Cross gender friendship needs an urgent rebrand.
There is an entire industry of books, articles and courses in which ‘pick up artists’ advise young men on how to avoid the doom of the ‘friendzone’. In the language of these gurus, time invested in a friendship with a woman is currency that can be rightfully exchanged for sexual favours. Friendship with women is actively to be avoided through careful training.
The phrase “let’s be friends”, from someone of the opposite sex, is often used euphemistically for the worst kind of rejection. Many girls see a man they fancy telling her he sees her ‘as a friend’ as sexual Def Con 1. Friendship can feel like a C grade or a participation award. It’s fine, but it’s not what you wanted.
From a very early age, we encourage boys and girls to see one another as potential romantic partners. If a young boy talks a lot about a particular girl, the inevitable response, from everyone, will be ‘is she your girlfriend?’ If a teenage boy puts up a poster of Malala or Hilary Clinton on his bedroom wall, rather than Megan Fox in a bikini, questions might be asked about his sexuality or mental stability. We expect boys to see girls in either a romantic or maternal way very early in life and, more often than not, they rise to this expectation.
If a man and a woman are both straight and friends with one another, common wisdom dictates that one party will develop romantic feelings. Women are told they are naïve for thinking a man might actually just want to be their friend because, of course, all men ever want is sex (they think about sex 6 times a second, duh) and, obviously, sex is the only resource women can provide.
In “When Harry Met Sally”, widely agreed to be one of the great romantic comedies of all time, the two leads who are - you guessed it - good friends but will eventually become - you guessed it - romantically involved, take a cross-country road trip together. An argument ensues over exactly this issue.
Harry: You realise of course that we can never be friends.
Sally: Why not?
Harry: What I'm saying is... and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form, is that men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way. Sally: That's not true, I have a number of men friends and there's is no sex involved. Harry: No you don't. Sally: Yes I do. Harry: No you don't. Sally: Yes I do. Harry: You only think you do. Sally: You're saying I'm having sex with these men without my knowledge? Harry: No, what I'm saying is they all want to have sex with you. Sally: They do not. Harry: Do too. Sally: They do not. Harry: Do too. Sally: How do you know? Harry: Because no man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive, he always wants to have sex with her.
Harry is portrayed, here, as a cynical, says-it-like-it-really-is kind of a guy. Sally, on the other hand, is frivolous and hopelessly naive for thinking that any man would ever want to be her friend (silly Sally!). In this scene, Harry wants Sally to know that he knows more than she, silly Sally, could ever know about the intentions of her male friends. She thinks she knows her male friends, but Harry really knows them.
Harry and Sally are the most famous example of this trope. But it’s not just them. It’s Ron and Hermione in “Harry Potter”. It’s Peggy and Stan in “Mad Men”. Jess and Nick in “New Girl”. Dawn and Tim in “The Office”. The double whammy of Monica and Chandler and Ross and Rachel in “Friends”. Part of the definition of a romantic comedy - all the way from “It Happened One Night” (1934) through to “The Big Sick” (2017) - is a teasing, sparring friendship that twists, after a series of hilarious mishaps, into romantic bliss. We all know, because we’ve seen it played out a million times, that the show ain’t over until the kiss or the declaration of love. If “Friends” had ended with Ross turning to Rachel and saying, “you know what Rach? I’ve really come to appreciate our friendship after a tricky ten years”, it would feel like an administrative error or, at the very least, a momentous anti-climax.
We never see films about the platonic love between a man and a woman. Male female friendships are undervalued in popular culture and, as a result, undervalued in our own lives.
There’s no socially accepted space for the ‘Boy Best Friend’ in the life of a woman. There’s no “Master of Honour” at her wedding. He doesn’t ask your father for permission to take you to Nando’s or to the pub for a cold one. He doesn’t give you a special ring to prove his love. There’s no section for him in Clinton’s Cards. But he’s there. When all of your boyfriends, Tinder stalkers, fuckboys, ‘U Up’ boys, sad loves and bad loves are long gone, Boy Best Friend will still be there to talk about the universe til 5AM, tag you in the latest memes and extend your music taste beyond early Jamie T.
In another classic sitcom, “Will & Grace”, featuring a gay man and straight woman living together in New York (because, in sitcom-land, no other places exist), Grace becomes worried about the future of their relationship towards the end of the series. She turns to Will and asks:
Grace: We're not a couple. We're not married. We don't have kids. What do we have to keep us together?
But that’s exactly it. There are societal pressures, or dependent third parties, to bind together the girl and her boy best friend. They don't stick together because they've said vows in a village church. They are there because they want to be. And this makes the relationship more sacred, not less.
So – let’s appreciate the male-female friendship as an end in itself, not a means to something sexier, happier or more intense. The best friend of a different gender is not a consolation prize but a happy, lucky thing: a Trojan horse in this exotic land of the opposite sex, debunking myths about men and their mystical ways and providing a valuable insider’s view. Girls are good for boys and boys are good for girls because, if nothing else, they realise they’re just the same thing in a slightly different shape.
The classic sitcom Seinfeld made fun of the 'will they/won't they' trope in their final episode. The protagonist, Jerry, takes a flight with Elaine, his best friend for the show's entire eleven-year run. The plane nosedives in heavy turbulence and Elaine tells Jerry she's always wanted to say something. But before she can get it out, the plane steadies. Later, he asks:
Jerry: Hey Elaine, what was it you were about to say to me on the plane when it was going down?
Elaine: I’ve always loved U...nited Airlines.
The show was trying to subvert the sickly-sweet, romanticised version of life we see on screen, where boys and girls exist to be secretly in love. In so doing, it was saying something very bold: sometimes friends are just friends, and that's enough.
Written by Matilda Curtis
Illustrated by Josh King
(...a girl and a boy who are actual real-life friends).