Rocky Relationships: The Case of Internalized Sexism

First matter of business to attend to: go read Nafiza’s post on Fictional Female Friendship. Done? Good. Because my post is something like a lego block that sits atop of Nafiza’s.

While I loved all of Nafiza’s post, her disclaimer in the beginning– about how her post was about “female friendships that appears in fiction” and not about how “female friendship is fictional”– is what sparked off this rambling of mine. I suddenly had this anxiety-inducing flashback of high school!

And these are the things I remembered of my friendships from that horrible *shudder* time *shiver*:

  • My closest friends were girls.
  • But somehow I had the most honest conversation with guy friends, where I gossiped shamelessly about the girls I hung out with.
  • Not that I felt ashamed then because the way I saw it, all girls stabbed each other in the back.
  • I hung out with all kinds of girls– girls who spoke up boisterously about their sexual prowess, girls who spoke up boisterously about their sexual purity, girls who were boss at make-up, girls who frowned at those who were boss at make-up, girls who folded their skirts to make them shorter, girls whose skirts hung low to make them longer, girls who were athletic, girls who faked swooning to avoid sports, girls who actually swooned– and my interactions with them were always civil, often friendly, but seldom genuine.
  • As a result, I’m barely friends with any of them now. I worry that they will see how much I’ve changed, or how little I’ve changed, or that I will see how much/little they’ve changed; and I’m much too cowardly to face those conversations now, years later.

I’m sure there must have been good times, if pictures from Facebook are to be believed. But when I think of my friendships from high school, I think of the two tracks that seemed to play on loop in my teenaged brain. One was all mopey and insecure like [pick any Simple Plan song, since that’s all people seemed to listen at my high school] and the other was obnoxious and egotistical [like Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” which was also quite popular then]. Back then, when they played together, it sounded to me like Moral High Ground. In truth, it was really just me being Self Righteous, and being unable to recognize what Internalized Misogyny looked like.

Basically, I was the girl that Nafiza and I (and probably lots of girls) hate reading now. I’d say one thing to my friends:

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And think another thing to myself:

And just because I never said it aloud like dear Regina does here, it doesn’t make me any less disingenuous. *rolls eyes at past!Yash* I’d like to think I’m better now. I’m not yet the best or the nicest I can be, but I acknowledge that (much like feminism) being a better person is a process, it’s work.

Which got me thinking, sometimes I do enjoy reading YA that intentionally discusses how difficult female friendships can be, especially since we are raised to hate ourselves and therefore hate any girl who may actually like some part of themselves, because we start to believe that the “feminist” reversal of Getting the Girl trope is obviously Getting the Guy, and if we don’t believe those (and several other random rules of Being Female) we don’t even need a boyfriend to inform us that we’re wrong, we just police ourselves instead, using anything from passive-aggressive compliment/insults to outright bullying.

I think, if we are interested in being better people and moving forward, it’s important to acknowledge these issues and explore them and try to make sense of them. To that end, I’ve made a list of stories that talk about friendships that grow from uneasy beginnings:

Since I read this the most recently, this is my first choice. Romy, the protagonist, faces a lot of hostility for “crying rape”. Her peers perceive manifestations of her trauma as guilt and condemn her for every action (and non-action), which makes it hard for her trust her ex-best friend Penny, who wants to make things right between them. It’s … a difficult relationship to talk about if you want to avoid spoilers. Just read it.

The story opens with protagonist Kami already having Angela as a best friend. So, when (beautiful, blonde) Holly starts to hang around their group, Kami keeps her at arm’s length as if to say, “Position’s already been filled, thanks”. In truth, SRB was writing from her own experiences of judging girls as too ditzy to hang out with, which happens to be something of a near-universal truth for teenagers (and some grown-ups). I kind of love how circumstances (and Angela, to some extent) conspire to make Kami see Holly in a new light. The thing about this entire series is not so much the murder and magic (though those bits were fun), but seeing how, despite the odds, something green and bright and full of life grows out of the concrete.

You know how in some books, girls compete to Get The Guy? Well, in this one, they learn to be friends (slowly and uneasily) as they compete to Get The Job, which I think is good. Women should be encouraged to be ambitious. What I appreciate here though is how SRB tries to humanize the competitors and their relationship.

Without giving away anything, I would like to admit that, personality-wise, in high school I was a lot like Ann. (Only, I was smart enough to keep my opinions to myself.) I recognize myself and so many others in life in the characters Libba Bray presents to us. It makes my wish that my own story had gone differently …

Rory, the protagonist, is fast friends with her roommate at the new school. It’s when Bhuvana comes along that Rory is on defence. And then you read The Shadow Cabinet and look at how far these Rory and Boo have come. Oh, and I need to talk about how much I love that Bhuvana goes by Boo, wears brightly coloured thongs, does not care about grades, and is basically the one who gets judged instead of the one does the judging. Much unlike …

… Shanti, who is deeply unhappy that she will be judged against the only other “exotic” pageant competitor, Nicole. I said I was listing books are all about how internalized sexism plays a role in defining friendships between women, but this one is the only one that talks about internalized racism, within the patriarchal institution that is a beauty pageant. God, do I love this book!

The friendships in this one are complicated. You get all types: the hard ones, the easy ones, the begrudging ones, the toxic ones … all of them are explored with brutal honesty. I may have read this one very recently but it is already an all-time fave!

This one is another one that deals with bullying and self-image. It’s also interesting because for the longest time, the protagonist’s only friend is a fictional one! Which brings me to Nafiza’s disclaimer again, since this book is about female friendships in fiction as well as female friendships that are fictional (in that it is between a person and a fictional character). Such a great book. <3

Ha! I tricked you! I said stories that have friendship as a main theme, not YA novels, so I can slip this one in. 🙂 Toph and Katara. Toph, who thinks the only way to be better than everyone (girls, able-bodied people, chosen ones) is to be the toughest and the buffest obviously butts heads with Katara who does not compromise her femininity and motherly attitude for anyone or anything. And yet, it isn’t facing the Big Bad that brings them together, it’s acknowledging that they are vastly different and that they want to be nicer … that they just don’t know how. Never stops them trying though and I love that. (Plus, they are both girls of colour so, yay, solidarity!) The creators continue this tradition of writing strong bonds between women in Legend of Korra too, this time transcending age, personalities, and cultures. Both Legend of Aang and Legend of Korra remain favourites of mine, no matter how many times I re-watch them.

There are probably plenty of others (I so wanted to talk about the progression of Isabelle and Clary’s relationship over TMI and about Poppy and Alice in Doll Bones) and I’m sure I’ll kick myself for forgetting them, but I’m at 1500 words, so let me just say that while I did just spend a whole post talking about why I love reading about these rocky relationships (haha), my hope is one day we get to read a book like The Hobbit where a girl ends up going on an adventure with a bunch of vastly different girls. (Only instead of slaying the dragon– who is also female– they befriend her and fly off into the sunset in search of another adventure?)

To reiterate Nafiza’s post: there’s so much work to be done. *rolls up sleeves*