If I Can’t Have You, No One Can: Why Do YA Thrillers Focus on Unhealthy Female Friendships?

Posted October 13, 2016 by Cristina (Girl in the Pages) in Discussions / 7 Comments

*Warning: This post will contain major spoilers for almost all of the books mentioned!*

I’m a huge fan of thrillers, but I don’t read them super often because it can be hard to find quality books in the genre. They can be too predictable, too cliché, have an unsatisfying reveal for who the antagonist is, etc. However, when a good thriller comes along it’s really all anyone can talk about and it tends to take the reading community by storm (for example, I currently have The Girl On the Train in my Amazon shopping cart, because I cannot escape the hype). Yet I can’t help but notice that many, many YA thrillers (of both superior and inferior quality) focus on girl-on-girl hate. They pit two teenagers together, oftentimes best friends, and inject jealousy, rage, and aggression into these relationships that eventually leads to some sort of crime. While I myself am guilty of reading these books, I also find it problematic that society seems so fixated on thrillers that depend on the animosity, passion, and betrayal that can spring out of an intense relationship between two young females.

YA Thrillers That Depend on Unhealthy Female Relationships:


Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas | Dangerous Girls is one of my favorite YA books of all time. It’s written so, so well and builds up believable suspense and suspicion, and has one of the most convincing unreliable narrators of all time. The reveal of the book is a bit ambiguous, but many readers take it to mean that Anna, the protagonist, killed her best friend Elise in a fit of rage driven by jealousy and obsession that grew out of the girls’ extremely co-dependent and obsessive friendship. Flashbacks throughout the novel solidify that Elise and Anna’s relationship turned extremely toxic over the years, and the addition of a new person into their friendship bubble, Anna’s boyfriend Tate, pushed both girls to the breaking point in their friendship.

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten | Another novel that puts a compulsive teenage girl friendship at its center, this novel starts with one of the girls, Delia, being presumed dead, and her former best friend, June, trying to come to terms and understand how her suicide happened. Through flashbacks readers come to learn that June initially cut ties with Delia due to her boundary-pushing behavior, but her grief over Delia’s death pulls her right back into her orbit (because, surprise, she’s not dead!) When June is reunited with Delia, she falls into the trap of letting Delia dictate her actions again, and the reader is left with an extremely vague ending where June is given an ultimatum by her best friend of either faking her death or being murdered.

With Malice by Eileen Cook | This novel begins AFTER the crime has been committed, as Jill wakes up in a hospital after being in car accident where her best friend Simone was killed but she survived. Jill seems to have PTSD and can’t remember what happened when she was driving the car, but now finds herself the number one suspect. It’s revealed that the friends had an intense rivalry over a boy they met during a school trip abroad, but it’s also revealed that before the accident Jill discovered that her best friend had cat fished her and posed as an internet troll who tore apart her self-esteem by harassing her online for years. When an argument leads to an accidental injury, Simone tells Jill she will hold it over her head an use it to intensely manipulate her for the rest of her life, which leads Jill to panic and crash the car intentionally.

Recurring Themes and Tropes

  • Competition– There always seems to be something that creates a competition between the two female leads, whether attention, popularity, or a love interest.
  • Swan and Ugly Duckling– In almost all of these stories there is the “cool” friend and the “average” friend, and the “average” friend can’t believe she is BFFs with this “cool” girl. Oftentimes this leads to outward fawning/inward resentment and strong feelings of both love and hate.
  • Platonic to Passion– In many thrillers that focus on obsessive female relationships gone wrong, the boundaries often become blurred between platonic friendship and more intense intimacy, especially if their friendship becomes extremely insular and doesn’t include other people.
  • I Want What’s Yours– In many plots there is the element of one of the females betraying another, either subtlely or not, by coveting something (usually a boyfriend) that the other female has. It’s usually explained away by the motive of “I felt left out” or “I wanted to feel closer to you by having what you have.”
  • If I Can’t Have You, No One Can– Ah, the theme that usually leads to the crime or climax in these thrillers. When one friend is either “taken away” or chooses to leave the obsessive friendship, this often leads to the circumstances of the murder/disappearance/etc. of the victim in the model, when the “left behind” or “betrayed” friend snaps or seeks revenge.

Why Is This Theme So Successful?

Looking critically at the content of these thrillers that depend on girl-on-girl hate, it becomes a bit disturbing that it’s so compelling to audiences. But the question is why does this theme work so well? Why does this make such a convincing, hypable thriller? What is it about the tensions and distortions of female friendships that are so frightening? Is it because there’s thought to be more of a depth of emotion in female relationships? Is it because the stereotype of competition between females runs so strong throughout our society that we see the friendships turning toxic and manipulative as believable? It’s a formula that has no doubt made some truly successful and entertaining stories, but it’s also important to take a step back and look at the reasons they are so successful and the wider societal mentality that it’s indicative of.

Talk to Me!

Have you noticed an overabundance in girl-on-girl hate in YA thrillers? Why do you think this theme is so successful? Can you think of some of notable thrillers that don’t exploit female relationships? Let me know in the comments!




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7 responses to “If I Can’t Have You, No One Can: Why Do YA Thrillers Focus on Unhealthy Female Friendships?

  1. I have to assume that because these books target female readers that it is easier for them to identify to the female relationships presented in the book.

    And maybe this is a little too deep or really digging; but I also think that society (to a certain extent) drives the need for female competition and comparison. “Look this particular way” or “look at so-and-so, doesn’t she have it all”. I think girls are taught at an earlier age to compare themselves to others and it has become ingrained in our self identity and self-confidence. It isn’t right and it shouldn’t be the case but it is a reality.

    I know I am personally tired of the trope where girls hit on other girl’s boyfriend right in front of said girlfriend. I hate that “every-girl-for-herself” mentality. It paints the picture that we can’t overcome our basal needs. And I think it drives the idea that girls can’t be friends with each other (or at the very least civil).

    Great topic!

  2. This is a really interesting topic! I never noticed about it, I don’t read many thrillers, but I do agree that in YA, not only thrillers, authors tend to focus on girl-on-girl trope, one of the easiest example is mean girls trope and Swan and Ugly Duckling. Maybe because that’s the stereotypes that stick with girls friendship, and since YA reader is mostly girls, it’s so popular because it’s so relateable? Like not all pretty girls are mean, but all of us must’ve encountered at least one of those. And most of us must’ve felt the feeling as the ugly duckling to our swan friends. I know I have, and I guess that’s what make it really relateable for me to read.

    But I do hate reading about those hate tropes, because what people rarely think about is how strong female friendships are. Obsessive or not, we would stick up for our friends, and really loyal with our friends. Mostly it would lead to all the cliques and squads and so on, but it shows how strong our friendships are. I wish authors would highlight that aspect more too.

  3. I ended up skimming this just because I haven’t read most of these books LOL but I’ve totally noticed this theme! Every thriller lately has to do with some kind of unhealthy, obsessive, weird female friendship. I think even Daughter of Deep Silence has some elements of this even though the friend died ASAP haha.

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