Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend: Male-Female Best Friendships on Television

leslieandronWhen Harry Met Sally claimed that it was impossible for women and men to be platonic friends, nothing more. The usual direction for shows is to follow the path that Alias, Bones, Castle, Chuck, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, The Office, or X-Files have, where characters that don’t like each other – or are forced together due to working together, end up as an Official Couple. On the other hand, How I Met Your Mother, Friends, Kim Possible, New Girl, and innumerable other shows have characters that start out as friends and end up not only as romantic partners, but OTPs.

However, television now has several examples of friendship of male-female friendships that are actually friendships. This is important because of the usual trope that any frisson between hetero (or partially hetero) characters will lead to romance eventually and not continued friendship.

The exemplar of this friendship type is Liz Lemon and Jack Donahy on 30 Rock.  During the show, they took at least three trips together – to her high school graduation, to find a “countrified” comedian, and to his mother’s Florida house. And they were accidentally married during Jack’s wedding to Avery. Over the course of the show, their relationship developed, moving from an antagonistic boss-employee one, to a mentor-mentee one, to finally an appreciation that they love each other, but not in a romantic way.

There are even signs that the show turned the entire “the one” idea on its head, with both Liz and Jack romantically involved elsewhere, yet they answer yes to all of the following questions from their counselor:

Have you spent time with each other’s families? Have you attended special events together, such as class reunions, birthday or holiday celebrations, weddings, or extended car trips? Are you each other’s emergency contacts? Do you even drink together at work, perhaps while summarizing what you’ve learned over the day or week? Have you shared intimate details of your fears, hopes, and dreams, both personal and professional? Is this the longest and perhaps most meaningful relationship in your life? Do you often find yourselves thinking the same thing and then saying it at the exact same time?

LeslieRonbreakfastAiring now, Parks & Recreation and Revenge are excellent examples of shows with male-female best friendships at the core of the show. Leslie and Ron have a friendship that overcomes not only the supervisor-supervisee imbalance, but also strong political differences, and personalities that seem like they would be constantly clashing. Instead, Ron appreciates Leslie’s warm, supportive, uptight enthusiasm, while Leslie appreciates Ron’s stalwart, unbending, do-it-yourself-and-don’t-rely-on-others spirit. Their friendship seems real even though it is on a sitcom. On the other hand, the friendship between Emily/Amanda and Nolan is forged in pain and drama, and well, revenge. But the only person that can pull Emily back from herself is Nolan and Nolan seems to only be fully honest with Emily, as well.

sleepy-hollowI also want to call attention to other recent examples, including the presently airing Hart of Dixie & Elementary,*  because not only do these best friendships cross gender boundaries, but also racial ones. It seems highly likely that Sleepy Hollow may be another example of cross-racial/cross-gender BFFs with Abbie and Ichabod. The show is still in the early stages of setting up plot lines and character development, and considering the already tangled threads of the show, I can’t predict what will happen. There are two possibilities – and one leads to remaining strong friends, the other to romance.

I can’t speak much about the friendship of Zoe and Lavon on Hart of Dixie, but it at least isn’t a way of avoiding an interracial relationship considering the dating habits of the characters in Bluebell. Elementary is an interesting case, considering the producers stated that their versions of Sherlock and Watson would never get together — yet both are heterosexual. While the show does have issues, the viewers get to see how their partnership and friendship develop from the beginning. Another example might be Kalinda and Will from The Good Wife, but to call them best friends is pushing it, considering Kalinda’s complicated nature and the show’s teasing of … possibility. At least we can say that they were two characters that cared about each other as friends, and his death caused her to mourn her loss and grief. We are at a point where these shows are part of an important trend. I remember when Firefly aired and the cross-gender/cross-racial friendship between Mal and Zoe was highly noteworthy, yet now there are likely even more examples than I’ve included here.

