For as long as men and women have been being friends, people have been asking, can men and women be friends? Like, really, truly friends... Without sexual tension or romantic difficulties arising to spur the abrupt, uncomfortable ends of such friendships—or change them to something new? Can men and women get over all of the tricky humps of being two people who otherwise might presumably be attracted to each other (or not) and therefore just be simply friends? Can men and women be, essentially, adults who value each other without throwing the complications of "other messy stuff" into it? And if we can't be, what do we lose?
William Deresiewicz tackled this question in The New York Times over the weekend, asking, "Can men and women be friends? We have been asking ourselves that question for a long time, and the answer is usually no." Deresiewicz, a critic and author, cites reasons political (traditionally, men and women did not even hang out, much less attempt pal-hood) and pop culture (the touchstone here for people of a certain age, of course, is When Harry Met Sally...). Maybe, he says, "the sex part" does get in the way—but at the same time, with little in terms of media or social bolstering of heterosexual male-female friendships, how do we even know how to have these friendships, or that we can? Deresiewicz notes (correctly) that Hollywood tends to put forth the idea of the male/female friends who grow close and then end up together romantically, as well, as something of a love ideal: You know, the one who was right in front of your face the whole time. We see this in movies: Most recently, with The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen, whose best friend is Gale, her hunting companion, though clearly he thinks there's more once he sees her kissing someone else, and maybe she does, too. Going further back, you have the female character in Some Kind of Wonderful, played by Mary Stuart Masterson —her best friend, a guy, has no idea that she is in love with him...until the movie's happy end. Or Duckie and Andie Walsh in Pretty in Pink, a case where the boy has the crush while the girl loves another, and there's a different kind of happy/sad end.
There are a few examples of cross-gender friendships in pop culture. Veronica Mars and Wallace Fennel. Peggy and Don in Mad Men, or, perhaps more recently, Peggy and her coworker Stan. On 30 Rock, there's Liz and Jack, who would never (ever?) hook up, and on Parks and Recreation, there's Leslie and Ron. And books are full of cross-gender friendships, but often they're among prepubescent kids, for example, the friendship between Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke in Bridge to Terabithia. In such cases, as with the friends in My Girl, the threat of sexual tension hasn't really risen yet. Still, says Deresiewicz, despite a lack of "publicity" (romance is after all a better plot line) maybe such male/female platonic friendships are not that rare at all: You see boys and girls hanging out at various ages, congenially and with camaraderie, all the time. (Deresiewicz shows his own age a bit here, saying, "It’s harder for the young, of course — all those hormones, and so many of your peers are unattached.")
In fact, having a lot of male friends has been something this blogger has accomplished later in life rather than earlier, but not, I don't think, because of hormones or attachments. It's more because in getting older you start to realize what you truly value in people and friendships, and you act in such a way to support those things, because you can. And while same-sex friendships are great, in many ways, there are things you cannot get from them. Similarly, there are things you can't always get in romantic relationships. There's a certain ease in platonic friendships with guys: You know they won't judge you, they won't hold grudges, they don't really care what you're wearing, they're not going to compete with you for that cute guy, or that "trapping of success" (whether it's in a job or some other part of life). They also don't "need" anything from you the way romantic partners, or sometimes other women, do. And, once you get to be a certain age as a woman but haven't gotten married or had kids, hanging around guys (who aren't generally talking about babies or wedding plans or husbands), well, it's just...nice. Which is really what a great friendship should be. A quick poll among an array of guys with female friends garnered the following support for such relationships: "I love women and girls like I love any [male friends], and they've taught me so much about life"; "Maybe it has something to do with being a very competitive person and feeling like that comes out more in same-sex friendships"; "I value exposition in a friend...and find that women are more willing to open up and let me listen." A female with a large number of guy friends added, "Maybe because I know exactly what I want out of a relationship, I know I don't even consider my guy friends relationship material—so I don't think about it."
It's more than just anecdotal, though. Scientifically, these friendships are supposed to be good for you—since 2001, if not before! Slate asked the question again in 2010, finding that while Hollywood might say no, the rest of America says, mostly, men and women can be friends—depending on the situation. Pamela Newton, writing for the Huffington Post in 2008, seems to have come down on the side of a tentative yes as well. We're generally all in support of this idea, so why do we keep dredging up the question again and again? Is it really so hard—or is it that we just enjoy talking about it?
There may be something to the latter and the way we consider this sort of mysterious male-female relationship without strings or difficulties a kind of myth to aspire toward. Because all friendships, all relationships, have problems—sexual attraction may be one, lack thereof may be another, but in between those two extremes are a range of difficulties to be considered in friendships because, after all, we are all humans. The question that follows is, as people get married later and later, as more and more people are living as singles, as divorces ratchet up, and as we generally confront new ways to live and bond and relate in less traditional gender-normative ways, will this particular much-explored question become defunct as well, to be replaced with something more along the lines of, "What's wrong with those of us who aren't friends with people of the opposite sex?" Or maybe something else entirely. One thing is certain: The question "Can men and women really be friends?" has started to seem distinctly old-fashioned.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.