If Men and Women Can Really be Friends, Why Can't We Stop Debating the Issue?

Can men and women ever just be friends? Evolution and Billy Crystal say no. But William Deresciewicz argues in the Times' Opinion Pages that, despite Hollywood's determination to present us with romcom after romcom about not-so-hopelessly-unrequited "platonic" friendships, men and women can definitely be buds.* "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," he writes. Is he protesting a tad too much?

Deresciewicz describes the history of male-female friendships, a concept that was more or less unknown until feminism became a widespread movement in the 1890s and friendship became a "political demand" of the "New Woman":

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.

That's interesting, but "the notion of friendship as the root of romantic relationships" is different from the notion that men and women can be friends without at least one of them secretly wanting to bone the other. As Deresciewicz notes, the best relationships are based on a solid friendship — but no one's arguing against that. The real question is: can a truly solid friendship with a member of the opposite sex ever really be 100% platonic for both parties involved?

Maybe the movies are to blame for our preoccupation with male-female friendships. Deresciewicz says a lack of "narrative" is one reason why we never see male-female platonic friendships depicted in pop culture — friendship isn't as structured or as sexy as courtship — but he (aptly) points out that it goes deeper than problematic storytelling:

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.

"Consult your own experience, but as I look around, I don't see that platonic friendships are actually rare at all or worthy of a lot of winks and nudges," Deresciewicz concludes. I'd really like to say that I'm with him on this one: Fuck Hollywood! Men and women are having healthy, normal friendships all over the place! But while I'm always down to combat chick flick tropes, I can't truthfully say I agree — and I've never met anyone who, after reflecting on their own experiences, thinks it's that easy for men and women to just be friends. Genuinely close, platonic male-female friendships exist, of course, but it's usually only after the sex issue has been, ahem, "taken care of" by an initial hookup, after one person rejects the other's advances, or if one person is already in a serious relationship.

Here's a thought: why are we so fixated on arguing over whether men and women can be friends? Would we really be so obsessed with the debate if uncomplicated male-female friendships were the norm? Probably not; we'd be too busy hanging out with each other, without being distracted by ambiguous text messages, jealous side glances, and awkward drunken hookups. Perhaps we strive to act like we're totally cool with male-female friendships because we don't want to admit that it's hard to sustain a completely platonic friendship with a member of the opposite sex without repressing hormonal instincts; it makes us feel like animals that can't control our impulses. "I want to believe," said one Jezebel staffer. "But I guess if I look at my behavior...wah-wah. Sad trombone."

*Note: Deresciewicz is (and therefore we are) only talking about heterosexual male-female friendships here, obviously.

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