Thursday, January 27, 2011

The feminist critique

I recently discovered that there was an arm of academia dedicated to the study of feminisms in science fiction. Now, how cool is that? I have always critiqued what genre fiction I come across along feminist lines – I am always interested in how female characters are portrayed and treated - but I had never thought to make it a formal line of study. To find that it is not only a line of study, but that several scholars have done dedicated research into it, warms my nerdy heart. Because last year, I read a few stories that got me thinking about how female friendships are portrayed in the media.

Friendships have always been fraught. However, in patriarchal societies they come with extra strain. One of the tools of a patriarchy is to pit women against each other. It’s the classic divide-and-conquer strategy. If women are constantly vying against each other for the attention of men, they can never come together to truly challenge the status quo. Another tool of patriarchy is to tie a man's sense of self to very narrow sets of actions. Thus, men must walk a fine line to constantly prove their masculinity.

Thus, in many patriarchal societies, there is a constant fear among men that expressing too much vulnerability in their friendships with other men will make them seem weak or worse, gay. Among women, there is an underlying fear that your friend will steal your man. In popular culture, the anxiety among men is often treated with humour, but that same anxiety in women is often portrayed as more sinister.

We carry our real-world preconceptions and prejudices into our fantasies and three speculative fiction examples, Jennifer’s Body (movie directed by Diablo Cody), Ponies (short story by Kij Johnson), and We Heart Vampires!!!!! (short story by Meghan McCarron), show that the underlying assumptions about friendships among women can remain in place even when all the other rules go out the door.

In the movie "Jennifer’s Body," the friendship between two teens is tested when one of them turns into a succubus and has to devour men to live. In "We Heart Vampires!!!!," a similar teen friendship is strained when one of the girls starts dating a 70-year-old vampire who may not be the mysterious angst-ridden lover he seems to be. In "Ponies," a little girl must decide whether to sacrifice her beloved pet to join a clique of popular girls.

In each of these stories, there is an element of competition. One teen is more attractive than the other. In "Jennifer’s Body," Jennifer is a devastatingly attractive teen who can – and often does – get any man she wants, but all she wants are the men in her friend’s life. Needy is content to lose out to her more popular friend, but things get sticky when the insatiable Jennifer goes after her boyfriend. In "We Heart Vampires!!!!," Bob is far more popular than George. George is resigned to the fact that when  Bob has a new man, she takes second place. But an ill-fated trip to the mall with Sven, Bob’s new vampire boyfriend, exposes the fault lines beneath their relationship and brings some startling conclusions to the forefront. In "Ponies," the question of status – being in the popular crowd – becomes a matter of life or death.

There is no denying that there is an element of competition in friendships among women. Lucinda Rosenfeld’s “I’m So Happy for You,” is a funny, intelligent examination of this issue. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if all these stories are missing something. Yes, being friends is tough, but isn’t the trope of the bitchy alpha female and her clueless/naive subordinate a little limiting?

There is a vast amount of scientific evidence that shows that women have more fulfilling and sustainable friendships than men. Because of the way they are socialized, women are often more comfortable sharing their feelings with each other. They tend to be less hierarchical, relying on horizontal networks rather than a single leader. Friendships between women can be the bedrock of a lifelong journey of mutual support and understanding. A vein of reassurance that can enrich any life.

So while these stories may make for exciting entertainment, I can’t help but feel they may have missed the point. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your conclusion! I think that those movies choose the more dysfunctional portrayals of female relationships purely for entertainment value. Showing more holistic feminine relationships are too boring. But in my own life experience, female relationships are encouraging and happy.