“Men and women can’t really be friends, can they?” In the wake of Nora Ephron’s passing on Tuesday, there’s been a revival of this When Harry Met Sally question. And you can probably guess what my answer is. With no disrespect intended to the late feminist, I’m really hoping this is one of her contributions to pop culture whose staying power will erode with time. It’d be easy to dismiss it as no big deal, nothing more than a cute gimmick, but an excellent NY Times piece from earlier this spring asserts what I have always suspected: Our society’s lack of faith in cross-gender friendships signifies its traditional lack of faith in men and women being able to understand each other. And that’s a big deal.
According to tradition, men and women view each other as the Other and only meet for the sake of mating and family, hence the cultures wherein women were banned from being seen with any man who was not their husband or relative. Western pop culture promotes vestiges of this in its assumption that any regular contact with a member of the opposite gender will lead to you falling for them, especially if you’re a guy. As Jeff Deutchman writes in this several-volume Slate article, “It’s called having no standards.” When Harry Met Sally says, Fine, maybe as a guy you don’t fall for every woman who crosses your line of vision, but it’s your only motivation for maintaining a friendship with one, and attraction will always poison friendship. Oh, puh-lease.
“Only worth it if I get laid” may be the rule for a Hollywood character, but it is a very bleak view of the other gender. Friendship may be impossible if you are set on maintaining that view, but in that case, too bad for you. And everyone else around you. I’ve seen friendships survive unrequited love, illicit feelings, romantic trysts and break-ups, and go on to rival any sisterhood or buddy bond in depth. Men and women can sure as hell be friends, and I don’t mean friendly chit-chat at dinner parties. I mean call-up-and-confide-your-deepest-fears, ask-for-advice-on-your-most-serious-problems, make-you-laugh-in-a-way-almost-no-one-else-can friends. Instead of Harry and Sally, they embody Jerry Seinfeld and Elaine Benes, or Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, nurturing an allegiance that says “So what?” to any sexual tension, past or present. They are anathema to the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” folklore, just as international relationships are anathema to racist myths.
It is true that men and women are culturally conditioned to think and behave differently, just as Germans and Americans are culturally conditioned to think and behave differently, as are New Yorkers and Texans, Berliners and Bavarians, Long Islanders and Upstaters. But there is always far more variation in the thoughts and behaviors within cultures than across them. Our traditional categories ignore this, suppressing any details that throw themselves into question, no matter how critical. Arguing against male-female understanding by emphasizing the traditionally recognized differences is disingenuous because it relies on an extremely narrow, heteronormative perspective.
Social conservatives often cite hormonal and genetic differences as wedges between men and women, straights and gays, but such arguments are cherry-picking the facts to prop up the antiquated gender binary. In a New York magazine article on transgender children appearing last month, a theory presented by Dr. Jean Malpas breaks down the concepts of sex and gender into not two but four parts, visually represented on a stick-figure:
- Biological Gender: your chromosomes and genitals. Indicated on the stick-figure’s crotch.
- Sexuality: your romantic attraction to others. Indicated on the stick-figure’s heart.
- Gender Style: sometimes called Gender Expression, your preferred self-presentation in matters such as fashion, posture, speech patterns and hobbies. Indicated by a circle around the outside of the stick-figure’s body.
- Gender Identity: your innate sense of being male or female or androgynous, regardless of biology or style or sexual interest. Indicated on the stick-figure’s brain.
We are so much more complex than Harry and Sally, and so much deeper than they give us credit for. Just as an international relationship requires at least one if not both partners to be bilingual, a cross-gender friendship requires at least one if not both friends to be intellectually curious, empathic and uninterested in the stereotypes they have been taught regarding both their own gender and someone else’s. Indeed, the author of the Slate article claims that cross-gender friendships work best between individuals who are “less gendered.” (Guys who are unafraid to enjoy movies like The Joy Luck Club, no matter the risk of looking effeminate; women who are unafraid to make asses of themselves, no matter the risk of looking unladylike… ) Bonding over common experiences is easy. Considering a different point of view despite cultural pressures signifies genuine respect, the very sort needed to fuel any kind of progress. This is why having close friends of all kinds of gender identities, styles and sexualities can be so awesome.
Friendship, unlike politics, requires the participants to not just listen to each other but hear what the other is saying. As a woman who wants a career, I am still expected to juggle it with almost all the responsibilities of childcare because mothers who focus more on their success than their family are negligent. Many guyfriends are sympathetic to this, while pointing out to me that with or without a family, they are expected to focus more on their success than their emotional fulfillment. Discussing such ambivalent feelings with friends of the same gender identity can be very helpful, but peer pressure can impede it. Discussing such feelings with a romantic partner is very important, but it carries the burden of how these feelings will affect the relationship. Discussions that take place outside of a romantic relationship are more likely honest than resentful because the problem can be identified without having to be solved right away. That’s what friends are for.
But it receives little support from tradition because Harry and Sally insist that straight men and women are doomed to fall in love, and traditional notions of love have very little to do with respect. In passionate romance, possessiveness trumps respect, and while overt jealousy may now be seen as uncool, the tendency for men and women to break off along gender lines at parties seems to correlate directly with the number of monogamous couples. Pursuing a new friendship with a man your husband doesn’t like—who isn’t gay—can still be judged as inappropriate. But it’s a double standard, because many men and women strongly dislike their partners’ same-gender friends, yet to try to quell such friendships would be seen as Yoko Ono tyrannical.
As partners, we should understand that cross-gender friendships more often indicate open minds than loose morals. Navigating the complexities of life-long commitment is where men and women need to be able to understand each other most. People whose primary or only close communication with the other gender is through their partner are more likely to assign misunderstandings to their partner’s entire gender. (“Women are incapable of being on time!” “Men can’t be trusted for the life of them to buy Christmas presents!”) The more opaque we consider the Other to be, the less likely we are to try to understand their perspective, as well as the perspectives of those who don’t fit into our stereotypes. It’s no coincidence that the cultures that place the most restrictions on male-female interaction afford the fewest freedoms to women and LGBT individuals.
But things are getting better. Cross-gender friendships are more accepted now than ever before because men and women of all gender identities are communicating and understanding each other at record levels. Not only are new mothers freer to nurture an identity outside the home, but new dads are more likely to hug their children and tell them they love them now than at any other time in modern history. Attraction and the possibility for it will probably always complicate relationships—and politics and life—to some degree, but open dialogue continues to prove that the Other is never as impenetrable as we have been told. In the words of researcher Kathryn Dindia, “Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.” Our friendships are both the cause and the result of this.