Men and Women: The Friendship That Dare Not Speak its Name

David Corbett

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:




48 thoughts on “Men and Women: The Friendship That Dare Not Speak its Name

  1. Julia

    I have two very close male friends. One is quite a bit older than me and has told me that "Men and women can't be friends." We used to work together and since I moved across the country years ago for another job, we still talk on the phone several times a week. Professionally, personally, we've always been there for the other, but the last time I came into town he couldn't have dinner with me because "It wouldn't look right."

    My other male close friend I've had a very easy relationship with for years. We work together, drink together and enjoy each other's company and support each other – all the things friends do. I think it is because I am not at all the type of woman that attracts him, which does not hurt my ego at all. I don't feel bad if every man on earth doesn't fall for me.

    You're right, though, in novels there are almost no male-female friendships not fraught with sexual tension. Don't get me wrong, I realize my male friends are male, but I'm not just waiting in the wings with unrequited love until their latest girlfriend drops dead.

  2. PD Martin

    Mmm….interesting post. I'm afraid I'm one of those women who does not have many male friends. I simply feel more at ease with women. And even though I'm 41, I still don't get men. Yes, everyone tells me you're simple creatures but I still get thrown.

    Male-female relationships in fiction/TV – I guess a lot of the ones I like are the ones with that underlying sexual tension that often isn't so underlying. I certainly remember loving the relationships between Mulder and Scully and David and Maddie and I know another show that is pushing that path now is Bones. Is it a winning formula (until the attraction is acted on, of course)? Maybe.

    Back to real life…In terms of male-female friendships I think the POSSIBILITY of sex is always there (no matter how remote) in a way it isn't with female-female or male-male friendships.

  3. Sarah W

    My favorite friendship/bond is between Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin. These characters aren't less-gendered at all and they can and do admire each other's physical attributes and talents, but they decided from the start that the intimacy they share is much more important than sex.

    They do obviously love each other, but there's no longing to be closer—they're as close as two people can possibly be already. At one point, Modesty offers herself to a psychologically-beaten Garvin, to help him heal, but he's unwilling to change what they have and she's more than fine with his decision.

    I'm trying to work out a partnership like that (perhaps less intense) in my WIP, and it's remarkably difficult to do . . . Most of the other characters assume something is going on — and so do my betas . . .

  4. JD Rhoades

    Some of my closest friendships, in this business and out, have been with women. And I will laugh in the face of anyone who calls any of them "less gendered," before I punch them in the nose.

  5. Tammy Cravit

    I have a few male friends, and in none of them has the "threat of romance" been an issue. In part, that's because I'm in a committed, monogamous, same-gender relationship, and I feel disinclined to cheat on my spouse. Even without that, however, I wouldn't allow romance to mess up a perfectly good friendship, and that's always been my attitude toward romantic liaisons with friends of both genders. And I firmly believe that the idea of automatic sexual/romantic attraction Is rather silly. (A friend of mine illustrates the point with a T-shirt that says, "I'm bisexual, and I'm not attracted to you.")

    But I'm also acutely aware that my attitude seem to be a minority opinion, at least among the people I know…

  6. David Corbett

    What I love about all the responses so far is that they're so genuine and human. I think this issue touches very deep feelings, and asks questions that often may seem troubling — but for those of us with such friendships, aren't troubling at all. The issue, the friendship, goes so deep and is so intuitive it's difficult to know how to respond to the obvious questions that seem so irrelevant.

    Julia: Both your male friends bring up the issue of sexual tension. In the one that's non-problematic, it's dismissed by the man's lack of attractiveness to you. The other is subtler. It's hard to know if the older man harbors at least a touch of desire, or whether, being older, he is far more sensitive to social constraints. Either way, it would make great grist for the fictional mill.

    Philipa: I'm inclined to say that men are indeed simple. We're like dogs: If you can't eat it or fuck it, piss on it. (Old joke, sorry.) And yet, also like dogs, men can be very noble and brave and devoted, if they know how to get a grip on their libidos. I think by and large we are also mesmerized and baffled by and terrified of women, who remain so mysterious to us on so many levels. (Like Nayir, I had no sisters.)

    SArah: Thanks for the tip on Modesty and Willie. That's exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. And yes, when you've had such a friendship, you know how precious it is, and how easily sex or romance could damage it. There's a bit of heartbreak in it: I have found my soulmate, and we will not be lovers. But there's something very dignified in that as well. Good luck with it in your WIP.

    Dusty: I hold him while you hit him. Or her. Well, I may have second thoughts if you want to punch a woman in the nose. Even if she does call your friendship less gendered.

