What are we going to do about homosocial friendship?

What are we going to do about homosocial friendship? May 21, 2012
It’s a mystery! Let’s grab a dectective.

Last night was the season finale of Sherlock (which I hope you were all watching), and, in one sequence, Sherlock and Watson end up handcuffed together.  As they clasp hands and start running, Watson shakes his head and mutters, “We’re never going to hear the end of this.”  Watson’s frustration that everyone assumes he and Sherlock are, ahem, involved is shared by Maureen Ryan, who wrote at HuffPo that the “not-that-we’re-gay” joke that follows around male-partners-in-crime (or crime solving) is extremely played out.

Now that kind of joke — “We’re close friends, but we’re not gay!” — feels like a distancing technique, something that draws attention to gays and lesbians as something out of the norm. That feels wrong for a lot of reasons.

And honestly, who cares? In this day and age, are you telling me that two men who are best friends would constantly have to deal with the assumption that they’re gay? I just find the whole idea fairly preposterous. Who doesn’t know straight men who hang out all the time without anyone thinking about or guessing about their sexuality? How is drawing attention to not-gayness, at this point, anything but a representation of lingering shreds of mild but unmistakable gay panic?

I agreed with her complaint, and also agreed with s.e. smith who guest posted at Alyssa Rosenberg’s blog and singled Sherlock out for praise precisely because Sherlock and Watson are involved without being sexually attracted to each other.  We have a tendency to sell friendship short — treating them as a pale substitute for real relationships which necessarily include some naked time.  That’s why, in our debate about gay marriage, Matt was worried that opening up the possibility of male-male sexual relationships would mean devaluing male-male platonic relationships.

I kind of read the Sherlock coverage, mentally filed it for future arguments, and moved on.  Then, this past weekend, I was reading the NYT Book Review, and paused over the write-up of Code Name Verity.  The story is about a WWII spy and the female pilot she works with.  The review included the following paragraphs:

“It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend,” Queenie writes, and Wein conveys that love gorgeously. “We’re still alive and we make a sensational team,” Queenie says.

And they do. This is a rare young adult novel entirely about female power and female friendship, with only the faintest whiff of cute-boy romance. I’d tell you more about the “Usual Suspects”-meets-“If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” plot, but then I’d have to kill you.

And I immediately assumed that the book was YA lesbian romance.  Whoops.

During our debate, I outlined how I try to avoid tripping up platonic friendships with sexual tension in my day to day life (after all, I’m bi, and people of either gender might not know how to parse my friendship).  But I haven’t thought much about how to change my expectations of or reactions to other people’s friendships.

My usual solution is to hope that the build up to romantic entanglements becomes a lot more formalized and scripted, but I realize that most people don’t like this model as much as I do.  How do you guys negotiate the blurry line between friendship and romance, whatever the gender pairing?  Do you try to sharpen the distinction or just cultivate a kind of agnosticism about the status of relationships?

The way we handle these distinctions is very much in flux, and sometimes it feels like the only people really working on delineating categories are the “Relationship status” programmers at Facebook.

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  • And honestly, who cares? In this day and age, are you telling me that two men who are best friends would constantly have to deal with the assumption that they’re gay? I just find the whole idea fairly preposterous. Who doesn’t know straight men who hang out all the time without anyone thinking about or guessing about their sexuality? How is drawing attention to not-gayness, at this point, anything but a representation of lingering shreds of mild but unmistakable gay panic?

    I would find her complaint legitimate if the same thing didn’t happen with hetero-friendships. I had a good female friend a couple of years ago that I was always seen out with. She was married to another guy, but everyone in our workplace thought that she was married to me, and it sort of became a running joke. I can easily see that Sherlock Holmes joke working just as effectively if Watson were a female, since if I had been in that situation with that female friend of mine, I probably would have made the same comment as a joke.

  • Heart

    I tend to treat all relationships as platonic, unless explicitly stated otherwise, although whether this is due to deliberate choice on my part or sheer obliviousness can be unclear (It took two of my friend’s openly french kissing in front of me for me to realise they were going out).

