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Female Friends - Zer Netmouse
September 15th, 2006
06:36 pm

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Female Friends
I keep accidentally starting topics I'd like to see discussion on, on fridays. When everyone is about to pay more attention to real life than livejournal for a while. (At least that seems to be the pattern.)

None-the-less, I've had this on my mind for a bit and I wanted to bring it up:

Where are all the women friends in SF?


There are some celebrated friendships in fantasy and science fiction. Frodo and Sam. Gandalf and Sam. Han Solo and Chewbacca. Yoda and Obi-wan. Spock and Kirk. Friendships that involve great and enduring loyalties. The sturdy dependable friendships of men.

So where are the pairs of female friends? Where are the bosom friends who listen to each other's fears and cheer each other on? Where are the women who mentor younger women, and the younger ones who pull older ones out of their shells? Where are the women who pick up where the last woman left off or fell sick or needed a break, and keep their society going?

Increasingly, I see strong female characters in SF. But they are isolated. I do not see the social networks I see in the SF fannish community represented in the pages of our literature. I am starting to see some, mostly in SF written by women, and I wonder if our female friendships are such a mystery, that men do not see them clearly enough to depict them, or if strong female characters are still so close to men with breasts that though they've stepped up into the role of "one of the guys" to take on leading positions, they are still not friends with each other, and the supporting roles that might be taken up by other women are still given to people with hair on their chests.


I can think of exceptions, and am pleased to realize that one author who comes to mind is Robert Heinlein. Criticised in many ways for his depictions of women, he still wrote about women who were close, affectionate friends to one another, and who enabled each others' successes.

I'm trying to think of other well-known authors who have and I'm failing. Orson Scott Card? No. Asimov? Nope. Even some prominent female authors didn't in their best-known works. McCaffrey has something of a friendship between women in Crystal Singer, but it isn't close friendship. In the dragonrider books? There were only a few, not counting the bond between the queens and their riders.

This thought process started when I read Crystal Rain, by Tobias Buckell, on Monday. It's a great first novel, well paced, intriguing, with good characters and a well-realized world setting. And after I read it swiftly in one day (hey, I liked it, I'm telling you!) I found myself commenting to scalzi that I was wishing that some of the females were Characters (with a capital C) or that at least one of the Characters had really been female. There is one main character who is technically a woman but there is almost no way in which she takes a different role than a man might have, and her only friend is an older man.

Perhaps this is a general problem with science fiction, that in telling sweeping epics we tend to create characters who are terrible lonely and isolated. Very few of our characters have to call home to say they're running late but are on their way to dinner. Which is what I just did, so I've got to go. But please, tell me, are there any friendships between women in SF that you celebrate unto yourself? Where are they to be found and read?

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From:sraun
Date:September 15th, 2006 11:38 pm (UTC)
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Would Cordelia Vorkosigan and Alys Vorpatril count?

I agree, I can't think of many - I'm not actually thinking of any more off the top of my head.
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From:sueij
Date:September 16th, 2006 03:42 am (UTC)
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That was my first thought, too, but neither is the main character in the whole Vorkosigan saga, so you don't actually see much of them except in relation to Miles.
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From:jimhines
Date:September 15th, 2006 11:39 pm (UTC)
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Assuming my editor buys it, The Stepsister Scheme has a central trio of female characters who end up awfully tight by the end... I happen to think they've got a nifty relationship among themselves, but I'm not exactly objective :-)
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From:netmouse
Date:September 16th, 2006 11:47 am (UTC)
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Cool! glad you're taking this topic on!
(Deleted comment)
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From:netmouse
Date:September 18th, 2006 02:58 pm (UTC)
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We might also make it a ConFusion programming topic. You could put Elizabeth Moon and Jim C. Hines (jimhines) on it. And me.
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From:rmeidaking
Date:September 16th, 2006 12:00 am (UTC)
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Name two women in such a relationship in real life, that you know personally.

My experience has been that women don't form those sorts of loyal friendships in the way that men do. Women will form groups, particularly focused around a specific task (e.g. the sewing circle), but there won't be the 'defend to the death' cameraderie among them. They'll huddle together to ride out the storm, but won't ride out to meet the dragon. So this is mirroring real life.

Women, for whatever reason, tend to see each other as all being equals, and it tends to bother women when one woman 'outranks' another. I know a lot of women who have trouble having female supervisors, for instance. Men, on the other hand, work out the pecking order or the totem pole stack, or whatever you want to call it, within minutes of meeting one another. Such friendships will develop between the mentor and mentoree, or the Knight and the Squire, and there just isn't a female-equivalent relationship. It only develops in cases where the women are actively trying to emulate what the boys are doing. It doesn't come naturally.

