Our Problem With “Just Friends”

I read an article awhile ago (I wish I could remember where, but I was unfortunately only willing to devote 5 minutes of Googling to the enterprise) which considered the idea of male/female platonic friendship. According to this author, such a thing is impossible. The author maintained that the default relationship for a man and a woman is romantic, and if the relationship is platonic, the man and woman must find something repulsive about the other. The logical conclusion of this argument is that remaining friends with someone you find repulsive is near impossible, and so the only possible male/female relationship is romantic.

I don’t agree with this argument, and I will get into the reasons why in a moment, but it certainly seems as though our pop culture does. Given any given set of opposite sex friends in media, one will inevitably be gay, unbearably dorky, taken, or the ultimate true love interest. A television show about a group of friends generally devolves into romantic do-si-do (seriously, are there any possible couplings even left on Glee? besides, like, Becky and Kurt’s dad?) because television writers think that stability in relationships is boring. To be fair, from a narrative standpoint, they’re not entirely wrong. Once the parameters of a relationship are established, there are only so many places it’s possible to explore within that relationship – which is one of the reasons that happily married couples are so rare in televisionland. So it does make sense that, on a slow week, writers might look at two people who have been friends for a long time and decide to throw them together and see what happens.

And it’s not as though there isn’t any validity to this impulse – it wouldn’t be so widespread if it wasn’t a little bit true. At some point, the line between close friendship and romance does get muddled, and the affection, trust, loyalty, and comfort of the former can be  translated to the latter. But – and this is a Sir Mix-A-Lot sized but – it’s not nearly as common or as easy as Hollywood would have us believe. Because platonic friendships are real, and they are strong, and (I might be getting pedantic here) they are good.

I’ve been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time over the past few weeks, and I’ll discuss the show more when I finish, but there was one episode in Season 3 which really stood out to me. I had been a bit worried about Buffy up to this point – everyone for whom it wasn’t creepy had been romantically matched up at some point or another – and, as you may have surmised by now, I’m not really a huge fan of romatic do-si-do. But then there was a moment – and I’ll try to keep this as vague as possible to avoid spoilers – where two characters, who had imagined a romantic connection from the moment they met, gave into their attraction and began to kiss, only to find that they simply did not enjoy doing so all that much. I loved this moment. I read it as sort of a rebuttal to people like the author I mentioned above, showing that a lack of romantic attraction does not necessarily equate to repulsion, that two people can find each other perfectly affable and interesting and attractive and just not be compatible.

Because what seems to get lost in consideration of male/female relationships is that platonic and romantic relationships are fundamentally different, and one does not necessarily flow naturally into the other. We don’t approach platonic friendships the same way we do romantic relationships, and shifting our understanding of a relationship from one to the other is often difficult. But I can deal with the unrealistic portrayal of this transition; that’s not what really bugs me about Hollywood’s treatment of coed friendship.

What really bugs me is the tendency to treat romance as the desired end. If a man and a woman meet at the beginning of a movie, nine times out of ten they’re together by the end of the movie. It’s not even that they’re not given a chance to just be friends – just being friends isn’t even considered as an option. And I really don’t like that, because platonic friendships are valuable, and they yield benefits which are not necessarily possible in a romantic relationship. If you think about it, Hollywood’s insistence that every movie include at least one kiss marked by sweeping camera angles, soaring music, and melodramatic lighting is rather archaic. The idea that men and women can only relate to each other romantically seems a relic of a much less progressive time. Friendship is fundamentally intellectual – suggesting that men and women can never be friends suggests a (nonexistent) intellectual divide between the two genders.

I’m not saying that male/female friendships are never depicted – they often are, and often are done so well. But I have a serious problem with the fact that the male and female leads are never just friends. The insistence in pop culture that friends always become lovers messes with our perceptions and expectations in real life. Just once, I would like to see a movie where two people meet cute, get to know each other, and never consider the possibility of romantic interaction – not because one is gay, or taken, or enjoys World of Warcraft, but just because they mutually care about each other as friends and nothing more. Or what if there were a long-running television show where two characters manage to resist the hormonal anomaly which seems to overtake all denizens of the medium at some point or another and never even kiss? I just wish that, once, a male character and female character could be consistently treated as well-rounded individuals instead of sexual objects. Because the way things stand right now, it’s kind of depressing for those of us who live in the real world.

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