One of the most gratifying compliments I ever received was from fellow writer Jane Ganahl, who remarked that I was one of the few men she knew who could actually be friends with a woman. One always loves to hear “one of the few” in the context of a pat on the back, and yet on reflection, I wonder if what she said is true.
I know a great many male-female friendships, and my own life is full of them. The writing community is rife with cross-gender friendships—I’m close to several of my fellow Murderati members, for example, as well as numerous other writers, and several frequent commenters here, like Shizuka and Allison Davis. I work with a local neighborhood watch program, and I have several women friends there, not to mention my neighbors, etc. I bet if we poll those reading this blog, we’ll learn of dozens if not hundreds of such friendships (please feel free to Comment re: same).
And yet, you’d hardly know such friendships exist from what one finds in books and films.
The frisson of romance, if not rampant sexual tension, routinely hovers about a man and a woman in fiction and cinema like a cloud of static electricity. The great Stella Adler, in a drama workshop I attended in my twenties, chastened two students who were tiptoeing through a courtship scene: “Every time a man and a woman are on stage they are totally in love. All they’re discussing is terms.”
This is an incredibly powerful insight. And yet it also seems like a great loss—unless one views male-female friendships merely as romances in which the terms are somehow less than “totally in love.”
My life would be severely impoverished without my women friends. Yes, there’s an element of flirtation about many of them, and every peck on the cheek provides a whiff of perfume, the brush of skin against skin, a hint of la difference. But they are not “friends with benefits” (or the possibility thereof), or “romances in limbo,” any more than my marriage was “sex with equity.”
Why is this seemingly ubiquitous aspect of modern life so absent from films and fiction?
In her novel Finding Nouf, Zoë Ferraris provides a fascinating psychological portrait of Nayir, an orphaned and unmarried Palestinian Bedouin living in Saudi Arabia. Ferraris, who was married to such a man, knows intimately not just the misconceptions that a strictly segregated society creates between the sexes, but the longing for a better understanding felt on both sides. In particular, Nayir wishes he had a sister, for that relationship would provide him with someone he could talk to about a woman’s thoughts and feelings, subjects Saudi culture strictly forbids he so much as bring up with a woman who is not a wife or a family member.
In the contemporary West, we can often be far more candid with our cross-gender friends than we are with a lover, at least in the early stages of a relationship. I think that male-female friendships serve a serious purpose in this regard, though many I’m sure never plumb the depths Nayir was hoping for.
Marriage, of course, is the great opportunity in this regard. George Eliott remarked, “Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings.” To which Louis de Bernières, in his novel A Partisan’s Daughter, somewhat savagely added, “Sooner or later, at best, your wife turns into your sister. At worst she becomes your enemy.” Both these statements get at the singular intimacy a good marriage provides a man and a woman. Men are particularly needy of such intimacy, which is why so many widowers marry soon after a wife’s passing or pass away themselves.
But like Saudi Arabia, fiction and film discount the possibility of this nearness occurring anywhere else but with a sister or a wife.
And gay male/straight woman friendships skirt the core issue (as it were), which is the possibility, despite all that the sexual divide entails, to bridge it like responsible adults, to put aside or control the erotic charge we are expected to experience, and play nice.
But perhaps my belief that such friendships are easy and frequent is misguided. In an intriguing article for Slate on this issue, Juliet Lapidos expresses bewilderment and frustration at why male-female friendships seem so problematic in the culture. And rare.
Lapidos outlines the reasons men and women routinely give for their cross-gender friendships—men cite the ability to talk about feelings without judgment, and women cite the ability to discuss topics most women find irrelevant or boring, or the chance not to obsess on the emotional connotations of what does get discussed. She then suggests that only “less-gendered” men and women can enjoy such connections, citing her own experience. In her cross-sex friendships, “the traits that supposedly make men and women so separate (excluding physical differences) are hardly in evidence.”
To which I can only scratch my head. Are we really so devoid of self-control or insight that we can’t enjoy each other’s company without neutering ourselves?
I’ve asked a number of friends to come up with examples of cross-gender friendships in film and fiction, and boy, are the pickings slim.
Allison Davis suggested Dorothy and the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. I like that, but would their friendship abide if Dorothy were just a wee bit more, shall we say, developed? Maybe. I want to think so. And yet there’s also a kind of big-brother aspect to these friendships. That’s not so bad—Cara Black, one of my best friends on the crime fiction beat, routinely refers to me as her “little brother.” And my nickname for Harley Jane Kozak is “L’il Sis.” I like that. I love it, in fact. And yet it also screams to everyone who might misunderstand: It’s okay. We’re not up to anything …. Like it’s anybody’s business in the first place, or they can’t tell just by seeing us together. Sheesh.
Catherine Thorpe, another good friend, brought up True Grit, but there again Mattie is fourteen. Does a woman lose her friendship cred once she clears puberty?
