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The Love That Dare Not Appear in Print

“Surreal Couple” — by Tanakawho

I want to write today about a topic so unthinkably scandalous, so perniciously wrong, so beyond the pale of human understanding that, for whatever reason, writers avoid it at all costs in their stories, novels, and scripts.

I speak, of course, about Platonic friendship between heterosexual men and women.

Now wait – I hear you say – I know a great many male-female friendships, and my own life is full of them. The writing community in particular, to name just one, is rife with cross-gender friendships. I bet if we poll those reading this blog, we’ll learn of dozens if not hundreds of such friendships.

[pullquote]Why is this seemingly ubiquitous aspect of modern life so absent from films and novels?[/pullquote]

And yet, you’d hardly know such a thing is possible from what one finds in the pages of books and on film screens. And though TV has tended to a bit more generous, it invariably caves to the presumed audience desire to have the characters “get together.” (Friends, perhaps the most inaptly named program in the history of broadcasting, was nothing but a prolonged romantic comedy where true friendship was just a kind of waiting room between hookups.)

The frisson of romance, if not rampant sexual tension, routinely bristles between a man and a woman in a story. The great Stella Adler, in a drama workshop I attended in my twenties, chastened two students who were tiptoeing through a courtship scene: “Every time a man and a woman are on stage they are totally in love. All they’re discussing is terms.”

And yet this seems a great loss. Some philosophers, Plato among them, considered friendship to be the ultimate human bond — it is chosen freely, is sustained only through mutual consent, and is often based on genuine affinities unadulterated by family obligation or sexual desire. Are straight men and women really incapable of it?

My life would be severely impoverished without my women friends. (The “best man” at my wedding was in fact a woman, my longtime friend Dawn Hawk.) Yes, there’s an element of flirtation about many of these friendships, and every peck on the cheek provides a whiff of perfume, the brush of skin against skin, a hint of la difference. But they are not “friends with (the possibility of) benefits” or “romances in limbo,” any more than my wife is a “main squeeze with equity.”

Why is this seemingly ubiquitous aspect of modern life so absent from films and novels?

I’ve asked a number of friends to come up with examples of cross-gender friendships in film and fiction, and boy, are the pickings slim.

Jane Austen abounds with some very tender friendships — but they are almost always romances-waiting-to-happen. And in Remains of the Day, Stephens and Miss Kent share a lovely friendship — but it’s only because the romantic longing goes only one way.

[pullquote]Jane Austen abounds with some very tender friendships — but they are almost always romances-waiting-to-happen. [/pullquote]

The same is true of Midge and Scotty in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. This sort of romantic gridlock has been codified, one might say cheapened, by the modern put-down, “He’s just not that into you.” (Hitchcock, a devotee of Freud, knew there was a great deal more to it than that. Why else would Midge say, when caring for Scottie after his breakdown, “You’re not lost. Mother is here”?)

In Peter Carey’s Theft, the connection between the mysterious Marlene and her lover’s brother, Hugh, is one of the great joys of the book: “And there she was — a type — one of those rare, often unlucky people who ‘get on with Hugh.’” As you might guess, Hugh is troubled. As in insane.

Two of my own favorite depictions of male-female friendship are in fact chaste romances. The major attribute of both stories is how and why the sexual tension is controlled: one through Victorian rectitude and mutual homeliness (Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer in C.S. Forester’s The African Queen), the other through a nun’s vows (Sister Angela and Corporal Allison in Charles Shaw’s Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison).

Apparently such tales had a particular appeal for the director John Huston, for he brought both to the screen: with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in one, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr the other.

The workplace generates a great many cross-gender friendships, in both life and fiction, but there again the issue of repressed sexual tension heads its ugly rear due to the frequency of office romance.

[pullquote]The workplace generates a great many cross-gender friendships, in both life and fiction[/pullquote]

The introduction of women into police forces has been particularly generous in this regard, inspiring a whole new onslaught of buddy storylines, with men and women fighting crime shoulder to shoulder: Mulder and Scully of X Files, David and Maddie in Moonlighting. Of course, both these pairings ended up in romance to the fatal detriment of both shows. (Which is why, presumably, the creators of The Mentalist waited until the final season to pull this particular rabbit from its hat.)

A far more interesting example of this phenomenon appears in Tana French’s In the Woods.

The friendship between Dublin homicide detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox begins with the former remarking, “I had no problem with the idea of Cassie Maddox.”

First, he disdains the “New Neanderthal” competitive locker-room overtones of the job, and he in general prefers women to men.

Second, she’s not his preferred type physically — she’s boyish, slim, square-shouldered, where he’s always preferred “girly, bird-boned blonds.”

Even so, Rob becomes vaguely attracted and lets this slip out backhandedly in a feeble attempt at banter, to which Cassie responds that she’s always dreamed of being rescued by a white knight, only in her imaginings he was always good-looking.

This snaps Rob out of his dog-on-the-hunt thinking, and he “stopped falling in love with her and began liking her immensely.”

It’s a friendship developed deeply and satisfactorily throughout the book, until the inevitable night together near the end, when the sexual tension breaks and they make the awful mistake of, as Pinter would say, “going at it.” Things are never the same, and it is a testament to the hunger we have for such connections that we feel this shipwreck of affection viscerally as the great loss it is meant to be.

[pullquote]In the end, the best example I could find — maybe I should say only example — was the novel The Chess Player by Bertina Heinrichs, adapted for the film Queen to Play.[/pullquote]

In the end, the best example I could find — maybe I should say only example — was the novel The Chess Player by Bertina Heinrichs, adapted for the film Queen to Play.

It’s about the cerebrally intimate, sexually charged but ultimately Platonic bond that develops between Hélène, a Corsican maid, and her American widower chess tutor. The sexual tension is there from the start — Hélène’s first glimpse of chess takes place as she’s cleaning the room of a honeymoon couple playing a game on the deck, and the man and woman clearly share an intriguing intimacy. Hélène’s own marriage has reached that sister/enemy stage, and this sets the stage for a possible affair.

But something far more interesting happens. (One of the best lines in the film is when, after her husband has followed Hélène and seen she is not having sex with Professor Kröger, her tutor, but simply playing chess, he confronts her, and tells her that what he saw was “much worse.”)

Hélène becomes intrigued with chess for reasons she cannot explain, and reveals an innate gift for the game that cannot be taught. As for Professor Kröger, he remains haunted by grief; though he has lovers, he sees in Hélène someone more like his late wife — a gifted woman who struggles to embrace her talent. His fondness for Hélène is tragic, tender, and genuine, and she for the first time pursues something that is not for the sake of others — her employers, her husband, her daughter — but hers alone.

Do any of you have a favorite story about male-female friendship—or any at all?

Have you written any yourself? How happy with them were you? How happy were your readers?

Why do you think we see this type of friendship explored so infrequently in fiction (or am I simply reading the wrong books)?

About David Corbett [2]

David Corbett [3] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [4], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.