    Tammy: One of my dearest friends is my late wife's oldest friend, who is gay, and I don't know what I'd have done these past ten years since Terri's death without her. We go see a movie with each other every couple of months — her work travel schedule precludes our doing it more often — and the meals afterward are always one of the best times of any given week or month. I also have a bi-woman friend, and I would LOVE to get her that T-shirt.

  7. Eika

    It always bugs me, in writing. I've featured a number of friendships between men and women; or boys and girls, since I write YA, and they're often teenagers. My beta readers are driving me nuts right now; the story involves two girls– fifteen and sixteen– and a nineteen-year-old boy as their 'body guard'. The boy is a former criminal, the MC is partly in charge of his parole, and there is absolutely no sense of attraction between any of them at all; it's even suggested by others at one point (and laughed at by the characters). Yet, because they're always hanging out together (by necessity), people think they must be in love. It's gotten to the point where I'm considering rewriting it to give him someone else as a love interest.

    In real life, I have at least as many male friends as I do female. Some of it's because I'm a geek, and many of my college friends are from a gaming club; there just aren't as many girl geeks as guy geeks. But there's no attraction there, there's just friendship; shared interest, things to talk about, hysterical anecdotes at supper that lead to half the listeners grossing out and gender is unimportant. (Unless a sex joke comes up. Or sexist. Then there tends to be quite a bit of commentary, which may or may not be serious, unless it is a truly hilarious joke.)

    I think part of the reason all male/female relationships on-screen are romantic or family is because that's what the audience expects. we've trained them to expect it. Changing that is hard.


  8. Madeleine Butler

    I have some very close friendships with straight men, and the gentlemen in question are, by any reasonable, objective standard manly and handsome. And I have remained friends with my ex-partners — also manly and handsome. Per the examples you give in your essay, David, these relationships have a sibling quality, which at least on my side of the table would make sexual attraction feel incestuous (okay, it's different with ex-partners, but we have clear boundaries). But I also have a long history of work friendships in male-dominated industries where I easily fit in as one of the guys.

    Interesting observation about the lack of same in fiction and film. My theory is that romance plotlines are so powerfully appealing to audiences and readers that a genuinely platonic friendship would feel like a missed opportunity, if not an outright violation of the rules of romantic gravitational pull. And yet we're happy to read or see story after story that features same-sex BFFs and sidekicks. Curious.

  9. David Corbett

    Madeleine: I agree that the romantic hook is the culprit in fiction and film, and yet why is the dissolution of Rob and Cassie's friendship so devastating in IN THE WOODS? Why are the "chaste romances" in AFRICAN QUEEN and HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON so compelling? I think there's a genuine yearning for a truthful, honest, open rapport between men and women that romance and sex makes highly problematic — but not impossible. We want to see each other clearly, not through the heated fog of ooh-la-la. And when that happens, it's great.

    Alaina: I think a male-female friendship with a hetero relationship also in place is a dramatically interesting — and difficult — thing to pull off. QUEEN TO PLAY gets at it nicely. But there's that problem — if she loves me, what does she need form this friend? What does she tell him that she doesn't tell me? All of which is great material.

  10. Louise Ure

    I used to have lots of male friends but as I got older and people began pairing off, it became more difficult to their significant others that it was "just a close friendship."

    It's worse now that I'm no longer a half member of that "acceptable couple" model. But I treasure the friendships that remain, and I count you among those few, David.

  11. Madeleine Butler

    Ah, and how often do we see a portrayal (in a genuine, non-cloying way) of the deep, open, and trusting quality of a successful marriage or other long-term romantic relationship? It seems as if friendship is at the core, there, as well. Often, if we're not being asked to watch characters dance through the delusional fizz of the ooh-la-la, we're presented with stories about marriages that struggle and fail. Of course, conflict makes the plot go 'round…

    Another thought — many of the buddy scenarios make the friend/sidekick "less than" the protagonist in some significant way, which tends to invalidate even those friendships. Ensemble drama seems to do a better job of suggesting that we can be equals, and equally close, independent of gender or sexual preference.

  12. Mo

    My husband and I are friends with different groups of people that do not overlap. With one group part way through a party the men gravitate to the living room and the women gravitate to the kitchen. I always follow the men and my husband always follows the women. He has 4 sisters and is more comfortable conversing with the women while I work in a male dominated fiield shared by those same men and I prefer their conversation. Aside from that group we both have close friends of the opposite gender and cannot imagine not having them there the share our ups and downs..