In SF, even now, the audience is largely adolescent and post-adolescent men. Oddly enough, strong female characters don't appeal to them. There is some change occuring in fantasy, especially as romance writers get a little more fantasy inclined (and as fantasy authors tap into the market for romance novels), but the audience isn't going to change much any time soon.
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From:elizilla
Date:September 16th, 2006 12:31 am (UTC)
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Hmm, I'm wondering if what you describe is more true of women in science fiction fandom, than of women in general? The women who get involved in fandom are more involved with the boys, and by that I don't mean dating them, I mean being them. We're all boys at heart here.

Chick lit is full of tales of strong women's friendships. In fact if you look at novels that are trying to be serious and not fall into the romance category, the strength of women's friendships is probably the most popular theme. I wonder if the publishing industry thinks the two markets are too far apart for any crossover books to sell?
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From:dagibbs
Date:September 16th, 2006 12:43 am (UTC)
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The first thing that came to mind when you posted this was Frostflower and Thorn by Phyllis Ann Karr -- an older (1980) fantasy about a female warrior & sorceress duo. But, one counter-example (or even a few) don't disprove the thesis of this being uncommon.

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From:netmouse
Date:September 16th, 2006 12:00 pm (UTC)
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yeah, and in TV we can think of Xena and her sidekick, or Buffy and Willow, or even Inara and Kaylie in Firefly. I'm glad there are some, but as I look at SF lit --especially science fiction-- I don't see many.

Someone else brought up Robin McKinley, and I'd agree she has a few. Sunshine is an example. Steven Brust also puts some strong female friendships in his Taltos series, though they don't often come "on screen" as it were.
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From:vaxjedi
Date:September 16th, 2006 12:52 am (UTC)
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Honestly, the impression I got from a lot of authors (Asimov, Eddings, etc) is that women were a mystery to them. Douglas Adams flat out said at one point when he was asked why Trillian had such a limited role in his stories.

I even got that impression from Heinlein's work. I always felt that his female characters were two dimensional - which is better compared to most of his male characters, which seemed one dimensional. I got the feeing that Heinlein thought women were more interesting than men (by virtue of the fact that they were women), so he never really bothered with much characterization for the men.

I have to admit, though most of my friends are women, I've seen little of the 'female friendship' that seems all that different from what I have with my friends. Of course, maybe this type specific friendship is one that gets expressed publicly with men (except for the classic woman/gay man friendship).

My question is, how is the strong female friendship characterized? How is it different from the ones you mentioned between men? I agree there are no real 'female duos' in SciFi. But how would that be different than the male duos you listed? What makes it a 'strong female friendship' as opposed to just a strong friendship?

or that at least one of the Characters had really been female. There is one main character who is technically a woman but there is almost no way in which she takes a different role than a man might have,

Now, explain what you mean here. How is a woman supposed to take a role differently than a man? What makes the handling of the role 'really female'?

Perhaps this is a general problem with science fiction, that in telling sweeping epics we tend to create characters who are terrible lonely and isolated.

The sole protagonist IS more common. Also, in the strong female stereotype that has arisen, part of that strength seems to specifically be independence, as a reaction to the assumed dependence of the 'weaker sex'.
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From:netmouse
Date:September 16th, 2006 12:07 pm (UTC)
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You make a lot of good point, and I'm not necesarily arguing that the female friendship is different from what you have with your friends, but I think it exists in the real world and I hope it exists in the future, and I rarely see it in SF. The main thing that makes it different from the male duos I've listed is that it's invisible. :)


Honestly, though, there are of course experiences that make the female experience different from the male, and I'm not surprised to find these a mystery to men, as we typically don't speak of them. Bleeding once a month is one of them. Facing male-dominated fields is another. When I was in Engineering in school, other women there with me and I bonded in part by discussing our challenges. When I was at Grinnell you could not help but notice the women who flocked to the theater program to study under Pip Gordon, a strong female role model. We were there because we were independent and different, but we were not alone.
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From:the_leewit
Date:September 16th, 2006 02:21 am (UTC)
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Zenna Henderson had strong female friendships. So did Marion Zimmer Bradley (in Darkover). The main character of _The Handmaid's Tale_ and her friends the gender-treacherist and her neighbor. Part of the point of _Dragonsong_ was learning that girls who don't defy gender roles aren't entirely evil and can be friends with The Heroine.

Wonder Woman and many of the female X-men (would that make them double x men? For the chromosome, you see... ho, ho, ho... I slay me!) have some really strong friendships, as do, I am assured, Oracle (the artist's creation formerly known as Batgirl) and Huntress.

IIRC, Crusher and Troi were pretty close as well... as close as anyone got on TNG without sleeping together or altering each other's circuitry.

Frost and Thorn seem more fantasy, as do Tarma and Kethry, but fantasy cheats by having its root in the fairy tale--- not the Disney princess version, but wise Vassilisa and her doll; Snow White and Rose Red; the Fairy Godmother and Cinderella's mom, offstage. (Robin McKinley does a lot of good fantasy girl pair-bonding, I think: Aimee and Rae, Peony and Rosie, the sisters Merchant and Beauty).

