Trope Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by A.J. @ Lacy Literacy. The goal is to discuss a trope you are indifferent to, love, hate, or think is problematic.
I think I speak for a lot of YA readers when I say this: I’m tired of the over-emphasis on romance. Instead of talking about all the romance tropes I hate (we’ll save that for another day), I’m going to talk about friendship tropes—the ones I hate and what I’d like to see take their place.
Here’s the thing: when I was in high school and into my early twenties, friendship was the most important—and occasionally the most devastating—part of my life. I depended on my friends for emotional support, to keep me entertained, and to keep me motivated. My friends taught me who I was and who I wasn’t; they encouraged me to blossom into my full self, even when sometimes that meant getting hurt. In a lot of ways, my girl friendships in particular taught me what I wanted out of a romantic relationship: the ease, the comfort, and the support.
So why don’t we see more of these friendships in YA contemporary? The answer is that we do, just not always in the way I’d like.
I can’t think of a single person I know who loves reading about Mean Girls. Most of the lady readers I know weren’t necessarily the popular girls in their high schools—some of us are still unpopular in adult life (because yes, that bullshit continues forever until we die. it’s called society.) So if nobody likes Mean Girls, why do we see them so often in books for teenage girls?
Put on your Feminist Hats folks, ‘cause I’m gonna sling some thoughts here.
It comes down to internalized misogyny. As women, and as young girls especially, we’re raised to hate each other because we hate ourselves. Wait, that’s fucked up, you’re thinking. I don’t hate women! I love women! Well, of course you do. But think back to high school. How many of us didn’t have some girl enemy that we hated for reasons we couldn’t even explain? And how many of us weren’t hated by some other girl? The fact is, we’re basically bred for this. The bigger our girl rivalries, the less likely we are to band together with other young women to fight back against misogyny.
I’ve also noticed a newish trope along these lines: the Unpopular Main Character who has an inexplicable Girl Enemy who’s popular and perfect and a total bitch. I most recently noticed this in Off the Page (Jodi Picoult & Samantha Van Leer, 2015). The main character, Delilah, is basically your typical “every-girl” main character, a stand-in for the reader: she’s slightly nerdy (but not unattractively so, obvi) and prefers books to people. As a stand-in character, Delilah has this hardcore rivalry with the most popular girl in school, Allie, who’s perfect and bitchy and tries to steal Delilah’s boyfriend. For some reason, the more a main character is designed to resemble the reader, the more this trope appears.
Don’t get me wrong, this trope is incredibly easy to fall into as a writer. I’ve fallen into it myself, multiple times. Girl friendships are complicated and, like I said, we’re raised to find some girl to hate just a little more than we hate ourselves. But there are alternatives.
For example, what if, instead of writing about Mean Girls, we wrote about what happens with girl friendships fall apart? I recently read A Sense of the Infinite (Hilary T. Smith, 2015), which, among other things, is about the breakdown of a best friendship. But this is depressing! you’re saying. And it is, but it’s also incredibly real.
When I was in high school, my best friend and I fought constantly: she wanted to be in control of our relationship, the one calling the shots, the one bringing me down, and I…well, I was too depressed and self-conscious to realize that I deserved better. The friendship between Annabeth and Noe in A Sense of the Infinite is a lot more complicated, but it was a powerful story because it showed the side that people don’t always talk about. I wonder if I’d read it at 16, if it would’ve changed my perspective, and made me realize that it’s okay to let go of friendships that are toxic. It’s okay to move on. That’s part of life. This idea that “best friends are forever” is cute, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way—so why wouldn’t we want to prepare teens for that?
I would much rather replace every Mean Girl trope with a story about the complications in lady friendships, about how you can lose a friend and gain yourself, stories that show that losing a friend doesn’t mean it’s the end for you.
*to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite comedic lady movies, Mean Girls. Which, by the way, I realize sends some problematic messages, but again, that’s another post.
the bland friendships that stay in the background
This one is so common that it took me forever come up with any examples: because the friendships are so not-there that I can’t even remember any lady friend moments from half the YA books on my shelf. Which is totally not okay.
I get it: people loooove romance. I myself loved romance in YA as a teenager. I sucked down Sarah Dessen novels as fast as I could get my hands on them, and I never noticed that there was often a huge hole where lady friendship should be. I also get that, when you’re writing a book that’s no more than 300 pages, you don’t have a lot of time to flesh out characters who maybe don’t play a big role in the plot.
But I think this is a trend that needs to go.
Take the friendships in a book I read recently, Don’t Ever Change (M. Beth Bloom, 2015). The story focuses solely on the rather self-absorbed protagonist, Eva, whose two best friends are so personality-less that they’re basically interchangeable. At one point, these two friends get upset with Eva for being self-centered and not caring about what’s going on with them—but instead of really addressing that, the fight gets shoved under the rug. After all, the two best friends aren’t really that important.
I don’t think there’s ever really a reasonable excuse for this. Prioritizing romance in particular isolates girls who haven’t started dating yet (aka me in high school)—as well as completely alienating our amazing ace/aro folks who can’t relate. Besides, learning how to do lady friendship is the best possible foundation for learning how to do romance; you can’t be good girlfriend to someone if you can’t be a good friend.
Instead of romance-driven novels, I want to see more books with complicated lady friendships, like the friendship between Mina and Sophie in Far From You (Tess Sharpe, 2014)—which admittedly turns into a romantic relationship, but I appreciate their complex characters. I also appreciated the focus on friendship in You’re Welcome, Universe (Whitney Gardner, 2017), where Julia learns to open up to friendship rather than closing herself off.
Instead of bland friendships that remain in the background, I want to see more Boss Girl Squads, like the different friendships in This Lullaby (Sarah Dessen, 2004), the solid relationships in Not If I See You First (Eric Lindstrom, 2016) and Shadowshaper (Daniel José Older, 2015). I want to see friends supporting each other through crisis, like in Exit, Pursued by a Bear (E.K. Johnson, 2016) and The Upside of Unrequited (Becky Albertalli, 2017).
I want books that prioritize friendship and show just how valuable it can be in a young woman’s life. I want books that reflect my experience: the ups, the downs, and everything in between. Most of all, I want books that treat lady friendship as important as they treat hetero-romance: because girls matter.
That’s it for this edition of Trope Tuesday! What are your least favorite female friendship tropes in YA? Know any books with Boss Girl Squads? Let me know in the comments!