  13. David Corbett

    Madeleine: I think a lot of fictional portrayals of marriage fall into the sister/enemy formulation. And yet, from time to time, one sees a wonderful depiction of a marriage (none come to mind at the moment, sadly).

    Louise: And you're one of my good friends as well. I think the test of a cross-sex friendship is the significant other. If the friendship threatens the S.O., it's doomed. Which may say far more about the relationship than the friendship, but …

    Mo: I think your experience is more typical than many believe. On my FB page, a fledgling writer said she's heard from agents that male-female friendships are not believable. Sheesh.

  14. Jake Nantz

    David – interesting topic, and one I'm tangling with in my current WIP (though, there is a romantic undertone that I just plan to never allow to develop, because the tension can be much more fun to play with). As for fictional male-female friendships, I can only think of two, and one of those I haven't gotten far enough in the series to see if it stays just a friendship. In the (I know, I know) Harry Potter series, Harry and Hermione are the best of friends, but it's a triangle where his other best mate, Ron, pines for and eventually wins Hermione. That probably doesn't count because of the three-person structure, but it's odd because, though Hermione is never portrayed as masculine or somehow not girly (except in ability, which shouldn't differentiate), it's a classic "three brothers" structure with a little twist.
    The other is Harry Dresden and Karrin Murphy, but I'm only on book 4, so it's entirely possible that he gives up on Susan or things go bad (worse) with her, and he and Murphy end up together in the long run. But at least so far, he's never seemed interested in her and trusts her as completely as a wizard can trust a cop.
    That's all I got, sorry….

  15. MJ

    I've always been comfortable with male friends, though as I've gotten older and busier my group of true friends has narrowed (as it tends to) and is more heavily female – though "odd" women like me. As David mentioned, I have always enjoyed male friends for being able to talk about sports, TV, business etc. and not the stereotypical "girl" stuff. I probably am truly "less gendered" as I have no interest in clothes, shoes, babies, who is dating/marrying/etc. who and a lot of talk about feelings. Just didn't pop out that way…I've always found complimentary women friends (we talk about hobbies, work, music, books etc.) but there is a type of female interest that I just don't understand (and they don't understand me either!).

  16. David Corbett

    Jake: Check out IN THE WOODS for your WIP. It has that tension underneath what is otherwise what one would hope is a great male-female friendship. And no apologies necessary. It's hard to find these in fiction or film — though I think Harry and hermione is a great example.

    And I'm not saying there isn't sexual feeling or tension even in great friendships. We're biological beasts. But in friendship there's a recognition that the impulse won't or can't gain the upper hand, either through lack of mutual attraction or self-control. In the former case you get a bit of tristesse, in the other a kind of noble restraint that also, due to the reverence for romance we have as a culture, also conveys a certain sadness, though it needn't. IMHO.

  17. David Corbett

    MJ: I rankle at "odd" as I rankled at "less gendered." Not at your usage, just the concepts. These crazy stereotypes that only a mannikin can live by. People are so much more complex and interesting than our gender roles permit. And this is where friendship truly gains purchase — in those places where we don't otherwise "fit."

    I've heard it said that to be loved is to "be seen." And romance is so full of fantasy and desire and projection it often fails as love. Friendship does not — unless it's driven by its own secret wants and needs.

    To the extent a romantic couple can keep the erotic side of their relationship intact while still proceeding beyond the fog of sexual attraction pretty juch determines the quality of the love — and the friendship — they can share. It's tricky business. Like fingering smoke. I find it fascinating.

  18. Cara

    Hey Little Brother, Nice post Not to get all big sister on you but remember the book group we did w/Rhys Bowen at the nudist colony in the Santa Cruz mountains? Talk about wondering which way to keep our eyes and the gender thing…. plz tell that story!!! Cara

  19. David Corbett

    Cara: I think you just did. The Barely Literate book group. They invited us to dinner afterward. The waitress wore only an apron. And the food was truly, wretchedly dreadful. Nudists can't cook. Or naturists, rather.

    But yes, you're right, a whole lot of direct eye contact that evening, as I recall.

  20. Judy Wirzberger

    There may be hope in the younger generation. My son and his friends seem to maintain relationships with former girlfriends, attend their weddings and baby birthdays. My daughter in law also has male friends. I think society is beginning to "give permission" for these type of relationships. When I was in my thirties and attending events — like celebrations of the invention of the wheel and fire — it was not socially acceptable to have other gender friends based on the possibility of sexual relations occuring. Now we have women and men on military ships and airplanes, in police cars, hospital operating rooms and interacting in business and socially is becoming the norm.