I dunno. Yes, it's pigeonholing, but myself and not a few of my girl friends who read spec fic spent a lot of time being forced into the company of other, more "popular" girls who wanted to play "normal" games when all they wanted to do was find out how chapter eighteen ended... wasn't it a female fantasy writer who said that the only thing more deadly dull than putting on clothes and taking them off and thinking about how pretty (or not) they were was doing the same stupid thing with a stupid doll? And the "more popular" girls did NOT want to waste their precious Barbie time with us. And don't forget, m'dear, there is still a certain amount of wanting to "escape the gender stereotype;" many people's minds seem to shutter closed when they read about women talking about women-things. It may be a bit of a mine-field; if women completely avoid the subjects "typical" of women, they're men with breasts; if not, they're walking stereotypes. Seems to me you'd have to be pretty confident to even try writing women in the context of other women.

My .03; keep the change, or tell me why you don't find so many long-married couples OUTSIDE of science fiction in literature.
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From:netmouse
Date:September 16th, 2006 12:13 pm (UTC)
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Huh. I don't remember any real friendships in the handmaid's tale. But I really disliked that book, so maybe that's why.


A lot of what my closest female friends and I did when we were kids was play make-believe. Whether you do that with barbies or with wizards staffs out in the woods, it's fun (of course, I prefered to do it with lincoln logs and star wars figurines because then I could build cities to play in -- playing with the props wasn't as much fun as makeing them to me, it's true). Dress-up is fun too, as long as it's about being silly and pretty (or ghastly) instead of what the current fashion is and how important it is to fit in. I think one of the fascinating things about fandom is that it promotes an image of strong intelligent women who can also have fun dressing up.

Seems to me you'd have to be pretty confident to even try writing women in the context of other women.

Yeah, I think so. But that's part of why I'd like to see it done.
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From:the_leewit
Date:September 16th, 2006 02:23 am (UTC)
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Oh, yeah. And Sailor Moon. How can I forget Sailor Moon? ^.^
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From:sueij
Date:September 16th, 2006 03:49 am (UTC)
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Different genre, but in graphic novels, Terry Moore's _Strangers in Paradise_ has the most amazing friendship between Katchoo and Francine. And Terry, much to many readers' surprise, is a man writing this fantastic stuff.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:September 16th, 2006 11:46 am (UTC)
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I do admire the relationship in Strangers, but since Katchoo is in love with Francine, it isn't exactly the sort of friendship I'm thinking of.
From:rachelann1977
Date:September 16th, 2006 01:08 pm (UTC)
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Someone else mentioned Marion Zimmer Bradley, but neglected to mention the Avalon series. this is strictly fantasy, but nonetheless tells the tale of Arthur from the perspective of the inhabitants of Avalon, all female. The friendships depicted there are diverse, enduring, and quite moving.

Still, it's the only really good example I can think of, and I can't think of any in popular sci fi. Interestingly enough, though, there are some amateur authors who write sci fi on this erotica web site Chuck and I subscribe to, that describe some of the most wonderful female friendships. And I'm not just talking about sexual relationships, either. Most of it's trash, but a couple of the authors are really quite good.
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From:jeffreyab
Date:September 16th, 2006 02:48 pm (UTC)
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"Virgin Planet" by Poul Anderson. Two of the main characters are clone sisters.

"Alien Island" by Detroit's own T.L. Sherred. A spy and an alien.

Off the top of my head.
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From:overthesun
Date:September 16th, 2006 04:21 pm (UTC)
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Spider robinson: Calahan's Lady, and Lady slings the booze. Almost any of the relationships that Lady Calahan has have that sort of strength, and mentorish strength, though, I will admit, none of them are well explored.

John Varley's 3 book series - "Titan" "Wizard" and "Demon" focus around quite feminine female characters, and the first two books hold a level of epic connection to match Sam and Frodo.

Spider Robinson - Night of power. Wife and step-daughter relationship, quite strong.

Spider Robinson - Stardancer series, Last book, either starmind, or Starseed, the relationship betweem the main character, and her Australian Aborigine Room mate. . . .

Can't pull any more than that off the top of my head, right now.
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From:matt_arnold
Date:September 16th, 2006 09:24 pm (UTC)
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You beat me to it, in mentioning Varley's Titan, which was the first thought that came to my mind. You also mirror the Sam and Frodo analogy which was foremost in my head while I read the Titan books. However, Sam and Frodo did not have a sexual encounter to get each other through the most difficult moments of their journey, whereas Cirroco and Gaby at one point do. So I think it just barely edges out of what
[Error: Irreparable invalid markup ('<lj-user="netmouse">') in entry. Owner must fix manually. Raw contents below.]

