys. When I was in 7th grade and twelve years old,  my Language Arts teacher […]  gave us a questionnaire of “fill in the blank” questions meant, I suppose, to make us think about our selves and our lives […] The last question was the most open-ended one: “I wish . . . ”
I wrote: I wish I was a boy.
What it meant to me was that it wasn’t worth being a girl.
Being a girl was second-class, even in some ways shameful. Boys got the good things, they were clearly seen to be better, it was obviously better to be a boy, and furthermore, the dreams I had and the desires and hopes were boy dreams, not girl dreams.”

N.K. Jemisin (guest posting at The Fantasy Book Cafe): “I did what I could to reject the GIRL box whenever I could. To that end I’d started reading science fiction — but never fantasy, because fantasy was girly […] Fantasy was full of women in scraps of stupid-looking armor, being rescued or having relationships or healing people or something. Science fiction was full of men going places and doing things […] Then I clearly remember thinking, but I’m a girl. And that was it. It wasn’t an especially shocking realization, but it was a profound one. In that moment I began to understand: the problem wasn’t that some books were infested with girl cooties; the real problem was my irrational fear of girliness. And myself.”

Did you spot it?

It’s fairly obvious, but I’ll paraphrase it for practicality’s sake. When they were young, these women all went through a period where they wanted to be a boy and/or they hated being a girl.

[Cue Sigmund Freud jumping out and yelling “PENIS ENVY” at the top of his lungs. Calm down, Freud]

I don’t know about other people, but I find these stories very hard to read. To me, they show how, from a very young age, we teach girls to hate themselves, to think of themselves as second class, as worthless, as unsafe. Even smart, strong, successful women like Kate Elliot, N.K. Jemisin, Stina Leicht and Kirstyn McDermott – women who I might (stupidly) expect to have been unaffected by the negative effects of sexism (again, very stupid assumption) – had to go through a long, sometimes painful, phase where they reconciled themselves to their status as women.

And no one should have to reconcile themselves to their gender.

[Quick side-note: Obviously this particular “I want to be a boy” phenomenon is quite different from transgendered people, whose gender identity does not match their birth sex. But transgendered people shouldn’t have to reconcile themselves to their birth sex either; they should be able to safely live as the gender they identify with.//End side note//]

But this phenomenon is not restricted to the four women listed above. If I take a moment to think about it, I can list at least two or three close female friends who have admitted to going through “boy” phases. I can certainly think of more who have deliberately rejected anything “girly.” And then, when I talked to my mother about these stories, she said she’d felt exactly the same way when she was a kid. She’d gone through a phase where she decided she didn’t like being a girl, so she dressed like a boy, talked like a boy and adopted “boy” mannerisms [I saw the pictures. There is proof]. Which shocked the hell out of me, because I’ve always thought my mother was extraordinarily comfortable in the way she expressed her gender identity.

When I think about it, it’s staggeringly common, this desire to be a boy. And on an intellectual level, I completely understand it. Being a girl in our society means not being safe. Being a girl means being judged according to norms which, for all the changes in the past fifty years, are still very traditional. Being a girl means your body is public property. Being a girl means that your rights are a political ping-pong ball; a”hot-button issue.” Being a girl means people feel free to tell you to shut up, sit down and make them a sandwich.

Wanting to be a boy – or at least, not wanting to be a girl – makes total sense.

So why didn’t I ever want to be one?

Because I never did. I’ve thought about this a lot in the past couple weeks, and I cannot, for the life of me, think of any period in my life where I wanted to be a boy. I can’t even think of a period when I really rejected “femininity” (whatever that means) [ Sure, I went through a phase where I decapitated my barbie dolls and buried them in the backyard… but I was always a morbid child]. I have a lot of moments where I wish I were as free as a boy, or where I wish I could walk at night and be safe like a boy, or where I wish that women were paid the same amount as men. But I never wanted to be a boy.

Which is strange. When I was a kid, I read tons of science fiction and epic fantasy – traditionally “male” genres. For years, my greatest ambition was to be – I kid you not – a warrior. I spent hours practicing side kicks against an tree in our backyard. I still have a big heavy stick in my room I used to practice “staff fighting.” Somewhere in my house ( I will not reveal where) is a diary where I recorded my “training” sessions (Hey, don’t judge me, okay? At least I wasn’t plotting the nuclear apocalypse). I wasn’t quite a tomboy, but I was pretty close.

So given how much of my identity was “male” oriented, why didn’t I ever want to be a boy?

On some level, I think I knew, even from a young age, that girls could do anything they wanted to, and the problem wasn’t with girls, it was with people and institutions who didn’t get that. So yes, I could read science fiction as a girl, and yes, I could beat a tree to a pulp as a girl, and there wasn’t anything wrong with me.

But I don’t think this belief came because I was smarter or wiser or better educated than girls who did go through a “I want to be a boy” phase.

I think it was because of books.