    The glory in being pregnant or being old is wives don't consider you a threat. Fortunately, I have some very good friendships with the husbands of my female friends that started years ago. And, of course, had many non-sexual intimate relationships with priests….but then….

  21. David Corbett

    I agree with you Judy, I think a lot of these things are dissolving — but you'd still hardly know it from the culture. FRIENDS got close but again, there was so much farcical back and forth about who was interested in whom, would they couple up, etc.

  22. Harley

    I have lots of male friends, and I never thought about why until just now . . . Maybe it's because I've spent most of my professional life in show biz, and acting is all about seeing and being seen, which encourages very fast friend-making. Also, long hours in strange places with heightened emotions and not quite enough sleep . . . Or maybe all artistic types are more prone to the cross-gender thing. In any case, I am proud to be your little sister and to tell anyone who cares to listen that I have seen you in your jammies, toothbrush in hand. Even though I haven't slept with you.

    My lame contribution to the literary question is LITTLE WOMEN. Jo and Laurie. Okay, for a moment, I think he thought he loved her and then for a moment she thought she loved him, and then he ended up with her little sister, but for the most part they were simply best friends. Even after they were married (to other people). Alas, while I adored those books as a child, it's pretty hard to reread them as an adult.

    I'm going to be up all night trying to come up with more. I was thinking Sweeney Todd, but in the end, she was in love with him, wasn't she? Mrs. Whatserface.

  23. David Corbett


    Those were probably sweats. I don't wear PJs. But I hate to ruin that image, because it's kinda cool.

    Catherine Thorpe also brought up LITTLE WOMEN, and I think you have to allow it, even though there was a romantic tingle there for a bit. I think disallowing any romantic or sexual feeling neuters us. Probably a great many friendships have survived a momentary pull in that direction, self-correcting somehow. And a number of commenters have talked about their exes being friends, so I think that's the issue — how does the sexual/romantic tension dissipate? Once that's resolved, the friendship can proceed.

    I think you're right about the arts as well, though I also made good friends with my women PI cohorts. I think the workplace is a great equalizer in many ways — but it's also the place so many people hook up, because we spend so much of our lives on the job.

    Lovely to see you here, L'il Sis. Looking forward to seeing you at Bouchercon and hearing about the wee ones, who are not so wee any more.

  24. David Corbett

    Oh, and it's Mrs. Lovett (perfect name) in SWEENEY TODD. And yes, she has a thing for the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It's not just a business arrangement. Or a friendship. There's meat in those pies, of many sorts.

  25. Susan Shea

    Newly divorced and focused solely on my new job all the way across the country, I met a faculty wife at a campus gathering who said, and I do quote, "Oh we'd love to have you over for dinner…but then there'd be nine at table." I never did get an invitation!

    I have a few male friends – there's you, for one – but am old enough to be invisible as a romantic partner, so no longer have to deal with ambiguities. Agree with Judy – my sons have many genuinely gender-neutral, long term, close friendships with women they've known since childhood in some cases. And neither their romantic partners nor those of their women friends are hung up on it. I think it's great.

    Don't dismiss Jane Austen. Her protagonists did indeed have men among their trusted friends, men who were usually married to their sisters, or their best women friends and whom they turned to for advice and support.

  26. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    My favorite example was Allison's, regarding Dorothy and her mates. Not only is Dorothy inappropriately young for such relationships, but those relationships might verge too close to bestiality to qualify.

  27. Shizuka

    Thanks for the shout out, David.

    I've thought about this topic a ton.
    Especially during teenagerhood, when all relationships are so fraught.
    I love your example of IN THE WOODS, given the strange undefinable relationships Cassie experiences in the sequel. The dissolution of the Rob-Cassie friendship was one of the most heart wrenching I've seen.

    Two examples of male-female friendships: Eleanor and Colonel Brandon in SENSE and SENSIBILITY, not a whiff of romance in that one, but that may be because he's almost a brother to her and Buffy and Xander in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Xander starts out having a crush on her, but their relationship develops into strong friendship/co-warriors/almost family.

    Maybe longterm male-female friendships thrive when they morph into something almost familial?
    Most of my male friends are my husband's friends, my friend's significant others, or gay. And I've never been able to stay friends with any exes.