    I think the problem here is not that a more relaxed attitude towards gays will lead to male-male or female-female platonic relationships being devalued, but rather that this devaluing already occurs. Most of my closest friends are female (I’m biologically male myself), and, as you have said above, a lot of people think I’m going out with at least one of them (I was once accused of Quintipal timing five of my friends). The fact that I’m an asexual aromantic didn’t come into it.

    Like you said above, friendship is often held up as lesser to love. This, I think, is the root of the whole issue. If society stopped treating all interactions between people, whatever sex or gender they are, as being below true love, there’d be less of a problem of devaluing relationships.

  • deiseach

    Wait for the CBS version of Holmes, “Elementary” starring Lucy Liu as John Watson (well, I don’t know what they’re going to call her – Joan?).

    Already there has been some fandom harrumphing about precisely this – some people saying “Oh God, not another male-female pair where they’ll be tripping over the UST” and others going “Why assume they’ll pair them off? Why can’t we have a male-female friendship?” and yet others going “So what is so wrong about a male-female romance?”

    I’m more annoyed that they’ve set it in Manhattan. I don’t mind that they’ve made Watson a woman, I wouldn’t mind if it was a female Sherlock and a male Watson, or a female Sherlock and a female Watson. But I will be wondering when and if they’re going to do a Mulder-and-Scully on it, or a Booth-and-Bones, or a Maddie Hayes-and-David Addison on it. Because maybe it’s just me, but I can’t think offhand of a series with male and female leads that was content to let them just be friends, even if they were close friends.

    Male buddy shows get away with it, but I am wondering if part of the reason for pushing a “are they or aren’t they?” possibility of characters being gay is the freedom nowadays to portray gay characters as more than evil villains, tragic victims or supporting cast, and maybe writers are going overboard with the temptation to hint at relationships where they are not flat-out described as such.

    • “Wait for the CBS version of Holmes, ‘Elementar’ starring Lucy Liu as John Watson (well, I don’t know what they’re going to call her – Joan?).” I am now the most excited person in the whole wide world. Ohmygoodness. And honestly, I hope they do Scully-and-Mulder it, because the “slow burn,” as my friends call it, on that one is at least five seasons long (I’ve only watched five seasons yet). That’s pretty incredible.

      As far as decreasing fears of sexual tensions, talking openly usually helps. As far as worrying about whether other people think you are a couple…yeah, talking openly should help that one too, and taking people at their word is usually pretty good. This doesn’t solve anything in the case of actual attraction, of course, but it should do well when people aren’t interested in each other romantically.

    • Rek

      The Law & Order series are/were pretty good about male-female partners who manage not to become romantically entangled. Perhaps “Elementary” will follow that model.

  • Joe

    I work in an all male environment and gay jokes are the order of the day. Not mean spirited or anything but friendly teasing like in the movie 40 year old virgin’s “You know how I know you’re gay…..” that kind of stuff. I think its the way man express affection for one another these days. Its probably immature and in really poor taste because what do you do if one of the guys really is gay? You might really like him, in a platonic way, but not really know how to express it. I ran in to this problem when I started dating my wife, she is very close with a gay couple and so we often have coffee or have them over to play a game and I totally have no idea how to connect with them.

  • Emily

    Hi, I’m afraid this is unrelated to the topic, but I’ve commented on it before: I am wondering if you can possibly change your blog settings such that more than the first sentence of a post is visible on Google Reader. I enjoy and read your blog regularly, but it’s mildly and consistently annoying to have to click through almost every post to decide if I’m interested, when I can read every other blog in Reader (including a couple on Patheos). If you have your own reasons for not making that change, it’s your blog and your decision, so just say and I’ll stop bugging you! Thanks.

    Related to the topic: I can’t wait until we’re just in a place, socially, where it doesn’t matter, and we can afford to be agnostic or straight up wrong about same-sex AND opposite-sex friendships because there’s no major social risk or cost to homosexuality.

    • leahlibresco

      The reason it’s set to a short preview is because I only get paid by Patheos if people view the actual site. I’d like to do a longer preview, but that’s beyond my tech knowledge, so more experienced people, feel free to weigh in.