You beat me to it, in mentioning Varley's Titan, which was the first thought that came to my mind. You also mirror the Sam and Frodo analogy which was foremost in my head while I read the Titan books. However, Sam and Frodo did not have a sexual encounter to get each other through the most difficult moments of their journey, whereas Cirroco and Gaby at one point do. So I think it just barely edges out of what <lj-user="netmouse"> is looking for.
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From:matt_arnold
Date:September 16th, 2006 09:38 pm (UTC)
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I don't understand the comment about a character being nominally a woman but not acting like a woman has to act in order to be a "true" woman. I can understand the assertion that certain sweeping generalizations about the genders are true, but in this case, which ones did the character defy that you wish she hadn't?

Authors will often obey the adage "write what you know." I think a lot of science fiction authors write about lonely characters specifically to avoid having to describe intimacy poorly. Out of all the factors of the techno-social complex -- such as science, philosophy, politics, engineering, crime, economics, or business -- could it be that romance and family are the factors they tend to understand the least? There are other genres that specialize in that.
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From:netmouse
Date:September 17th, 2006 12:24 pm (UTC)
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I don't understand the comment about a character being nominally a woman but not acting like a woman has to act in order to be a "true" woman. I can understand the assertion that certain sweeping generalizations about the genders are true, but in this case, which ones did the character defy that you wish she hadn't?

It wasn't that she defied any generalizations in particular, it's just that you could have made her character male by replacing the names and the pronouns and there's not a single thing that would have felt out of place. The main differences between her and the male characters seemed to be that a) she had faced a great deal of opposition to her taking a leadership role, and that b) she did not take up weapons even though they were in the middle of a war. Especially noticeable was that she had no sexual characteristics, behaviors, or relationships, and no relationships with any other women (none in her office that she worked with, even) and that the only other women who had lines in the book were a priestess who was little more than a mouthpiece for her god (and lost without it), and two women who were both love/sex interests and who were, really, fine characters, but who had very small roles to play - and the only relationship one of them had with another woman was her sister.

I guess part of my assertion is that I feel like real women tend to associate with other women, at least, you know, *some* of the time.
From:elysdir
Date:September 17th, 2006 02:39 am (UTC)

More possible items

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Passing along some suggestions from others.

Disclaimers: I haven't read most of the following; not all of them are *positive* portrayals of such friendships; at least half of these are fantasy; some may or may not be anywhere close to what you're looking for. And I wasn't sure whether you were specifically looking for works by men or not.

Also, the below list is of course not intended to disagree with your premise that such friendships between female characters are relatively rare in sf; I agree that they're rare. But I thought you might be interested in seeing a few more examples or possible examples.

Alastair Reynolds: Pushing Ice
Andrea Hairston: Mindscape
Charles de Lint: (various)
Don Sakers: Dance for the Ivory Madonna
Eleanor Arnason: A Woman of the Iron People
Jane Yolen: The Mermaid's Three Wisdoms
Jane Yolen: Sister Light, Sister Dark
Kate Elliott: Jaran series
Laurie Marks: Elemental Logic series
Melissa Scott: Trouble and Her Friends
Nicola Griffith: Slow River
Suzy McKee Charnas: Holdfast Chronicles

...Have you considered suggesting this as a panel topic for next year's WisCon? We did one on relationship networks in sf a couple years back (my favorite example there is Le Guin's "The Shobies' Story"), but I don't feel like we quite managed to do justice to even that particular angle on the general topic, and I think your idea here is an interesting and different angle anyway.

...Also possibly relevant in thinking about this stuff: the (somewhat misnamed) "Mo Movie Measure," noting the paucity of movies (and, by extension, books) in which two named female characters talk to each other about something other than men. That's not nearly as strong a criterion as what you're looking for, but it's still rarer than one might wish.

...Not entirely related to your topic, I'm also curious about examples of male/female (but nonsexual and nonromantic) close friendships in sf. I feel like it's more common than the two-women friendships you're talking about, but the only one I can think of offhand is in Parke Godwin's A Truce With Time. Well, and I guess there's Bujold's Ethan of Athos.
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From:dagibbs
Date:September 17th, 2006 03:32 am (UTC)

Re: More possible items

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Melissa Scott: Trouble and Her Friends

I wanted to mention Melissa Scott, since I had the feeling she had more than one occurence of this, but I couldn't bring a specific pairing or book to mind.
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From:ozarque
Date:September 18th, 2006 12:34 pm (UTC)

Thanks twice....

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Thanks for bringing up this topic, and for inspiring all the excellent comments.
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From:nnaloh
Date:September 20th, 2006 04:57 am (UTC)

Re: Thanks twice....

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Ah, that reminds me, if no-one's brought them up yet: Suzette Haden Elgin's "Native Tongue" series.
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