  28. KDJames

    I've always gotten along better with men than women. I'm more comfortable with them. But I have three sisters. That always seemed like quite enough female relationships, thank you. My current workplace consists almost entirely of men. And yes, they're manly men, doing manly things. :eyeroll: We're friends. We like each other. Most of the people I feel comfortable talking to on twitter are men (something I just now realized and am sort wondering about). However, I have a whole cadre of Imaginary Internet Friends who are almost exclusively women and we all get along great. To be painfully honest, I suspect it's because physical appearance doesn't play a role — jealousy and competition are irrelevant. And, thinking about it, I suspect every single one of them is like me in that they get along better with men in real life.

    But fiction is different. The purpose of fiction is to evoke emotion. Portraying a relationship (of whatever mix of genders) as intellectual or spiritual rather than emotional (which usually translates to sexual) doesn't evoke the same response. Sure, it can be done. It's just not as satisfying. We don't say about our favourite works of fiction, "Wow, that really made me think about things." We say, "That ending was emotionally devastating." Or, "I've never cried so hard in my life." Or, "I laugh just remembering that story." Or, "Every time I'm feeling down, I have to re-read that book." It's all about emotional response.

    If I want evidence of strong supportive non-sexual M/F relationships, all I need to do is look around me. But for evoking the thrill of romance, the suspense of attraction and seduction, the devastation of misunderstanding and heartache and betrayal, the satisfaction of finding someone who stimulates both mind and body? For that, we turn to fiction. Thank god for fiction.

  29. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    holy fucking shit, david…I just listened to those guitarists. God, a chill went all over my body in those final few measures. Beautiful stuff. Incredible climax. (Mine, that is).

  30. David Corbett

    Susan & Shizuka: Great minds think alike. I had a feeling I was overlooking a relationship in Austen's oeuvre that would qualify — believe me, I didn't intend to "overlook" her at all. Even her romances have the qualities of friendship I'm talking about. (And Susan — I would never consider you invisible. Never.)

    And Shizuka — I agree that most long-term friendships morph into something quasi-familial — but not just male-female friendships. I think the general impulse is to want to build the family, however one sees that. One of my closest male buddies always refers to me as his "brutha from another mutha."

    Stephen: Sex with a scarecrow or a tin woodsman is bestiality? Man, you're a hangin' judge. (And yeah, I thought you'd relate to Rodrigo y Gabriela. Check out more of their stuff, live iof you can, incredible act.)

    KD: I don't think friendship is a "spiritual" or "intellectual" connection, and I certainly don't think it lacks emotion. I also don't believe male-female friendships in particular fail to deliver for not being romances. I stand by AFRICAN QUEEN and HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON and QUEEN TO PLAY as all being deeply emotionally gratifying without the typical romantic relationship being in play. In fact, I think it's precisely because they're not conventional, but touch on a kind of love portrayed far too infrequently in fiction and film, makes them even MORE deeply gratifying than if they were convnetional romances. (This is why Rob and Cassie going to bed in IN THE WOODS feels like such a betrayal. Their relationship is deeply emotionally rewarding — and they let it go for what? The cliche of a man with a woman = sex. Sad.

    The battle between the characters played by Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA is a similarly deeply gratifying battle of the sexes, sans sex.

    And I just finished David Benioff's CITY OF THIEVES — it's heartbreaking because of the deep love felt between two friends. And I doubt it would have been any less so had the friends been a man and a woman.

    Friendship is a profound kind of love that is deeply emotional, not "merely" intellectual or spiritual any more than a love between siblings. At least, that's how I see it.

  31. Gar Anthony Haywood

    Late to the party as usual, but here's what I have to offer on the subject of platonic male/female relationships:

    In film, it's almost impossible to pull off realistically because both parties are always so goddamn ATTRACTIVE. All the men in the audience are going, "What? He's not gonna do her?" And (if G. Clooney is the male lead, for sure), all the women in the audience are thinking, "Oh, my God, what is she WAITING for???" Once you establish a spiritual connection between two people, the only rational explanation you can give for not following up with a sexual one is a complete lack of PHYSICAL attraction between the two, or at least from the perspective of one of them. A reluctance to foul up the friendship just doesn't wash.

    I think the same dynamic is at play in real life, only moreso. Mix a great friendship with physical attraction and sooner or later, under the right circumstances (food, wine, opportunity) a man (and to a lesser degree, a woman) will succumb to the urge to Go There, reason be damned. Physical attraction can be denied, but it can't be repressed forever. Give them enough time to play with this particular brand of fire, and two people who "love" each other in every other way will eventually do the deed.

    And yes, they'll probably regret it for the rest of their lives.

