… this is what he said:
Alright, the link to gender equality is a lit-tle tenuous, but this is my thirteenth post, and I’m indulging myself as a reward.
(Even if I do feel a bit defensive about it. Like when I tell my daughter she should not eat sweets and then chew my way through a packet of Haribo crocodiles-qui-piquent as soon as she is in bed).
So. Where do you come out? Can women and men be “just friends”?
Had I asked myself the question ten years ago, the answer would have been a puzzled and adamant, ‘of course!’.
But after over a decade in France, and almost as long with a French husband, I find the answer a lot harder to give; at least, definitively.
Let me try to unravel that.
At college and university I had many boy-friends (note the hyphen). I don’t recall those relationships slipping into fuzzy territory. Many of those friendships took root while either of us were with someone else. For the most part, my boyfriends (no hyphen) were fine with that (as I was, for them).
But those were my younger carefree years, when we all went cheerfully out together for a pint without thinking twice about it.
These days, I’m mostly surrounded by friends in long-term monogamous relationships, often with children. I’m not sure quite how it has happened, but suddenly the idea of drinking beers just with your gal/mal pal seems a bit odd (not to mention logistically challenging).
So. Getting older = mixed-sex friendships occur less frequently.
Which gives them a very different status…
…especially in France?
Hear me out before you accuse me of #Frenchbashing. In a country where absolutely everything can be turned into a baccalauréat philosophy exam question, it’s surprising there’s not more existentialism over amitiés platoniques.
Could it be the French, with their libertarian views on mistresses, sex and cigarettes, cannot comprehend platonic friendships? Whereas in the (less-Madame-Bovary) UK, we’re a bit more androgynous, or laid back enough to hang out altogether down the pub without it being, justement, compliqué?
I certainly don’t have any close male French friends. I’m pretty sure my husband would be perplexed if I did. His bande-de-potes are all mecs, and our social gatherings are instinctively women on one side, men on the other: drinking Get27 (urgh, urgh) and feeding my putain aversion.
Alright: I know that’s all very subjective. Maybe other French men are different; or maybe those friendships I thought were entirely black/white fifteen years ago in the UK were, all along, a blurry shade of grey (not one of those Shades of Gray – I would have noticed that).
After all, researchers have found that men in mixed-sex friendships are much more likely than women to a) find their female friend attractive and b) (mistakenly) assume she feels likewise.
So was Billy Crystal right all along, and the male friends of my early 20s were secretly lusting after me, femme fatale that I am?
Sorry; I don’t buy it (shame. Quite liked the idea of being a femme fatale).
What, after all, is so complicated about mixed-sex friendships? Caveat of femme-fatale-ignorance aside, why do we assume that it’s impossible for men and women to laugh without then wanting to jump into bed together?
Some argue that it’s because opposite-sex-friendships (OSF, of course there is An Acronym, will add to glossary) are still relatively recent. It’s true that it’s only in the last fifty years that men and women have begun to study and work together; and since interaction before then was in the context of marriage or family relationships, perhaps our instinctive doubt about platonic friendships stems from their novelty?
Paradoxically, in parallel, the concept of marriage has also moved on. We no longer marry (exclusively!) for money, out of obligation, or to make a good match. We have therefore developed (great) expectations (and a rose-tinted vision) of marriage as tantamount to exclusive soulmates, best friends, partners for life.
Do we then feel guilty about external friendships because they imply that our relationships aren’t up to such a utopian standard? That there are somehow gaps to fill, which shouldn’t exist?
Or does the discomfort spring from a relationship we can’t quite grasp, that doesn’t fit in the boxes described by William Deresiewicz in his NY Times article?
We have trouble, in our culture, with any love that isn’t based on sex or blood. We understand romantic relationships, and we understand family, and that’s about all we seem to understand.
Whatever the reason, it is true: we seem unable to picture a platonic friendship without (consciously or unconsciously) suspecting murky currents of transgression and attraction.
Talk about paranoia, eh?
…Or maybe not.
After all, to be friends in the first place, there has to be some connection (even if it’s not physical). A meeting of minds, shared sense of humour; something in the other person that makes you click. I certainly have that with all my girl-friends (hyphen again).
So why or rather when does it become an issue in mixed friendships?
Well, my take on it is this: that such friendships are tricky because of the constant possibillity of more.
Symbolised by the (very, very) fine line between harmless enjoyment of another person’s company and something else entirely; a line that is easily – and sometimes even unnoticeably – crossed.
And once it is crossed, by one or both parties: then what?
Yes: hardly surprising, really, that we hastily prefix our male-female friendships with “platonic”.
Rather, the question is, who is it we are rushing to reassure?
I sound like I’m saying that platonic friendships are doomed from the word go. Actually, no – look, Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio have managed it for fifteen years under Hollywood’s not-quite-believing glare (and if Kate and Leo can do it…)
But I do think with age and circumstance, such friendships face greater challenge.
Maybe that’s it, then. For me at least. When I was twenty and single, I could see whomever I chose (Sinead said so).
Now, I can’t (and don’t want to – let’s keep the hyphens), but the fact that I’m conscious of different limits, and conscious also of other people’s reactions if they suspect I am breaching those limits: well, that means platonic friendships have become a thing.
Whereas before, they never were. And therefore, a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Now there’s a philosophy exam question.