Can Men and Women Be Friends?

A few months ago, I watched something or read something about When Harry Met Sally and in the end, wasn’t it saying that men and women couldn’t be friends, because the male-female friendship portrayed does end up in a romantic relationship?

So I was going to write a post about what I thought of that analysis of the movie and of the movie’s famous question about friendships between (heterosexual) men and women, but then, you know, I forgot to actually do that.

But with Nora Ephron’s passing, I thought I’d take another stab at it.

Harry posits in the movie, early on in the movie, when we are supposed to believe that he’s sort of immature and un-evolved, that men and women can’t be friends because sex always gets in the way, that even sexual desire without fulfillment gets in the way, and yeah, even if you don’t find your female friend attractive, you “pretty much want to bang” (“nail”?) her, too, so it’s always a problem. Later he posits that men and women CAN be friends, if they’re both involved with other people, because then the sex stuff can’t get in the way, but no, wait a minute, then your partner will suspect the sex stuff anyway, and let’s face it, you probably do want to have sex with your female friends, even when you’re in a relationship, so yeah, men and women can’t be friends.

Then he and Sally become friends.

I don’t really like the idea of their later romantic relationship invalidating their friendship. I think their friendship was genuine, and then there became the added aspect of romance/sex, which existed concurrently with their friendship, presumably for the rest of their lives.

Admittedly, the movie does not depict any male-female friendships that do not also include a romantic relationship, which is a problem, but I really do think you were supposed to conclude that, in fact, men and women can be friends. I think the Harry who said they couldn’t was supposed to be too immature to be taken completely seriously.

I also think that the way immature Harry posits the question rests on assumptions that male sexuality is, like, poisonous. That just the existence of sexual desire on the part of a man is enough to ruin a relationship. (He starts by using gender neutral language, but it becomes clear he’s talking about the ruinous power of a man’s sexual desire and not a woman’s when he says that Sally has never had a friendship with a man because he’s certain that man actually wanted to have sex with her.) It’s so powerful it even applies to women that man doesn’t find particularly attractive.

I don’t like that model of male sexuality. I know it’s prevalent, but I don’t like it, and in the end, I don’t think When Harry Met Sally does, either. Men can genuinely not want to have sex with the women of their acquaintance (I happen to know this as a fact, as a woman who has not been desired by more than a few male friends), and they can want to have sex with a woman of their acquaintance but still have a genuine friendship with her, too (and yeah, I’ve had experience with this, too). And it apparently goes without saying that women can do both of those things. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen that people sometimes more or less pretend to have only platonic feelings for someone in the hopes that one day, this person will turn around and have sex with them, and it’s only that hope that keeps them in the friendship. Sure it does. But I also think a lot of us want to have sex with people we genuinely like, and genuinely like people we want to have sex with, so the presence of one feeling does not necessarily negate the other.

Anyway. I thought I was going to be a little more articulate on this subject but I guess I’m not.


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