Jane Austen abounds with some very tender friendships—but they are almost always romances-waiting-to-happen. And in Remains of the Day, Stephens and Miss Kent share a lovely friendship—but it’s only because the romantic longing goes only one way.
The same is true of Midge and Scotty in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. This sort of romantic gridlock has been codified, one might say cheapened, by the modern put-down, “He’s just not that into you.” Hitchcock, a devotee of Freud, knew there was a great deal more to it than that (why else would Midge say, when caring for Scottie after his breakdown, “You’re not lost. Mother is here”?).
In Peter Carey’s Theft, the connection between the mysterious Marlene and her lover’s brother, Hugh, is one of the great joys of the book: “And there she was—a type—one of those rare, often unlucky people who ‘get on with Hugh.’” As you might guess, Hugh is troubled. As in violently insane.
Two of my own favorite depictions of male-female friendship are in fact chaste romances. The major attribute of both stories is how and why the sexual tension is controlled: one through Victorian rectitude—Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer in C.S. Forester’s The African Queen—the other through a nun’s vows—Sister Angela and Corporal Allison in Charles Shaw’s Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. (Apparently such tales had a particular appeal for the director John Huston, for he brought both to the screen: with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in the one, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in the other.)
In the early stages of my last big romance, my lover and I sent pseudo-questionnaires back and forth, purportedly from the HR Department, seeking to determine whether the respondent was “right for the position.” One such question was: favorite love scenes. And I listed two from Heaven Knows, Mister Allison. It really is a love story, a very touching one for all the schmaltz, precisely because they cannot be together “that way.”
The workplace generates a great many cross-gender friendships, in both life and fiction, but there again the issue of repressed sexual tension heads its ugly rear due to the frequency of office romance.
The introduction of women into police forces has been particularly generous, inspiring a whole new onslaught of buddy storylines, with men and women fighting crime shoulder to shoulder: Mulder and Scully of X Files, David and Maddie in Moonlighting. Of course, both these pairings ended up in romance, to the fatal detriment of both shows.
A far more intriguing example appears in Tana French’s In the Woods.
The friendship between Dublin homicide detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox begins with the former remarking, “I had no problem with the idea of Cassie Maddox.” First, he disdains the “New Neanderthal” competitive locker-room overtones of the job, and he in general prefers women to men. Secondly, she’s not his preferred type physically—she’s boyish, slim, square-shouldered, where he’s always preferred “girly, bird-boned blonds.” (All of this would seem to corroborate Juliet Lapidos’ contention that only “less-gendered” men and women can truly connect non-sexually.) Even so, Rob becomes vaguely attracted and lets it slip out backhandedly in a feeble attempt at banter, to which Cassie responds that she’s always dreamed of being rescued by a white knight, only in her imaginings he was always good-looking. This snaps Rob out of his dog-on-the-hunt thinking, and he “stopped falling in love with her and began liking her immensely.” It’s a friendship developed deeply and satisfactorily throughout the book, until the inevitable night together near the end, when the sexual tension breaks and they make the awful mistake of, as Pinter would say, “going at it.” Things are never the same, and it is a testament to the hunger we have for such connections that we feel this shipwreck of affection viscerally, as the great loss it is meant to be.
In the end, the best example I could find—maybe I should say only example—was the novel The Chess Player by Bertina Heinrichs, adapted for the film Queen to Play.
It’s about the cerebrally intimate, sexually charged but ultimately Platonic bond that develops between Hélène, a Corsican maid, and her chess tutor, an American widower. The sexual tension is there from the start—Hélène’s first glimpse of chess takes place as she’s cleaning the room of a honeymoon couple playing a game on the deck, and the man and woman clearly share an intriguing intimacy. Hélène’s own marriage has reached that sister/enemy impasse, and this sets the stage for a possible affair.
But something far more interesting happens. (One of the best lines in the film is when, after her husband has followed Hélène and seen she is not having sex with Professor Kröger, her tutor, but simply playing chess, he confronts her, and tells her that what he saw was “much worse.”) Hélène becomes intrigued with chess for reasons she cannot explain, and reveals an innate gift for the game that cannot be taught. As for Professor Kröger, he remains haunted by grief; though he has lovers, he sees in Hélène something else, something more unique and impressive. And yet she also reminds him of his late wife—a gifted woman who struggled to accept her very real talent. His fondness for Hélène is tragic, tender and genuine, and she for the first time pursues something that is not for the sake of others—her employers, her husband, her daughter—but hers alone.
Murderateros: Do any of you have a favorite story about male-female friendship—or any at all? Fictive, fact, filmic. Were they with “less gendered” men or women? Or have your most gratifying connections with members of the opposite sex always been with lovers, siblings, spouses?
Jukebox Heroes of the Week: On the theme of cross-gender friendship, here are Rodrigo y Gabriela, a pair of guitar gypsies who gave up playing in Mexico City thrasher/metal bands and now play acoustically together. All friendships should make music like this: