My husband and I have had a long standing argument about When Harry Met Sally… that 1989 romantic comedy with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. In it Harry Burns, Billy Crystal’s character continues to maintain that men and women can’t be friends because the sex always gets in the way, and the movie goes on to show sex getting in the way of Harry’s and Sally’s friendship. My husband maintains that this argument is correct. I have always contended that, while this is amusing, it is not honest, that men and women can and should be friends. In my own life I have many male friends with whom there is no sexual tension or even a hint of sexual interest. I also think that this idea is deeply dangerous to marriage. If men and women cannot be friends because the sex always gets in the way, then what does that say about marriage? What does that say about a relationship that is supposed to based on mutual respect, love and companionship? Sex is, of course, part of marriage, but it’s not everything, and if there’s no room for friendship, then what?
But the problem that I see in adhering so strongly to this belief is that it cuts off the possibility of friendship between half the human race. It segregates and ghettoizes the sexes, for a really antiquated reason. Given today’s work places, and fluid child care arrangements, men and women must work together in ways that they would not have during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Think about TV’s Mad Men, the roles of men and women that show are very clearly proscribed and even the professional women are not accorded the same status as the men. However, much, tho’ not all of that has changed in the last 60 or so years, and while, not perfect, there is more equality in the work place, and more parents are sharing child care responsibility. Labor is less divided along gender roles. If men and women cannot be friend in the work place, what does that do to working together on joint projects, working cooperatively, working as a team. To assume that men and women cannot be friends because sex always gets in the way is to assume that men are always sexual predators.
Harry and Sally spend a lot of time walking around New York, being friends, but when Harry wants to talk about something serious he has to resort to silly voices. He can’t take an emotional risks without slipping into “character.” It is difficult to have a real friendship with someone whose does this, who takes on a “persona” when he wants to reach into emotional territory.
At the end of the movie, Harry runs across New York (and the movie is an homage to Manhattan) to find Sally at a New Year’s Eve dance because at one time, earlier in the movie they had promised each other that neither of them would let the other be alone on New Year’s Eve. He tells he loves her.. in words like “When you realize that you want to be with someone the rest of your life, then you have to start now” Sally’s response is, “I hate you, Harry Burns, I hate you.”
Her response has always chilled me on several levels. First of all, it’s not true and she could say “I love you,” back to him. She does love him in some weird way. But it also feels to me like a capitulation to a kind of 1950’s relationship. It seems to me that Sally sees that the only way for her to have a relationship with Harry is totally on his terms. We know that they will settle into a traditional marriage, as the little interviews with the older couples in the movie attest, and on some level, will never know each other.
After Harry and Sally have sex in the movie, and it messes up their friendship, they each call their best friends to talk about the situation. I wonder what would have happened if Harry had called Sally’s friend, Marie, and Sally had called Harry’s friend, Jess. They might have had a chance to learn something about each other and about the opposite sex instead of simply slipping into the old clichés about relationships.
The difficulty is that the old clichés about relationships don’t work. They leave partners wondering about how to talk to each other. They let partners turn to their same sex friends to reinforce the clichés. Opening up friendship to include friends of both sexes might actually provide a refreshing and less stale perspective on the world.