Reprinted from Goodreads
You may be familiar with the following: the Strong, Independent Female Protagonist is our little speshul snowflake. She has an ability that others would be in awe of, but she humbly just wants to be normal. She is thrown together with a guy she can’t take her eyes off, on a guy who makes her lady parts tingle, on the sexy guy with the walnut hair, the ripped abs, the piercing drowning ocean blue eyes. They may meet up with a Tall Dark and incredibly Handsome bad boy, with a body piercing in a discreet location and only hints of tattoos (of course, not covering the most beautiful parts of his body – the abs and the face), who tells them their plan for the salvation of the human race is silly and will never work, but agrees to help them out anyway. Together, this trio has to face danger and some sort of evil, and our heroes must rescue our special snowflake at least a couple times, just to facilitate the chaste nuzzling that makes our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist realize her real question. That is: which of these two adorable men should she be eternally in love with?
The question you and I may be asking is: where are the female friends? Where are the women in this young heroine’s life, the girlfriends she talks with and hangs out with? Where is our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist’s best female friend she’s played dolls and LEGOs with since preschool? Where is the female companion whose skills beautifully complement our Strong, Independent Female protagonist, who goes with her into the depths of hell and pulls her out again with the strength of her will?
The answer is simple: they don’t exist. They don’t exist because our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist finds all those girls too catty, too vapid – or they aren’t Strong, Independent Females, like our protagonist. If she does exist, she’s likely to be sexually promiscuous, catty, vapid, boy crazy, and constantly in trouble. In case we can’t figure that out for ourselves, our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist will frequently remind us how shallow her “best friend” is, at the same time reminding the reader how “strong” and “independent” and “pure” our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist is. As to why they continue to be friends? I haven’t a clue; I know if I thought someone vapid and shallow, whose interests didn’t align with my own, I’d be unlikely to hang around them until we broke all connection. But our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist is “too kind-hearted” for that, I suppose.
When the reader or reviewer poses this question, an author’s first response is, “There are lots of girls who have more guy friends than girl friends. When I was growing up I had more guy friends than girl friends – those girls were interested in makeup while I wanted to join the Enterprise crew.”
I know this will probably surprise people, but the author does have a point. There are some females that have more male friends than female friends. For instance, because of my chosen major (mechanical engineering), I went to college with way more men than women. Women made up like 5 out of 45 of the students in a typical engineering class, so it was a good bet that I had a lot of male friends*.
Why does this happen? Well, I gather part of it comes from when you grew up. Some women, whose parents encouraged their daughters to embrace what they loved instead of just the stereotypically girly activities, grew up during certain periods of time when “traditional gender roles” were stronger and faced more seclusion from their female friends because of their “non-traditional” playing choices – playing with trucks, wanting to play Jedi instead of house, etc. Or it could have happened when this woman became a teenager, when girls began to feel the pressure sexual (but not TOO sexual), and she stopped having things in common with her girlfriends, who had succumbed to society’s message and embraced makeup and being absorbed with boys. She instead stuck with her interests of enjoying math and playing with rockets, which led her to more friendships with boys.
Furthermore, there is nothing that says that all women must be friends with one another. People become friends for various reasons – surroundings, shared history, shared hobby, similar personalities, etc. It’s not impossible for a woman not to meet another woman with whom she shares common interests or history or whom she even LIKES to be around. Despite what Anita Blake says, women aren’t necessarily more “naturally friendly” than men – and they don’t have to be. Many women have been conditioned to be friendly by a society that tells them not to dissent, not to speak up, to be polite and silent – but not all of them are that way “naturally”. Why should they then have to have friendships – female or male?
So looking at the individual instance, there doesn’t seem a problem. Okay, so Strong, Independent Female Protagonist doesn’t have a female companion. We’ve explored the reasons that this could happen, and it’s completely plausible. So then what’s the problem?
The problem isn’t when one book’s Strong, Independent Female Protagonist has no female friends. It isn’t even when more than one book lacks female companions. It is when series of books – books that go on to be best-sellers and chart-toppers – lack any sort of female companions – or positive female role models outside of our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist.
Why is this? Why are so many books neglecting to include female characters other than the Strong, Independent Female Protagonist? You can site the above reasons we gave, but the explanation wears thin after the third book that uses the trope.
Let’s take a deeper look at these books, in the hopes we get some clues. The first thing we notice is how many of them frequently include love interests. “Unraveling”, “Shatter Me”, “Divergent”, “Unearthly”, “Unspoken”, “Twilight” – all of these books feature a handsome male love interest. A lot of the book is about said love interest. The love interest is the one saving our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist. He is often talked about, either in conversation or our protagonist’s head. He is her companion, his skills match hers, he is the one pushing her to embrace her own speshul talents.