Another recent example is on the historical drama, Mr. Selfridge, set in the UK in pre- and early World War I. The titular character throughout the first series (and the beginning of the second) cheats on his wife with any showgirl, but maintains a very interesting and non-romantic friendship with Lady Mae Loxley. This friendship is both interesting within the time it is portraying, but also shows that audiences of now are willing to accept watching friendships between men and women that are friends and nothing more.

I hope this trend continues of shows showing that men and women can be friends. Without romance in their pasts or future. One of the most heartening aspects of having these friendships shown is that it helps those who in real life have these friendships have examples for themselves or for those who don’t think a friendship is really “just friends”.  These characters have (mostly complicated) lives that include, but are not limited to their friendships, yet these friendship add great value to their fictional lives.

*Yes, I realize that there still might be a romance here, however unlikely, but I don’t want to wait until the end of the show to write this essay. And yes,  the bizarre friendship between Olivia and Cyrus on Scandal is noteworthy and not just for the times he wanted to or tried to kill her, but because she is a Black woman and he is a white gay man. But there was never the possibility of romance between them.

  1. For a long time (in college and beyond) my BFF was a guy. We never dated. Ever. There were zero sparks. But the narrative inertia of American media was such that everyone, and I mean everyone, assumed we’d wind up married. My folks, his folks, our friends, everyone. (We didn’t. He walked me down the aisle at my wedding and I signed the ketubah at his.) I like that we’ve gotten away from that nonsense and I hope that Elementary and Sleepy Hollow continue along those lines.

    Don’t get me started on HIMYM.

  2. Wholeheartedly agree with everything! I love the fact that both P&R and 30 Rock have male BFFs that are parodies of conservative supermen, yet are allowed to be human and caring. (I believe Ron Swanson is even unironically seen as a hero by many right-wingers.) Ron is hilariously teapartyesque with his hidden gold caches and distrust of the goverment, and Jack is the epitome of a self made pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, fuck-you-got-mine man. And yet they both grudgingly respect the idealism and enthusiasm of their female counterparts. It helps that both Fey and Poehler write their own characters as flawed, bordering on psychotic, instead of Mary-Sueing them into kick-ass heroines.

    I don’t know if I read too much into this, but I see similarities between these relationships and Arya and The Hound. The physically small, energetic, idealistic-but-flawed girl who unexpectedly befriends a grizzled giant with a heart of gold underneath his stony facade. Didn’t Frankenstein’s Monster befriend a little blind girl who “saw” him as a human? Beauty and the Beast would be another example, as would The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. And, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, Totoro and Daddy Panda from Miyazaki’s works (and to a lesser extent Porco Rosso, the anti-fascist pig fighter ace who befriends the female preteen aviation mechanic, from the eponymous film).

    From what I’ve gathered from female acquaintances, this is apparently something that some girls like. Some want Fabio-type, bodice-ripping knights in shining armour, and some want kind monsters.

    I’m so happy that writers everywhere are stepping away from the horrible convention of pairing up characters just because they are there. Sherlock isn’t the best show on TV, and basically isn’t even an adaptation of the original, but it keeps getting better. Both Liu and Miller are rock solid in their interpretations. I like that Sherlock is protective of Joan whenever she is dating someone, and slightly possessive when she is dating Mycroft. But not in a “she is my woman” way, more like a “this is MY plaything and you can’t have it”, as he reverts to churlish childishness whenever Mycroft comes into the picture.

    I really, REALLY hope that Sleepy Hollow steers clear of Ichabod/Abbie romance. It would be out of character for both of them, as he is betrothed to another woman, and she knows exactly how annoying he can be. If Ichabod ever beds another woman (or whatever he would call it), my money is on Jenny. She would probably be disappointed, and he would be bewildered and disgusted by all the frivolities of modern day couplings. “What is the purpose of this oscillating wand you have on your nightstand, and what manner of devilry is this thing you call a ‘butte-plugge’? Is this another invention by the French? Wait, I can see your undergarments, quickly turn the lights out!”