Not all “mean girls”: Female friendships in contemporary young adult fiction

‘I feel sorry for you, and I’m going to be your friend.’
‘I don’t want to be your friend,’ Cath said, as sternly as she could. ‘I like that we’re not friends.’
‘Me, too,’ Reagan said. ‘I’m sorry you ruined it by being so pathetic.’

(Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell)


Romantic relationships are central to the plots of many contemporary young adult novels. However, the importance of female friendships in young adult fiction should not be underestimated. Female friendships, when depicted realistically can provide authentic reflections of the relationships and interactions between teenage girls.  Good stories depict friends as fully-rounded characters that go deeper than the token best friend or “mean girl” rival.

There are many positive outcomes from strong female friendships. In real life the support and creation of good memories in the company of friends can be as important, and have as much of an impact on our lives, as romantic relationships. In fact, the benefits of real-life female friendships are significant including from a health perspective. In young adult fiction, strong friendships with well-rounded characters allow readers to see key aspects of their relationships reflected in the in the journeys of these characters.

These strong friendships can be difficult to find in fiction. In her article on BFFs Caitlin White writes, ‘When you can find examples of female friendship in YA fiction, they are often troubled, “mean girl” types, or a side story from the driving force of romantic relationship, or even, one-sided in the most one-sided way possible: a girl copes with another girlfriend’s death.’ In a discussion of female friendships in fiction Riley Redgate examines the problem of how these friendships are represented. ‘Inevitably, when girls are portrayed as friends, it hops right back to the Bechdel Problem: they bond over men, rather than inherent traits in themselves.’

There is an emphasis in the media and society on finding the perfect partner and living happily-ever-after with them, even while young. Young adult novels can show that a romantic relationship is not the only thing worth striving for, or the only type of relationship worth having. Young girls should not feel like failures if they haven’t found the perfect partner.

With all the focus on romantic relationships, it is still possible to find a variety of interesting female friendships depicted in young adult novels. It can be refreshing to find novels where the female friendships are of primary importance to the story.

A recent example of this is Non Pratt’s Remix. Set at a music festival in Britain, it is the friendship between the two main characters, Kaz and Ruby, which both creates trouble and provides their greatest support. There is a strong emphasis on the way that they look out for each other (or guilt when they fail to do so) at the festival where both of their ex-boyfriends are in attendance. However, the real focus is the friendship between the two girls. Ruby thinks, ‘Friendship isn’t something that’s supposed to be perfect because people aren’t perfect. People will lie, they will cheat and they will let you down. Friendship is what picks you up.’

In Holly Bourne’s Am I Normal Yet? Evie’s new friendship with Amber and rekindled childhood friendship with Lottie are central to the story. The three of them even have conversations wondering if they’re talking too much about guys. Lottie says, ‘…I’m scared that if I talk about Tim with you guys then I’ll fail the Bechdel test.’ They decide to reclaim the term “spinster” to mean ‘…you value your female relationships as much as your male ones.’

In Fiona Wood’s Cloudwish, Vân U’ớc’s best friend Jess provides the voice of reason to her imaginings and doubts. The depiction of their shared time together – their regular catch-ups consisting of movie-watching, eating junk food and talking about their parents – provide a nice depiction of their camaraderie. While there is some tension between them – Jess, for example, finds the object of Vân U’ớc’s affection to be on the arrogant side and not worthy of her; ultimately it is a strong and caring friendship, not a competition or power-struggle.

On the flipside, fighting and falling-out with friends can cause at least as much drama and pain as broken high school relationships. The impact of a broken friendship can have as much of an impact on a teenage girl’s day-to-day life as the ups and downs of a relationship.

Friendships can arise through shared interests and a shared history. However, when the shared interest is lost, is happens in Trinity Doyle’s Pieces of Sky, this can damage the relationship. Lucy has lost her brother in a surfing accident and when she tries to return to swimming training – a passion she shares with her close friend Megan –she has a panic attack and is unable to get back in the pool. This leads to increasing distance between the two friends at a time when Lucy most needs support.

In Amy Spalding’s novel Ink is Thicker Than Water two of the main plot strands involve the increasing distance between Kellie and her best friend and the absence of her sister, who she has always been close to. When Kellie’s home life starts to fall apart, she no longer has her friend to confide in, and this is shown to have a significant impact on her life. Even with the introduction of potential new friends, a lack of strong friendships makes these issues even harder to deal with.

Young adult novels which realistically depict female friendships show the many varieties and journeys that young female friendships (just like any others) can take. Friendship can provide a source of strength and support and lead to positive experiences. If young adult novels focus heavily on romantic relationships, it can emphasise that the only goal worth having is a romantic one and that romantic love is the only love worth having. These stories of friendship are just as worthy of telling as stories of romance, and deserve as much of a place on the shelves of young adult fiction as they have in life.

Image: Ian Schneider


Jess - Bio PicJessica Sheather-Neumann is the organiser of a writers group in Canberra with over 50 members. She reads and writes young adult novels and has been published in First, the University of Canberra’s creative writing magazine. She has a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. You can find her on Twitter @ReadingJessica.

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