The events of the last year — the #MeToo movement and its exposure of rampant sexual harassment in the media and Hollywood, as well as accusations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted a fellow high school-aged girl more than 30 years ago — have exposed just how little knowledge many men have about what women they know deal with in their lives.
For all that some men call themselves empathetic on the basis of being husbands and fathers — which the presence of Kavanaugh's daughters at his confirmation hearings was clearly intended to convey — the issue is that too many men seem oblivious (or, at least, less-than-sympathetic) to what their female friends have experienced.
But that should be strange: After all, men like Kavanaugh (educated at a boys-only private school) are in the minority in modern America and men are a minority at most colleges and have been for a while. Most men ostensibly have female friends and colleagues — and one in three women will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, according to the CDC.
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Yet, television and film continue to peddle the myth that men and women can’t ever be friends without a romantic or sexual component. Much has been written about the horrors of the "friend zone," to which "nice guys" are supposedly banished by their female friends, as though friendship is a gateway to sexual gratification through which men should charge, no matter how many times they might hear the word “no.” And the insistence that (straight) men and women can never be just friends, once argued in "When Harry Met Sally," persists to this day. Both tropes posit that no intimacy can exist between women and men that cannot and will not turn sexual; both contribute to a sense that women have to always be cognizant of their supposed effects on men, regardless of their relationship, and that the emotional intimacy of a friendship might just be a means to a different end for one party.
And if we don’t teach men how to respect women or confront misogyny — including the misogyny of the idea that we can't be friends with one another and nothing more — nothing is going to change. That means more women will be hurt by men they trust without a safe way of getting justice, or even of being believed.
This isn’t, of course, a modern problem. Underappreciated Nerd meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or Heroine Realizes Her Best Friend Is Prince Charming are still common romantic comedy plots, even at a time when places like Netflix are reviving the genre. The stories pop up at an inverse to what exists in real life. Men and women are friends — at school, at work, at the dog park — but it is still so rare to see those relationships represented on screen without a story that arcs into romance.
It’s easy to think of recent television shows with opposite sex friendships that morph into something else: “The X-Files, “The Office”, “Friday Night Lights,” nearly every “Star Trek” series, actually every teen-based show since the dawn of “Beverly Hills 90210,” even prestige PBS period mysteries have a hero who pines after a woman while stuck in the friend zone. But if Jenny Slate can figure out how to make an excellent movie about a woman who gets pregnant and then gets an abortion, someone in the entirety of Hollywood should be able to write a story in which a man develops an attraction to a woman he knows, thinks about it, and then doesn’t make a move. Or one in in which two opposite-sex characters manage to support each other through something difficult without injecting sexual tension into moments of intimacy.
Those moments can and do exist in real life, and they deserve to be seen.
The few exceptions to the idea that male-female friendships naturally evolve into romantic couplings seem to exist entirely to prove that television executives believe that friendship is something for people who are mostly already sexless, elderly or hopelessly mismatched in power. Jack and Liz on "30 Rock" escaped the trope because they were Tina Fey characters. Jessica Fletcher and her best friend Seth never sexed up "Murder, She Wrote," but they were on-air at a time when only the Golden Girls were allowed to be sexually active women of a certain age. The American Sherlock Holmes reboot, "Elementary," managed to avoid the crime-solving couple trap (but, then, a modern, heterosexual Holmes-Watson relationship is as bad an idea as adding a love triangle to The Hobbit).
It’s absolutely possible to depict positive, equitable relationships between opposite sex characters without losing an audience. Workplace shows like "Murphy Brown" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and once allowed protagonists to have lives that included reasonably healthy connections with peers without amping up the sexual tension between them. But those were all shows with women heavily involved at the top level.
And, as Linda Bloodsworth Thomason illustrated in her essay about disgraced former CBS head Les Moonves, stories where women are more than just an object for a male protagonist to pursue or a case to solve have long been a nearly impossible sell in the last two decades. That may be changing now -- but that means it will take many more pilot seasons and lineup announcements before it’s normal to see television characters interact in ways that don’t reinforce some of the most toxic messages about how men and women are supposed to relate to one another.
It’s bad enough that it’s impossible to turn on the news without remembering how badly so many men have distorted their opinions of women and their place in the world. It would be nice to at least be able to watch a rosier version unfold in prime time (even if we are all streaming it on our phones).