  32. PD Martin

    Totally agree, Gar. I've also been watching some of the discussions about age. For me, I found in my twenties platonic seemed impossible. Either the male was making a pass at me (even the married ones – another theme all together) and I wasn't interested or I was secretly hoping the developing friendship would turn into more. Now that I'm married myself and the few male friends I have are also married, it's a little easier! Interesting that the teens are having such good male-female platonic relationships.


  33. David Corbett


    I think one of the reasons AFRICAN QUEEN works is because we can imagine both Bogart and Hepburn in Victorian spinsterhood/bachelorhood. But the sexual tension almost comes to a head in HEAVEN KNOWS MR. ALLISON, but the genii gets stuffed back in the bottle, quite nobly and movingly. And that's Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. Pretty darn hot in their heyday.

    Even if everything you say is true — and I'm not disagreeing with it necessarily — why doesn't that make male-femals friendship perfect subject matter for fictionalization? How much more conflict and tension could you want?

    I think dramatizing how they get to a realization that "it ain't gonna happen," or "it happened and we really messed things up," is pretty darn interesting. And again, not to beat a dead horse, but this is exactly what makes IN THE WOODS so fascinating. Just like you predict, they ultimately can't resist. And everything is ruined forever.

    There's a similar scene between two women friends in RACHEL, RACHEL, with two small-town southern women. One night one of them makes the bold move and kisses the other — and "everything is ruined forever," even though the perpetrator feels terrible and the other forgives her.

    What we're talking about is the emotional power of friendship. And I just think it's an unexplored emotional landscape. And I'm kinda puzzled as to why.

  34. Susan Shea

    David, One last thought in answer to your last question. We live in a sexualized age. Sex sells. (In Jane's day, the thing that could kill female-male friendships was the complete economic inequality of women.)

    Good topic – thanks for making us think.

  35. KDJames

    Once again, David, we will have to agree to disagree. What a surprise. The point I was trying to make — and obviously, I failed miserably — is that the love of friendship, however profound, is always going to be trumped by the love of lovers. In fiction.

    I haven't seen the other movies you referenced ["Jane, you ignorant slut" <— yes, that's me] but how can you say AFRICAN QUEEN wasn't romantic? Are you serious? That's one of my all time favourite romantic comedies. Er, comedic romances. Whatever. It was made in a different time when love was less explicit, but how can you say that wasn't romantic? Sheesh. I think we're speaking different languages here.

    You offer a handful of examples and solicit more before admitting there are damn few of them. I submit that's because when we talk about evoking emotion IN FICTION, the relationship between friends, however you want to define or characterize it, is far less memorable, hell, less interesting than the relationship between lovers. But I suspect my TBR stack and yours do not intersect on any known coordinate.

    Yes, friendship has emotional power. If it's written well, it has immense power. But it has a long way to go before it is more compelling, more fascinating, more enticing than the emotional power of lovers. Very few of us yearn or aspire to have that kind of intense relationship with our friends. There are very few of us, on the other hand, who have never imagined having that kind of intense relationship with a lover. And right there is a good reason why that emotional landscape is largely ignored, or explored only as a subplot.

    But hey, I'm more than happy to disagree with you. Again. 🙂

  36. kit

    Excellent topic. Some of the most important things in my life were/ are my cross-gender relationships.
    It started back in my school days,…progressed into young adulthood…and one of the things I missed the most when I moved back home after a bad romantic break-up. I moved back to my old hometown, and the funny thing about that…is…it was a small community, but the mores were different…you spent more than 15 minutes with someone , and the people around you scented romance or you were practically married or on your way there….it was very frustrating, but that's the way it was, and it was one of the hardest things to deal with.
    I think part of it is intamacy…you have to be able to establish a good amount of trust, and intamacy …if you ever grew up with bad examples, or had rotten teaching…then you have a whole lot of obstacles to overcome before you even begin.

  37. Reine

    Sorry I'm late, David.

    I've always had almost equal numbers of male and female friends, perhaps skewed a bit toward male. I don't know why that is. My friends are people I share interests with. I don't have any friends that are just people I like. There is always some special interest that brings us together.

    This is almost always true, as I now think of our friends Gary and Carol. Carol was my English professor, and Gary worked with my husband. We used to spend a lot of time drinking beer on Friday nights, listening to loud music, and talking about anything including math models, Arkansas cultures, German theologians an, cattle ranching, Polish history, and the emotional life of dogs . . . no one special thing. But that's the only exception I can think of. We are still good friends after all this time. When we visited them last year we talked about Chinese food (recipes) that they had recently discovered but Step and I'd never heard of. And we spent the rest of the week eating these great cabbage and pork recipes with fresh noodles and stuff.

