July 14, 2013

Heroine Week, Day 7 – Shooting Yankees and Pink-Martini Friends: Women's Friendships in Romance by Shelley Ann Clark

Shelley Ann Clark

I met Shelley on Twitter (this has been a great year to Twitter friendships!) and I anxiously wait to read her books. In the meantime, we can find her over at her virtual home, Wonkomance.


Shooting Yankees and Pink-Martini Friends: Women's Friendships in Romance by Shelley Ann Clark

Friendships among women are tricky things.

They’ve been fetishized, idolized, idealized. They’ve been demonized. We have Steel Magnolias; we also have Mean Girls. Women are competitive, we’re told. Women friends are for life, we’re told. It’s normal to have a frenemy; but your BFF should be closer to you than your husband.

Like nearly everything else about being a woman, ideas about our friendships are presented in a swamp of contradictions, all of them designed to make us feel insecure, to wonder if we’re doing it wrong.

I know I can’t be alone in feeling, often, like I have my face pressed against the glass of these mythical female friendships, standing outside while I watch everyone else have slumber parties without me. It has only been in my adulthood that I’ve been able to make the kinds of friendships with other women that everyone else seems to have had since childhood, in part because--well, I literally WAS standing outside of the slumber parties most of the time as a kid (or worse, invited as a joke).

Romance is a female-dominated field, by far. According to the RWA, 91% of romance readers are women. I have no idea what percentage of romance writers are women, but I’d be willing to bet it’s nearly that high. And while romance is, by its very nature, focused on romantic relationships, it’s a genre that is above all about relationships, period, and that includes friendship. And just as sometimes, romance presents a version of romantic relationships that is extreme, or ideal, or unrealistic, it sometimes does the same with its vision of friendship.

It has taken me years to pinpoint what, exactly, it is that occasionally doesn’t quite work for me. It was actually during a conversation with another writer friend about the frequent desire for heroines to have a fun, fabulous group of girlfriends, with whom they can do things like go shopping for shoes and drink pink martinis. There are a lot of pink-martini friends in Romancelandia.

But what about those of us who don’t drink pink martinis, or adore shoe shopping? Those of us who have formed friendships that are about, say, a mutual love of Gone with the Wind and reproductive rights? Or because we were the two oldest moms in the toddler music class? Or because we were deployed together in a war zone, or worked at the same restaurant as servers and helped each other out when one of us made shitty tips that night?

I think, for me, reading about these “normal, fun,” pink-martini friendships made me feel like there was something wrong with me. I felt a sense of longing, but I also felt incredibly insecure, as if friendships between women had to look a particular way, and I would never, ever fit in. I was back at the slumber party as a joke.

Talk Me Down by Victoria Dahl
The first romance I ever read that really got me thinking about friendships between women was Victoria Dahl’s Talk Me Down. Molly, the heroine, moves back to the small town where she grew up when she inherits her aunt’s house. The primary focus is on her relationship with Ben, her brother’s friend and the guy she had a crush on all her teenage years, but there are also several scenes with her best friend, Lori. In many ways, Molly and Lori’s relationship rang true to me: the bawdy jokes, the easy teasing between them. I want that, I remember thinking, much more clearly than I even felt about Molly’s relationship with Ben.

There is a lot I like about Dahl’s portrayals of friendships among women, in all the books of hers I’ve read. But at the same time, there is a way in which they sometimes don’t ring true to me. That’s not to diminish what she accomplishes in her books, at all. I still think that her friendships are a strong part of her books, and admire that she always includes them. I also think that her friendships often ascend beyond stereotypes of the pink-martini friend. On the other hand, in Talk Me Down, there was a definite element of pink-martini-ness to Lori and Molly’s friendship.

It wasn’t until I read a few other books, and thought about it for years, that I realized that what I really want , at least sometimes, from the friendships in my romances is complexity. Women friends can be loyal and loving and wonderful. They can also get on each other’s nerves, or feel jealous or competitive sometimes. We all struggle with these things, and watching other women overcome them is seriously empowering. Not every single romance will have the space to explore these themes, which is fine. And as someone who does sometimes like shoe shopping and has enjoyed a pink martini in my day, I’m not trying to claim that every book has to do the same thing or tackle the same subject matter.

But let’s think about two books that do this extremely well: Pride and Prejudice and Gone with the Wind.

