Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Man. A Woman. Just Friends?

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Man. A Woman. Just Friends?

Article excerpt

Friendship between the sexes - once more or less unknown in traditional society - has become an issue of liberation.

Can men and women be friends? We have been asking ourselves that question for a long time, and the answer is usually no. The movie "When Harry Met Sally ..." provides the locus classicus.

The problem, Harry explains, is that "the sex part always gets in the way." Heterosexual people of the opposite sex may claim to be just friends, the message goes, but count on it -- wink, wink, nudge, nudge -- something more's going on. Popular culture enforces the notion relentlessly. In movie after movie the narrative arc is the same. What starts as friendship ends up in bed.

There's a history here, and it's a surprisingly political one. Friendship between the sexes was more or less unknown in traditional society. Men and women occupied different spheres, and women were regarded as inferior in any case. A few epistolary friendships between monastics, a few relationships in literary and court circles, but beyond that, cross-sex friendship was as unthinkable in Western society as it still is in many cultures.

Then came feminism -- specifically, Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism, in the late 18th century. Wollstonecraft was actually wary of platonic relationships, which could lead too easily, she thought, to mischief. (She had a child out of wedlock herself.) But she did believe that friendship, "the most sublime of all affections," should be the mainspring of marriage.

In the 1890s, when feminism emerged from the drawing rooms to become a mass, radical movement (the term "feminism" itself was coined in 1895), friendship reappeared as a political demand. This was the time of the "New Woman," portrayed in fiction and endlessly debated in the press.

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, 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.

Easier said than done, of course. But the notion of friendship as the root of romantic relationships started to seep into the culture. The terms "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" also began to appear in the 1890s.

We take the words for granted now, but think of what they imply, and what a new idea it was: that romantic partners share more than erotic passion, that companionship and equality are part of the relationship. A boyfriend is a friend, as well as a lover. As for husband and wife, Wollstonecraft's ideal has long since become a cliche.

So friendship now is part of what we mean by love. Still, that doesn't get us to platonic relationships. For that we needed yet another wave of feminism, the one that started in the 1960s. Friendship wasn't part of the demand this time, but the things that were demanded -- equal rights and opportunities in every sphere -- created the conditions for it. …

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