    Step has good friends who are women, and I have good friends who are men. Usually these relationships don't blend. Carol and Gary are the big exception for all friends in our life together. Hmm. Now that I think of it, my partnerly friendship with Step, the official 43-year-mark this Saturday, is much like the relationship he and I have with Gary and Carol.

    I don't know why any of this is.

  38. David Corbett

    Jane/KD: I was stunned by this comment: "You offer a handful of examples and solicit more before admitting there are damn few of them." WHAT????!!! The whole premise of my post was the rarity of such examples.

    And my point wasn't that AFRICAN QUEEN wasn't romantic — again, read what I actually wrote: "Two of my own favorite depictions of male-female friendship are in fact chaste romances."

    We may indeed be talking different languages but that may be because you're not reading what I'm actually writing — or am I missing something?

    The reason I paired AFRICAN QUEEN with HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON is precisely because both are definitely romances, which I believe are enriched because the triumphal sex scene/kiss whatever is withheld. The love goes deeper, to the character of the people involved, not just their sexual attractiveness (which, as Gar points out — to which Phillipa agreed — is the poison pill in most male-female friendships).

    One of the reasons we love AFRICAN QUEEN so much is because we can see these two people being dismissed in the larger world of romance, and may not even think of themselves as sexual beings. But their capacity to love is fierce.

    In THE REPUBLIC, Cephalus assures Socrates that growing old and facing death isn't so terrible. "The erotic madness of youth is passed." That's why we refer to such friendships as Platonic. The sexual madness — the fog of lust, as it were — doesn't interfere with such friendships. The projections and fantasies of sexuality actually obscure the loved ones from each other in a way that doesn't happen in friendship. That's the trade-off. And culturally and biologically, I agree, we seem to prefer the madness. But that doesn't make it good, it doesn't obscure the fact that a great many of us have such friendships — and gain great solace from them especially when our love affairs hit the rocks — and it sure as hell doesn't make them uninteresting subjects for fiction.

    In fact, I think the main impulse for any writer is to speak the unspoken, to break the silence, to say what everyone else would prefer remain unsaid. That's why this topic fascinates me. There is something about a non-sexual rapport between a man and a woman outside of a stable marriage that I think scares a great many people. Or rather, a rapport that admits the sexual energy but doesn't act on it. It threatens marriages — how can you be attracted to * and not want to sleep with him/her? — it undermines our preconceived ideas of masculinity and femininity. It gores a sacred cow — what more could a writer ask for? (Oh, right, sales. I keep forgetting that part …)

    But I was raised without sisters, schooled by nuns, with a problematic mother. I will admit to being obsessed with women. And I'll take them any way I can — which is why I cherish my women friends. I feel starved for female energy and understanding.

    I think a great many couples would secretly tell you that they don't regret the passing of the sexual/romantic stage of the courtship to the more day-to-day friendship stage, because they find it more rewarding. And I think that scares the crap out of people, because we also are intoxicated by the allure of passionate romance. That tension, between teh chaste and the erotic, has animated a hell of a lot of fiction. I just think the side of friendship and non-sexual intimacy, outside marriage, has been passed over like a house with the plague.

    All of which I find intriguing. And if it gets "trumped" by romantic or sexual love, so what? Because symphonies assault the senses more intensely than string quartets, do we stop writing or listening to chamber music? Do we forever forego enjoying sketches once we've seen a painting? Do we stop reading short stories once we've discovered the sweep of novels?

  39. David Corbett

    Kit: I think you touch on something interesting. I wonder how many male-female friendships foundered because of the social pressure to couple up, or to see things in those terms. It wasn't the two people themselves but others who made it impossible.

    Reine: The couple friendship has come up a few times, and it permits the "safety" so many people seem to need — I know her, she's married to my friend, she's no threat, etc. And yet, read Raymond Carver's story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" and feel the devastating booze-fueled undertow.

    But you also touch on something else I find interesting — these friendships work when there is a subject of common interest that they can discuss with each other deeply. This doesn't eliminate the sexual tension or charge but it provides a safe place, and in that safe place a very unique intimacy can grow.

    Or so I tell myself. "But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself." — Kafka

  40. Gar Haywood

    David: One thing to remember about fiction, both in the form of literature and film, is that the writer has the power to make things work out in ways that may not be probable in reality. Most of us read fiction and view movies for the PAYOFF — the emotionally satisfying conclusion to the tale being offered — and endings that deny us the closure we've not only been expecting, but hoping for, generally piss us the hell off.