Lizzie Bennett and Charlotte are best friends, close friends; and yet, Charlotte agrees to marry Mr. Collins practically the moment Lizzie turns him down. She explains her reasoning to her friend, but that doesn’t eliminate the complex emotions Lizzie feels in reaction to this news. There’s an element of betrayal, to be sure, combined with worry for her friend. And Charlotte, it’s made fairly clear, feels some envy for Lizzie’s options. They might go shopping for bonnet trimmings, but beneath that is a sense of multiple, often conflicting, emotions.

Gone with the Wind isn’t a romance-- unless the romance is the friendship between Melanie and Scarlett. And while Melanie’s “quiet goodness” annoyed the dickens out of me, I do think that the text deeply explores the complexities of a friendship between two women. In particular, Melanie’s unyielding acceptance of Scarlett is actually nearly as fierce as Scarlett herself, a stubborn determination to grant her love whether Scarlett wanted to accept it or not. And Scarlett’s feelings about Melanie are far more complicated than she would ever admit to herself. They are allies and rivals at once, and I could probably write another 1,000 words about their story as a kind of romance. Essentially, though, I love the portrayal of a friendship where these two women can save each others’ lives and sometimes even hate each other at the same time.

Because real friendships are sometimes like that: complicated, messy, about so much more than high heels and pink martinis. Once we begin to acknowledge that messiness, maybe we can move beyond the idea that there is one perfect kind of friendship that all the other women are enjoying without us.

Connect with Shelley:


  1. For me, female friendships can be harder than romantic relationships and it is rare to see this in romance. I've had friendship breakups that hurt much more than romantic break ups.

    One romance that deals with complicated freindships is Ain't She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Philips.

  2. Love the examples you use. Yes, those are absolutely REAL friendships.

    I think books and movies etc tend to gloss over friendship as this easy, simple thing, when all relationships are, like you said, messy and imperfect and complicated, if they mean anything. Any relationship takes work and has highs and lows.

    But I absolutely admit to feeling like there's some magical friendship out there I'm missing out on because my friendships don't work like the ones I see in books and TV and movies. There somewhere in the middle between pink martinis and frenemies.

  3. What a great topic and post! In so many pop culture stories, the primary relationships for men are with each other -- among friends, fellow soldiers/fighters/cops/etc., and often the female romantic interest is only there as a one-dimensional placeholder to discourage viewers from reading the bromance as gay.

    We don't often see equivalent friendships portrayed among female characters, although I seem to recall Lena Dunham suggesting that the primary love relationships in Girls are among the female friends. This was true in Sex and the City, too, despite the abundance of pink martinis. And of course there's the always wonderful Paul Feig, who spearheads films like Bridesmaids and The Heat.

    It was the depth of my own real-life friendships with women that inspired the relationship between Jane and Sarah in I'll Become the Sea and especially Fault Lines, in which Jane plays such an essential role in Sarah's recovery from rape. I also thought about Helen in Jane Eyre, and the way she both loves and challenges her friend.

    Personally, I have never had a pink martini with a girlfriend, or talked about shoes (beyond saying something like, "Hey, nice clogs!"). But I would be nothing without my women friends. Our love for each other is as strong, lasting, tumultuous and complex as any romantic relationship, and yes, I would love to see more of these kinds of friendships explored in romance. Offhand, I'd call out Lisa Kleypas and Loretta Chase for nicely highlighting women's relationships with each other. But I bet there are many more.

  4. Thinking more about this I think that part of lack of messy female friendships in romance might have to do with our discomfort with the messiness. I want and have solid female friendships. But they can be messy and a lot of work and I have never felt as much a failure as I did when I ended a 10 yr friendship with my former BFF. When I read romance I really like reading about strong, real friendships, but I'm not sure I want to read about 2 hour screaming crying fights in my escapist pleasure reading. It's too painful. (Not that all messy friendships involve screaming and crying but some of mine have.)

  5. I have been thinking about this post all day. I went to a women's college, and never have I had closer bonds with women friends than during those four years. I think I learned more about surviving fights, loving someone you don't always see eye to eye with, asking for and granting forgiveness, what you really shouldn't ever say, from them than from the romantic relationships I had in those years. Without my friends, would I have been "ready" for my husband when we met a few months after I graduated? (Not to mention for later friendships, and for motherhood?) I doubt it.

    And maybe that's part of why we tend not to see those relationships in romance? That they'd detract from the relationship with the hero? I don't think they would have to, myself--but so often these stories get shunted into women's fiction or chick lit with romantic elements, as if the genre has no room for them.

  6. Great post Shelley. I can relate to much of what you said as I was also one whose face was pressed against the glass when I was younger. I've actually found more acceptance in romancelandia than most anywhere else. It's one of the reasons I love it so.


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