Kate Elliot: “After that, at the tender age of 15, I decided I had had enough of there not being anyone like me even in my own stories. I decided to write about girls, about women–about men, too–but women in equal space and equal importance to the story. This was not a small decision. It went against what I saw when I read; it went against received wisdom, especially in adventure stories […] I realized that in my own small way I might help overturn this diminishment of female lives not only by portraying women in diverse ways that allowed women a full range of personalities, occupations, roles, and stories, but also by respecting the centrality and importance of the women’s work so often considered (often by women) trivial, demeaning, and lesser.”

Tamora Pierce: “Why do I write so many strong female characters? When I was a kid, 7-8 books out of all books written for kids through teens had boy heroes. Those that had girl heroes showed them at “feminine” pursuits, or if they were a little feisty, a male hero had to bail them out by book’s end (…) When I encountered fantasy, I had the same problem: virtually no girl heroes. The ones I found, adult women all, settled down, hated other women, or died. I didn’t understand why there were no girls (or those that existed were severely compromised) in the adventure books, so I began to write what I wanted to read: adventure books with girl heroes.”

Kate Elliot and Tamora Pierce didn’t see female characters, so they started writing them. You know who else did that? Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., Patricia Wrede, Louise Fitzhugh, N.K. Jemisin, Gail Carson Levine, Robin McKinley, Seanan McGuire, Nancy Farmer – the list goes on. And on. There are droves of female authors who grew up reading books with almost no female protagonists, and who turned around and said: “Screw that. I’m writing about chicks.”

And guess who grew up reading those books?

I did.

I read Tamora Pierce. I read Robin McKinley. I read Madeleine L’Engle. I read Harriet the Spy and Ella Enchanted and Dealing with Dragons. I read The Babysitter’s Club (yes, The Babysitter’s Club, you gotta problem with that?). I read Nancy Farmer. I devoured Sailor Moon and Yoko Tsuno. I read Hope was Here and Born Confused.

In these books girls were the heroes – all kinds of heroes. They were knights and policewomen, spies and politicians, ordinary students and fashion experts, electricians and caterers, waitresses and magic girls, aliens and historians – oh my!

So if I didn’t see my girlhood as limiting me, it was because in the world of my reading, there were no limits to what a girl could be, or to how she could save the day.

You know why I wanted to be a warrior when I was a kid? Because I was reading Tamora Pierce. You know why I didn’t see being a warrior as a “male” pursuit? Because Tamora Pierce’s warriors were female. Even in the Alanna series, when Alanna was the only female knight, there were other women warriors [Thayet and Buri, to name a few]. So when I was pounding that tree into a pulp, I was doing it in the grand tradition of Keladry of Mindelan, Buriram Tourakom, Alanna the Lioness and Daja Kisubo (although I’m sure none of them would be silly enough to practice kicking on a tree).

Eventually, my warrior ways (god, this is embarrassing. I’m so glad this blog is under a pseudonym) – prompted me to take Tae-Kwon-Do lessons. Which was lovely, except for the fact that the instructors would always try to goad male students by saying:

“Are you going to get a girl beat you?”

[Spoiler warning: Yes]

Or: “You hit like a girl!”

[No shit, Sherlock. I am a girl]

But you know what? Even though that bothered the hell out of me (and it went straight into my growing realization that “Wow, people are kind of sexist”) – I knew better. I knew no one could joust like Keladry of Mindelan or swordfight better than Alanna the Lioness. I knew no one was stealthier than Harriet the Spy or braver than Usagi (AKA: Sailor Moon) or more loyal than Dimple Lala. I knew no one was cleverer than Ella and no one was smarter than Yoko Tsuno.

I knew that there was nothing shameful with being “like a girl.”

And someday, everyone else was going to figure it out.

So to all those authors who grew up wishing to be boys. Who grew up knowing that being a girl was unsafe, that being a girl made you “lesser than.” To all of you who then turned around and said: “Screw this, I’m writing about chicks.” Who said “girl can be the heroes.” Who were brave enough, and strong enough, and determined enough, to fight the good fight. Who told the people who thought there was no market for girl heroes “You’re wrong” and who got those books published anyways.

To all those authors, in short, who made it possible for me to have a shelf upon shelf of fantastic books with smart, strong, independent women as heroes.

Thank you.

I have never wanted to be a boy. I have always been happy to be a girl. And it’s because you showed me that being a girl was great.

Thank you.

And to all those people who say “but it’s just a book/a video game/ a comic book. It’s not real. Everyone knows it’s not real. So it doesn’t affect you. Now stop complaining about the lack of female/queer/people of color/ disabled/etc. characters and go make me a sandwich.”

I say: “You’re wrong. And go make yourself that sandwich. Git.”

The End

[Giant disclaimer: the state of fiction is nowhere near equitable enough, either when it comes to female characters, or to other marginalized character s(queer, people of color, trans, disabled etc.). In fact, even though I read a lot of books with female protagonists as a child, I still read more books with male protagonists (and that was with me actively trying to FIND books with female protagonists). We’re not there yet. But the fight is worth it.]

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