My last phone call with my long-distance bestie started with the familiar phrase, and adorable phrase, “Biiiitch, I have something MAJOR to tell you!” Anytime I need advice, or want to vent, or share something crazy that happened to me, the first person I reach to call (or text) is my best friend. (Platonic) friendship is an integral part of the human experience but it is not often the subject of film, books, or even politics.
Close friendships have the capacity to fight loneliness – one of the most harmful feelings to human health. Research has shown that making and retaining meaningful friendships as an adult is hard, especially for men. The way friendships and emotions have been constructed harms men, which also explains the high rates of male depression and suicide. There is even a term for men’s inability to identify their emotional needs, thoughts, and feelings – normative male alexithymia. Although people across the gender spectrum define intimacy and friendship in similar ways, why do heterosexual cisgender men struggle (so much) with friendship?
Often, we gender relationships as feminine. The challenges some men face in developing these close friendship bonds comes down to how masculinity is equated with strength and competition. Social pressure makes it difficult for men to express vulnerability and the need for intimacy; if these are characterised as feminine, it becomes a “weakness” or “liability” if they admit to needing friendships. Although men do engage in activities together, they are often taught to distance themselves from feelings. Some of the only times we see representation of intimacy between men are in highly traumatic or stressful situations such as war. Of course, there are some good portrayals of men being vulnerable, in movies such as Good Will Hunting or series Sex Education. So if men are not taught or given the tools to cultivate meaningful emotional bonds, who bears the burden of men’s emotional turmoil?
Time and time again, it is women who are paying the price. The female saviour trope is often romanticised in film, especially in Disney movies, making it seem normal to find “the man hidden within the beast”. As the nuclear family is enforced upon us and privileged through legislation, this heteronormativity leads to the devaluation of friendships. But not everyone is afforded a ‘safe space’ at home to learn what love is. In queer communities, placing a high value on friendship or chosen family has long been commonplace. Many learn how to love another person and love themselves through their friends. This obsession with finding your “other half” gives the impression that an individual cannot be happy without being in love, which is not necessarily the case.
The focus and pressure on finding “the one” (where men cast their partners to fulfil the role of best friend, lover, emotional support, mother – to him and their future kids – as well as on-call unpaid therapist) has led to a form of emotional gold digging that is exhausting for generations of women. This trope of finding ‘the one’ who will be both best friend and lover is also a reason for which the media portrays heterosexual man-woman friendships as inevitably leading to romance. Popular culture reinforces this notion. What starts as a friendship, often ends in bed (just look at the show, Friends or the movie, Friends with Benefits). Studies have shown that men rate their different-sex friendships higher for quality, intimacy, enjoyment, and nurturance. While reading self-help books, going to therapy, seeking out advice and making friends for support, cis-heterosexual men often simply rely on their romantic partners or the women in their lives. Could we talk about a triple shift?
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the loneliness and isolation that came with it, inspired people to extend their networks of care. Spending time with your friends can be healing and we often take the benefits of having good friends for granted. As intimate friendships don’t come with a social script, society should work to expand what loving and living can look like. Instead of privileging normative assumptions about intimacy (such as heterosexual monogamy and the nuclear family), a queer paradigm should be applied to foster diversity, fluidity, and possibility. After all, the commitment towards your friend, your ride or die, your platonic life partner, and best soul friend, can bind you as deeply as marriage vows.