Harry, Sally and “The Friendzone”

I just re-watched When Harry Met Sally, and I must admit its still pretty good. I remember watching it either in high school or middle school with my friend Ben, because for some reason at that time he was SUPER into rom-coms. He watched Friends regularly and his favorite movie, for some inexplicable reason was “Kissing a Fool” starring David Schwimmer and Jason Lee.

Anyway, there’s a part in When Harry Met Sally that has always stuck in my head. Near beginning Sally tells Harry that they’ll just have to be friends rather than pursue anything romantic, at which point Harry explains that men and women can never truly be friends. “Because the sex part always gets in the way,” he sagely reveals.

In one sense this sets up the friendship they later form and also predicts the doom of that friendship which ultimately morphs into a romance. I originally watched this movie at a formative age, and Harry’s claim about the impossibility of platonic friendships with the opposite sex has, for better or worse, always stuck in my head.

Today I am a 27 year old man and I like to think that I’m “just friends” with a number of women. The use of the classifier “just”, however, is totally needless. On the internet it’s easy to find examples of a campaign against the concept of something called “The Friendzone” which is a term that did not exist at the time of Harry’s speech. I don’t think that Harry felt he’d been “friendzoned”, rather I think he was just being honest with Sally when he told her he didn’t really want to be friends.

I wonder how many other young men have seen this and taken Harry’s words at face value: “men and women Can’t Be Friends because Sex.” Being “just” friends with someone who you’re attracted to can be tough, and I’ll admit I myself have ruined friendships in the past with the dreaded “hook up”.

Over the course of the film Harry proves himself wrong by striking up a deep and decidedly sex-less friendship with Sally. Then, of course, because this is a genre with certain preexisting requirements, they have sex. Then, at some point after this they decide they’re in love.

But the questions remains. Can men and women be friends? I left the “just” out because I think the questions sounds more serious and inspires deeper consideration without it. Can men and women be friends?

Easy answer. Yes they can. I have several.

But I also think that Harry was partially right. It’s not cut and dry, but in many friendships between heterosexual people of the opposite sex a specter of attraction can hover even when it has been banished by formal declarations.

“We’re just friends,” is a statement that can be tough for some single men (I believe, maybe I’m projecting an obnoxious part of myself onto others) to say to their male peers, because there is an emasculating subtext. I’m not saying that the ‘subtext’ is grounded in reality, but I think there is a modicum perceived weakness in the “just friend” statement. For if a man is friends with a woman but they are not romantically entangled, a weaker male mind might see two possibilities. First that the man has been rebuffed by the woman yet he still spends time with her, in which case he’s hopelessly “out of his league” or something. Or possibility two: that the man doesn’t know how to seduce her properly, in which case he’s a “pansy” or a “coward”. Both of these premises assume something that is often assumed of men: that all they think about is sex.

In When Harry Met Sally, Harry does think about sex a lot. True to form he has casual sex much more readily than Sally. Harry’s male friend is suitably confused about how Harry can be friends with a woman he’s not having sex with. Harry then assures his male friend that he’s having plenty of great sex with other women so there’s nothing to worry about. This solves that problem.

I still really like this movie, and it has lots of great lines, and it also underscores how romance and friendship are tightly entangled but it does make some assumptions that don’t totally hold up today. In some respects I wish I’d never heard Harry say “Men and women can never be friends,” because it makes me wonder if it didn’t color some of my interactions with women over the years. On the flip side it is important to recognize feelings of attraction, whether or not you choose to act on them, which I think is what Harry really meant. If you are going to pursue someone’s company, in whatever form, whether it be for friendship or something else, you have to be honest with yourself and it doesn’t hurt if you’re honest with the other person too.

Honesty is also what our titular characters must grapple with, and it is what ultimately saves their relationship. Similarly I think honesty is what critics of the term “Friendzone” are up in arms about. If you’re going act like a friend then you should BE a friend. Be honest.

In the end though, I’m not an expert. I don’t know much. When Harry Met Sally is still a good watch, though.


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