Let’s take a look at the few female characters that appear in these books. In “Unraveling”, Janelle had a former female friend, Kim, but Kim gave Janelle a roofie laced drink, which made Janelle susceptible to being sexually assaulted. When Kim tries to apologize, Janelle refuses to listen. In “Shatter Me”, I can’t recall a single other female character other than Juliette. In “Divergent”, there are a couple of female companions to Tris, but Tris does not confide in them. In “Unearthly”, a lot of the conversations Clara has with her female friends, Wendy and Angela, tend to center around the boys in their lives (this is particularly true of Wendy in later books). And in “Twilight”, Bella’s friends are mere names on the pages – one, Jessica, is vapid and constantly pesters Bella with questions about her relationship with Edward (while being jealous at the same time) while the other, Angela, is quiet and doesn’t ask many questions.
Just comparing the two brings something to light – how important the romantic relationship to the man is. Lots of time is spent on our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist admiring the male protagonist or even being jealous of other women he talks to.
And that’s the answer to the problem. There aren’t many female companions, because any woman in the story is automatically a threat to the relationship between the Strong, Independent Female Protagonist and the hero.
Where did this idea that if you have a guy and a girl in the room they would automatically want to make out with each other? Why is it that the mere presence of another woman in a novel automatically threatens the Forever Love that the Strong, Independent Female Protagonist has with her hero? I can think of many male friends I’ve had that I would never want a romantic relationship with. And even if I didn’t like a man, if he is in a committed relationship, I would never think to break up his relationship with his spouse so I could pursue him! And if that man was married to a friend of mine, I definitely wouldn’t be pursuing any romantic thoughts I may have!
So why does this idea persist, that if a woman is in the presence of our hero, she must want him and will do whatever possible to break up our couple? Maybe it has to do with our hero being so irresistible. Maybe it has to do with our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist’s selfish insecurities.
But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s rooted in the fact that we see other women as a threat. You can see this in the verbiage that gets bantered around in adultery or cheating cases. It wasn’t the man’s fault for cheating – the Other Woman made him. She seduced him. She drew him away. He was helpless to her whims. And because we all know that men can’t help but want to have sex with anything that crosses their paths**, it is the Other Woman’s fault for pulling him away.
This is why Janelle’s best friend wasn’t a female. This is why Juliette meets two males at the end of “Shatter Me”. This is why Tris didn’t confide in a female companion after her parents’ deaths. Because these girls would have had automatic competition for their romantic interest’s affections. Because the Hero can’t help himself when he sees another woman – if there is another woman, he will be tempted in her***. It doesn’t matter if these women are in relationships with other guys, are lesbians or asexual, or don’t care about our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist’s boy toy because he doesn’t suit their preference. It doesn’t matter how much our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist is in love with her man or how much he loves her or how devoted they say they are to each other. Just the mere presence of a female friend means that our Strong, Independent Female Protagonist has a threat to what is increasingly becoming the most important part of the story – her boyfriend. Because if the story were really about saving the world or a woman finding strength in her talents, would she really be threatened by a friend going after the man whom she loves?
Oh, the back cover blurb may hint at a dystopian world, a society on the brink of disaster, the one woman in a world gone mad that can bring sanity with her speshul snowflake power, but, at the end of the day, that’s not really what the story is about. No, our story is about how one woman revolves around the one man she is enamored of. The “Strong, Independent Female Protagonist” that has been promised, who is supposedly kick @$$ with a special power, who takes sh!t from no one, who must save her people is nothing but a lie. She’s just a prize that our hero has won, plain and simple. No better than the “Damsels in Distress” that gets lampooned. No better than the woman who screams in a horror movie before her man comes behind the baddie to save her or the romance heroine who swoons in her man’s arms. Our Weak, Helpless Female Protagonist has just been wearing the clothes of a “Strong, Independent” woman – and in that case, she’s much worse than these other archetypes, because at least Damsels in Distress have the honesty to be what they are.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have a romance without sacrificing the story. Our female protagonist can have female friends, who aren’t threats to her relationship. We just have to get back our focus. What is our story? Is our story a dystopia, where two brilliant female scientists head off the fight against zombie slugs, with the aid of one of the scientist’s estranged Marine husband? Or is our story a dystopia with vague terminology about how horrible and oppressed life, that tosses a boy and a girl together for shoddy reasons, that showcases the two falling in love within hours/days, that features no other prominent female companions, that requires the girl to be saved constantly by the guy, who bolsters her self-esteem by telling her how sexy she is?
I don’t know about you, but the second book is going in the trash, unread.
*But then I also found that us few females tended to seek each other out and become fast, strong friends, if only because we shared the struggle of being one of the only females in our classes. And now that I’m “all growed up” and working in a predominantly male field, I find I can name more female friends than male friends.
** In case it isn’t perfectly clear, this is sarcasm.
*** In the case of Juliette from “Shatter Me”, the problem is even worse. The two other males function to give our heroine self-esteem by talking about wanting to have sex with her and her being so hot. This is yet another problem – a woman gaining self-esteem via her looks as seen through the men who admire her body – but that is for another blog post.