There is no shortage of feminist think pieces on the internet, most written by amazingly intelligent women I admire. I have no desire to pen a think piece, so you can rest easy. Yes, I'm a feminist and I'm interested in feminist issues, but this is a book blog. This space is dedicated to books and today it's dedicated to some feminist books and the importance of feminist stories, specifically those which put Shine Theory into words on the page.
If you are a fan of Ann Friedman (Twitter) and Aminatou Sow (Twitter) and the Call Your Girlfriend podcast, you will know all about Shine Theory. If you aren't a fan of Ann and Aminatou and CYG - stop what you're doing right now and go listen to the podcast (here)! Ann Friedman started the whole movement for Shine Theory - she wrote an amazing piece for New York Magazine all about women supporting women, joining forces and shining brightly. The idea is genius yet so simple:
When you meet a woman who is intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful, and professionally accomplished, befriend her. Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.
(full article here)
I embrace Shine Theory in my personal life and I've been so excited to see a whole movement of young woman embracing it as well. My BFF and I have been dreaming for years of having a Top Ladies Retreat, gathering all of our impressive and beloved female friends, our Top Ladies as we call them, from our separate lives (in different countries these days) and joining forces to create a supergroup of awesomeness. I've been blessed to have a strong bedrock of women to give support as well as to challenge me, my peers as well as my role models. As I attended an all girls school, I feel like my adolescence was defined by Shine Theory, before we had the terminology for it, and it was so important as I weathered the turbulence of my young adulthood.
I'm older now but I'm still reading many books about teenage girls and I see this great opportunity for young girls to find support and challenges through this literature. When I was a teenager I didn't have this great resource of such amazing stories in YA (fewer YA novels were available last decade). And so my question today - where is Shine Theory in YA? What books should today's teenage girls be reading for examples of exciting, positive female friendships that can change lives? I have a few suggestions and I'd love to hear some from you as well.
The trope of 'badass' girls has made it onto the big screen from YA books (Hunger Games, Divergent), but what about normal girls with great, quiet strength found in their friendships? I absolutely love to see realistic female friendship in literature of all kinds, especially books for younger readers, and yet the blockbuster YA series, the two mentioned above, Harry Potter and Twilight (as well as more recent best-sellers such as The Mortal Instruments, Shatter Me, etc.), feature extraordinary young women that are mainly solitary or reliant on young men. Of course these examples and many others do feature friends for the female characters, but the female friendships are not a focus, mainly relegated to sub-plots. Think about how amazing Harry Potter could have been if Hermione was the main character and if she had an equally impressive witch as a best friend to help her defeat Voldemort - what if the trio was Hermione, Ginny, and Luna?
Shine Theory isn't just about female friendship, though. It's about support and confidence and shining brighter together. Unfortunately the world can still be a pretty unfriendly place for smart, driven young women - literature is great at illustrating this fact. But when extraordinary women band together amazing things can happen, and those are stories worth telling.
And so I've made a list of some great examples of Shine Theory in books for/about young women. Who doesn't love a story about impressive ladies coming together to do cool stuff?
Shine Theory in YA Reading List
Keeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen writes great friendships in all of her novels, but in this book (one of her earliest) the relationships between the women in the story take centre stage. This is a quiet story of quiet girl and it's one that rings so true. When Colie arrives in town she is insecure and closed off, but through her relationships with her Aunt Mira and with Morgan and Isabel she begins to gain confidence and learns how to love herself. Morgan and Isabel are an amazing example of a friendship that has been a rock for years, constant through thick and thin. The two longtime friends open up to welcome Colie, which to me is an amazing testament for Shine Theory. Even when you've found your BFF, if there's a new girl in town she just might be the perfect addition to your squad. This book attests to a great message about friendships in young adulthood: sometimes it takes finding the acceptance of the perfect friends to help inspire young women to find confidence in themselves.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Here is a book I would have thought impossible - a literary darling that is about female friendship in childhood and adolescence. Although this book isn't shelved in the YA section, it has the marks of a great literary YA. This is the story of how a friendship forged in the unpleasantness of shared childhood experiences of poverty can be the most powerful relationship of whole lifetime. The emotional range of this novel is its greatest strength - the feelings of young girls and how they are intertwined through friendship are given full attention. A friendship doesn't have to be perfect to be important and for Elena and Lila this is true. These two friends helped to make each other, their lives changed because of their friendship. That's Shine Theory at it's core - young women helping each other become their true selves.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
This is such an astoundingly good book for many reasons, but one of those reasons is because it's a book about two best friends in wartime that doesn't ever question that a relationship between two young women is an important and compelling force. These characters love each other fiercely and are willing to do anything for each other. It's wonderfully exciting to read a book about young women in a war, just as devoted to each other as any 'band of brothers'. This book demonstrates how sisterhood can be just as powerful as brotherhood in wartime, as young women can also fight bravely and passionately for each other and for the greater ideals of the war. I hate to indulge in overused terminology as it can be somewhat reductive, but this story is about of 'badass' women shining brighter in friendship even when they're apart.
Truthwitch by Susan Dennard
In this fantasy world best friends are called Threadsisters and the two main characters, Safi and Iseult, are perfect examples. Their friendship is integral to their identities as witches - they complement each other, they shine together. The two friends come from vastly different backgrounds but that doesn't make a difference to their fierce love for each other. Friendship is a great force for overcoming prejudice and bridging differences, something as true in our very real world as it is in Safi and Iseult's fantasy world. In the acknowledgements for this book, Susan Dennard writes an amazing Shine Theory motto: 'Friendships can be just as epic as romances'. It's so exciting to read about an epic friendship between two young women, a friendship of mythic proportions and maybe one to rival Sam and Frodo? Now we just need the all female alternative to the Fellowship of the Ring.
A Great & Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray & the Gemma Doyle series
A gothic Victorian boarding school novel is a perfect cliché of the type of books usually acceptable for portraying teenage female friendships. After all, for years it was agreed that young girls are flighty and dramatic and easily excitable, enjoying the gratuitous pleasure of melodrama instead of the philosophical challenges of more serious literature. That's just plain bollocks of course. Libba Bray's series about young girls in Victorian England turns the trope upside down. Gemma, Ann, Felicity, and Pippa are true, imperfect teenage girls - they care about trivial things like social status and boys, they indulge in melodrama, they can be cruel and petty - but their bravery and loyalty is formidable and these four friends find strength in their friendship. Throughout the series this exciting, dark and mysterious story shows how girls can overcome anything when they have each other, societal restrictions and inner demons as well as mythical foes in a dangerous enchanted land.
There are of course many other great examples of YA books featuring strong female friendships, but this is merely an introductory reading list of some of my favourites.
Friendships are so important in the teenage years and into young adulthood - they are the people who help you weather some of the most turbulent times of life. For young women it's especially important, when life is starting to get complicated having a support group of smart, brave young women can be life changing. I cringe every time I see a story about a heroine who is so different from all of the normal girls and thus able to be accepted by the boys. I cringe every time I hear a young woman trying to sound cool by mentioning how she's just never had any really great girlfriends because she just feels more comfortable hanging out with the guys. I hate hearing what's wrong with other girls. Growing up is hard, especially when the reward is adulthood in a society that still holds back so many women, and those other girls will be the ones who will understand this.
Female friendship is such a powerful force and I want to see more of it in YA literature - more stories of young women growing up together, tackling challenges together, celebrating life together, changing the world together, etc. etc.
I want to see more Shine Theory in stories for young women - shining brighter together, and not to catch the attention of any guy. Shining just to shine. Or maybe to save the world.