Monday, February 11, 2013

A Different Kind of Valentine

As we approach Valentine’s Day this week, I’d like to take the opportunity to celebrate something different. Friendship.

Friendship between men and women in particular.

This is something that came up recently on my favorite podcast. Pop Culture Happy Hour consists of delightful quartet of NPR employees who spend an hour each week geeking out over the vagaries and intricacies of movies, television, theater, comic books, music, and books.

Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson are two members of the PCHH crew who clearly have a close relationship. They go to movies together, hang out watching TV together, and clearly influence each other’s tastes and lives. Words like besties and best pal come up, and Linda has been referred to as “Aunt Linda” in relation to Stephen’s children.

So, of course, when the PCHH gang dedicated part of a recent show to answering Frequently Asked Questions once and for all, one that had to be addressed was “When are Stephen and Linda going to get married?”

Part of me wanted to cry. Part of me wanted to laugh. Pretty much all of me wanted to beat my head against the wall of social expectation reflected in that question.

But what I actually did was cheer. 

Because one friendship at a time, friends are making themselves known. Friendship between men and women doesn't feel as though it should be that big of a deal to those of us who enjoy it. Our friends are a natural part of our lives, and it feels odd that we should need to justify or defend that. But so often our society demands that we do just that. And it's weird to do. As Linda said in response to fan sentiment, "I have cousins it would feel less weird [to think about making out with]."

But the questions keep coming because, it would seem, for many (most?) people the idea of a woman and a man being friends without sex or romance in the picture is just hard to imagine. And social "science" doesn't help. Studies reveal the presence of attraction between men and women who are "just friends."

This was hardly news to me. I've had many male friends throughout my life, some of them quite close, and I've never not been attracted to one of them. There are all kinds of different things about them that have attracted me. There's a reason we're friends, a reason I wanted to spend time with them, to talk with them, to know them more. Attraction is always a part of friendship. It's just that when it comes to men and women, we are conditioned to associate any attraction at all with sexual interest.

And it's just not necessarily so. Sure, attraction can go there, but it doesn't have to. And grasping that, living into the reality of it, is the single biggest step I know of toward valuing people for who they are rather than what they can do for us. It's humanizing rather than objectifying.

"Now, I will make a confession: I have very little patience for this debate under normal circumstances, because my male friends include straight guys, gay guys, married guys, single guys, flirty guys, not-at-all-flirty guys, and yes, even the odd guy I've dated here and there. (Exes are a much more controversial question in my experience, and, I admit, a trickier proposition, but it absolutely happens.) But I am always willing to listen to research. If it turns out that I am not actually friends with any of them, that would be sad, because I would have to return a lot of dudes to the Friends 'R' Us store at once, and that would be very disruptive socially. On the other hand, they're worth quite a lot, so I'm sure I'd get good trade-in value."

I love her humor, but I love the reality that underlies it even more. The problem with the research is that it reflects what people think about themselves and their friends. And how we think about ourselves and those around us is largely shaped by cultural conditioning and social expectations (Freud anyone?).

Which is why I'm so happy Linda and Stephen are out there with their friendship, letting us get to know them a little. The more real friendships that we see in the culture, the more our imaginations can be open to the possibilities between men and women that aren't determined by sex.

So, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to propose a toast:

Here’s to Stephen and Linda!

And to my friend, Dan, who is committed to living a different story!

(And even to Harry and Sally: I’m glad you found each other and wish you every happiness, but leave the rest of us our friends!)

Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!