this has definitely been a week of good reads… here’s another great piece on us, busy humans… this time on friendship
A Man. A Woman. Just Friends?
By WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ
Published: April 7, 2012
“Just as suffrage represented feminism’s vision of the political future, friendship represented its vision of the personal future, the central term of a renegotiated sexual contract.”
CAN men and women be friends? We have been asking ourselves that question for a long time, and the answer is usually no. The movie “When Harry Met Sally…” provides the locus classicus. The problem, Harry famously explains, is that “the sex part always gets in the way.” Heterosexual people of the opposite sex may claim to be just friends, the message goes, but count on it — wink, wink, nudge, nudge — something more’s going on. Popular culture enforces the notion relentlessly. In movie after movie, show after show, the narrative arc is the same. What starts as friendship (Ross and Rachel, Monica and Chandler) ends up in bed.
There’s a history here, and it’s a surprisingly political one. Friendship between the sexes was more or less unknown in traditional society. Men and women occupied different spheres, and women were regarded as inferior in any case. A few epistolary friendships between monastics, a few relationships in literary and court circles, but beyond that, cross-sex friendship was as unthinkable in Western society as it still is in many cultures.
The New Woman was intelligent, well read, strong-willed, idealistic, unconventional and outspoken. For her, relationships with men, whether or not they involved sex, had to involve mental companionship, freedom of choice, equality and mutual respect. They had, in short, to be friendships. Just as suffrage represented feminism’s vision of the political future, friendship represented its vision of the personal future, the central term of a renegotiated sexual contract.
We have trouble, in our culture, with any love that isn’t based on sex or blood. We understand romantic relationships, and we understand family, and that’s about all we seem to understand.
We have trouble with mentorship, the asymmetric love of master and apprentice, professor and student, guide and guided; we have trouble with comradeship, the bond that comes from shared, intense work; and we have trouble with friendship, at least of the intimate kind. When we imagine those relationships, we seem to have to sexualize them.
Close friendships between members of the same sex, after all, are also suspect. Even Oprah has had to defend her relationship with Gayle King, and as for men and men, forget about it.
I cannot think of another area of our lives in which there is so great a gap between what we do and what our culture says we do. (don’t tempt me… ) But maybe things are beginning to change. Younger people, having grown up with the gay-rights movement and in many cases gone to colleges with co-ed dormitories, are open to a wider range of emotional possibility.
Friendship between the sexes may no longer be a political issue, but it is an issue of liberation: the freedom to love whom you want, in the way that you want. Maybe it’s time that we all took it out of the closet.