    Sexual tension between two fascinating characters of any gender can be fun to watch and read about, but when all it ultimately leads to is either more of the same, or a sexual experience that ruins everything that came before it, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. There's a very fine line between sexual tension and sexual frustration, my friend, and the latter ain't no walk in the park. It's no fun to experience personally and it's no fun to watch someone else go through it.

    There's nothing to be done about people who have to deal with this uncomfortable dynamic in real life, but fictional characters are another matter. Given a choice between an ending in which two great friends find a way to become great lovers and one that leaves them mired in the knowledge that they will never be able to act on the physical draw they have on each other, I'll take the former every time.

    But hey, that's just me. Guess I'm just an old softie.

  41. David Corbett


    Softie? Does that make me a Hardy? (Don't go there — unless you're willing to be Laurel.)

    Watch HEAVEN KNOWS MR. ALLISON and you tell me whether there isn't a hugely gratifying payoff to that ending. Ambiguous? Maybe. But the emotional power is undeniable — and no promise of romance or sex, unless you think a hint is a handshake.

    And in IN THE WOODS, the destruction of the friendship is felt tragically. If that's not a payoff, what is? Or are unfortunate/sad/tragic endings off limits?

    I agree you have to show the rewards outweigh the "frustration," but again, I don't think it's a fool's errand. I think that friendship between men and women strikes very deep at some implicit cultural assumptions, and for exactly that reason is fascinating.

    I think the most interesting way to show it in fiction would be to dramatize the effect of such a friendship on a marriage. This is what makes QUEEN TO PLAY interesting. The marriage is threatened, but survives. The possibility of an affair with the chess tutor is there, but never acted on. Something deeper and more interesting happens. An affair would be cheap, predictable, cliched and dull.

    My 2 cents.

  42. Gar Haywood


    Unfortunate/sad/tragic endings are certainly not off limits, but I wouldn't make a habit out of writing them. Both from a commercial and mental health standpoint.

  43. KDJames

    Yes, David, I read what you wrote. I even understood it.


    You've been so consistently dismissive of my comments on your posts (that's not a complaint, just a rather bemused observation), I decided it would be oddly satisfying to deliberately say something to earn it just once.

    Very bad of me, I know, and I apologize for allowing my warped sense of humour get the better of my manners. Won’t happen again.

    Moving on . . .

  44. David Corbett

    KD/Jane: I apologize if anything I said suggested I was being dismissive. I disagree with you, somewhat forcefully in places — I do like to argue — but I disagree just as forcefully with Gar and Phillipa on this issue. I've disagreed with Rob pretty fiercely once or twice. That's not indicative of a lack of respect. I'll admit, I unaware of any habitual slighting of you. I'm truly sorry you feel that way. But there's no disrespect coming from me. I don't know how else to say it.

    Which may well mean, once again, we're obliged to agree to disagree.

    Best wishes — I mean that:

  45. Pari Noskin

    A really interesting post. I'm going to think about it more today.

    In my teens and early 20s, almost all of my closest friends were boys or men. I think it was because I could talk to them about things that really mattered to me, could be as intelligent as I was without feeling compelled to hide it, and felt like I got accurate and honest feedback.

    Most of the girls in my life at that time were just too worried about trying to attract guys and had entered a strange alternate world where intelligence and good conversation that were non-boy/non-man/non-sex related were impossible.

  46. David Corbett

    Pari: Nice to hear the UM campus was as superficial and backward as the OSU campus was. Harvard of the MIdwest. Ha!

    At the risk of repetition, I think you're on to something. Men and women seek each other out because the gender roles society defines for us straightjacket our genuine selves. Men want to talk about their emotional lives, and our male friends are usually not too great at that. Women want to talk shop and ideas and sports and their women friends sometimes can't get on board. When we reach out for each other, however, the natural conclusion so often is: romance. Sex. And the straightjacket gets slapped on again.

    The story here, I think, is a man and a woman trying to be seen by each other. As I said above: To be loved is to be seen. And a truly great love story will be one where the man and woman truly see each other, love each other for who they truly are. Normally, yes, we want the romantic/sexual payoff, it's hard-wired. But I'm fascinated by those stories where that doesn't happen, precisely because romance and sex in reality tend to fog up the encounter, blind us with our fantasies and wants and projections. It's never absent, but something very rare and interesting reveals itself when the old slap and tickle is put aside. Or when, despite it, the love is clear-eyed regardless. That too is rare — in fiction and real life.

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