Buddies that Matter.

Gender and Friendship

Revisit but not Revise: Friendship and the Romantic Imperative

by Friederike Danebrock, University of Cologne, Germany

How to Fail to Stay Friends: Romantic Imperatives Revisited

1   They meet. They decide not to become romantically involved. They sleep with each other. And then they cannot be friends any more. In 1989 they were called Harry and Sally and their struggles over friendship vs. romance have become proverbial, even commonplace. In 2011, they are called Dylan and Jamie and it seems that little has changed. Obviously, popular culture feels the need to return, yet again, to Harry’s statement that “men and women can’t be friends” (When Harry met Sally, 00:11:30) in another of Hollywood’s romantic comedies. Friends with Benefits (2011, dir. Will Gluck), as a close relative of the iconic When Harry met Sally... (1989, dir. Rob Reiner) in terms of theme and plot, is not only revealing with regard to concepts of friendship and/as opposed to romance. The romantic imperative it constructs and represents is certainly a gendered imperative, as well: The crucial issue is the avoidance of romance in a specific constellation, namely cross-sex friendship between two heterosexual individuals – attempts at which, the films suggest, are doomed to failure. In this sense the narratives are driven by (the question of) a “romantic imperative”[1]The term “romantic” is here not supposed to designate the Romantic period – as in Friedrich Schlegel’s “Romantic imperative”, explained, for instance, in Frederick C. Beiser’s The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism (cf. 19f.) – but rather “romance” and “romantic” in their everyday use as terms that refer to narratives and themes related to love and relationships. , that is by debating and depicting the unavoidability of falling in love.

2   When Harry met Sally and Friends with Benefits both participate in the “contemporary phrasings” which, as Victor Luftig puts it, “define male/female friendship according to what it is not”. Concepts such as “‘just friends,’ ‘only friends,’ ‘not lovers’” all “in effect describe friendship negatively” (1) and testify to our lack of conceptions of male-female relations outside heteronormative frameworks. The films’ plots confirm those frameworks in denying alternatives to heterosexual romance. I would like to suggest that at the core of the “friends turned lovers” theme is a particular dynamic of likeness and difference, and that the narration of a process of transition from friendship to romance allows a production of difference that serves certain purposes. These purposes are the affirmation of the privileged status of heterosexual romance and, contributing to this affirmation, a replacing of likeness with difference that can be read as expressing the need for otherness that Jean Baudrillard attributes to contemporary society. I would also like to debate, however, if maybe the films are not as single-minded as they appear to be. The dominant impulse is certainly to turn a relation that is difficult to grasp in terms of conventional gender concepts into something well-known and well-established, i.e. heterosexual romance. “Friendship” as starting point of the transitional process, however, is also the state which enables the transition in the first place, and is thus an essential part of the result. If those narratives – and others of their kind – want friendship to imply romance, do they not also want romance to imply friendship? If so, there is not only a need for difference that can be read in those stories; there is also – indirectly expressed – a need for likeness which would soften conventional boundaries. Ultimately, though, the unification of friendship and romance and the transcending of the paradigm of difference run into the same dead end that versions of “happily ever after” typically face: Friends with Benefits is no more “a movie about what happens after the big kiss” (Jamie in Friends with Benefits, 00:25:14) than When Harry met Sally... is. The characters in Friends with Benefits voice dissatisfaction with existing modes of partnership, but the film can only announce, in its final scenes, the union of friendship and romance, but it cannot represent an actual update of relationship models. The impulse to leave clichés behind is expressed, but is dominated by the imperative yet paradoxical happy ending of romance, which cannot represent what it affirms.

Same, Self, and Other

3   “Starting with modernity, we have entered an era of production of the Other”, Jean Baudrillard argues. “It is no longer a question of killing, of devouring or seducing the Other, of facing him, of competing with him, of loving or hating the Other. It is first of all a matter of producing the Other” (“Plastic Surgery for the Other”). Our “entire cultural movement” is driven by “a frenzied differential construction of the Other”, a construction which actually consists in a “perpetual extrapolation of the Same through the Other” that ultimately serves “self-seduction to the extent that this likeness virtually excludes the Other and is the best way to exclude a seduction which would emerge from somewhere else” (ibid.). Both likeness and difference thus appear as sources of seduction in Baudrillard’s reflections.

4   They do so, too, in romantic comedies of the “Harry and Sally”-kind. There is the “seductive lure of like-mindedness” – which Claire Colebrook names as one of the structural aspects of friendship (109) – as well as hetero-sexual attraction.[2]“Empirically, you are attractive”, Harry explains to Sally shortly after they meet for the first time (00:10:23); when Dylan asks Jamie, who visits him at his office, to join him for lunch, she immediately assumes he is asking her out (cf. 00:20:15). That the couples start out from the likeness often allocated to friendship – where people find ‘kindred spirits’ – to the difference allocated to romance – where people find their ‘counterparts’ – quite tellingly illustrates Baudrillard’s point about a quasi-compulsive production of difference: A “frenzied differential construction of the Other” might be read in the fact that romantic comedies continue to turn symmetrical into complementary relations.[3]When “friendship is figured as dialogue or cooperation between men and women, expressions of sexual identity may at least be posited as coequal, rather than inherently oppositional or hierarchical”, Luftig argues (9). This illustrates our intuitive configuration of friendship as symmetrical and romance as complementary.

5   To turn friendship into romance is a production of otherness also in the literal theoretical sense: It means to instantiate an other, an object of desire that structures and thus stabilises a relation that is otherwise hard to grasp. Friendship as likeness is not based on difference, difference being “the mark of the signifier” (Belsey 10), and thus, one might say, structurally opposed to the symbolic as we know and employ it. Stories like Harry’s and Sally’s and Jamie’s and Dylan’s cannot end with friendship: Friendship appears, in contrast to romance, as the ‘non-symbolic’ – the non-symbolisable and non-symbolised – relation, the relation that those narratives are puzzled over and that they abandon in favour of a relation based on difference and thus in tune with the symbolic order. The meaning of romance might be taken for granted rather than spelt out, yet where friendship as likeness remains as mysterious as the pre-symbolic and hence structurally inconceivable inside a symbolic framework, romance as complementary relation and thus instance of difference generates meaning. That we experience far less difficulties in conceptualising male/male- and female/female-friendship is certainly attributable to the fact that those relations are in a sense “protected” by heteronormative standards: Friendship does here not compete with the romantic union as the ‘default case’. Rather, those standards exclude a romantic/sexual relation in this constellation, or at least make it appear an “exception to the rule”.

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