    • deiseach

      My objections are not to the mistaken impression of being a gay couple qua gay couple, it’s the automatic assumption that there must be a couple in the first place. I dislike attempts to fix Holmes up with Irene Adler as a love interest just as much. I hope that “Elementary” does not go the ‘Mulder and Scully’ route because I think that – for various reasons – society has come to put so much emphasis on the notion of romantic/sexual love that it really can’t bear the weight of all the expectations that have been heaped upon it, and it downgrades all other forms of relationship (the only one that has survived to be regarded as an equal bond is the parent-child one, and if it comes to a conflict between siding with one’s parent(s) against one’s lover/partner/spouse, the automatic assumption is that *of course* you’ll stick with your romantic partner, though it doesn’t seem to work the other way round – if one parent conflicts with the other about a child’s choices or lifestyle, even an adult child, the default assumption there is that the child gets the benefit of the doubt).

      This also leaves those of us not in couples in limbo; I can’t tell you how often I’ve had the “You’re (the age you are now) and you’ve *never* been married?” reaction, with the unspoken but quite obvious addition of “What’s wrong with you that you couldn’t get a fella?” The idea that I never *wanted* a fella (or another woman) just Does Not Compute. So Holmes and Watson – whether they are both male, both female, or a mixed couple – who are close friends who love each other and crime-fighting buddies but not romantically in love would be great – but I think we’re more likely to see the “will they/won’t they” thing with “Elementary” and I have no idea where “Sherlock” is going – they dumped Sarah, and there’s no sign so far of the canonical Mary Morstan, so whether they will indeed have Watson deciding Holmes is the one for him or take the (otherwise canoncially faithful) Granada adaptation route of quietly omitting Watson ever getting married at all, I have no idea.

  • @b

    Wow, surely we can permit entertainers to joke about sexuality. Those who think sex is no laughing matter, simply aren’t in on the joke.

    • Contrarian

      I agree — sex is hilarious.* Totally scandalized my wife when we started dating (and she was still evangelical) when I pointed out sex shouldn’t be taken seriously, since it’s just two people slapping the uglies, making silly noises and smelling funny.

      *Rape is not sex.

      • Therese Z

        You probably discounted her instinctive feeling, either because she is a woman or because she was informed by Evangelical Christianity, that sex is hilarious and fun, but it should totally be taken seriously because of its power to create new life.

        But you probably automatically consider sex incomplete without contraception. Which is too bad, because “natural” or “organic” sex (call it anything that sounds good to you) is the best of all.

        The rest is joint masturbation and goofing around.

  • SAK7

    I’m left puzzling if this situation has as much to do with American culture in the present age as driven by a combination of a the unfortunate lack of vocabulary to adequately describe love’s many forms, the popular media’s desire to reduce all of humankind’s relationships to flesh and lust for profit, and a homosexual rights movement that was hijacked long ago by the Queer agenda that triumphs in shallow, flambouyant exhibitionism with a seeming goal of self gratification in the moment.

    Absent any of these three, would the situation be different? Does the experience shift in different cultures where perhaps the language or the history of the last 40 years is different?

    • Ash

      The primary battles being fought by the homosexual rights movement are over gay marriage, protecting kids against bullying, and anti-discrimination in the workplace and the law. How do any of those things reflect a hijacking by a Queer agenda that triumphs in shallow exhibitionism or seeks only self gratification in the moment?

  • Alex Godofsky

    I think it will take a long time for this to go away in fiction, just because it’s an easy joke and writers (like all humans) are lazy.

  • Ted Seeber

    The one positive thing about gay marriage is that it will relieve this sort of thing, just as being married allows one to be “just friends” with somebody of the opposite gender without sex getting into it.

    Or at least, that’s the way it was supposed to work before the sexual revolution made *every* relationship about sex alone, depriving us of even the possibility of real friendship.

    Yet another thing to hate the Baby Boomers for.

  • I watched the first two episodes of Sherlock Holmes last night. Yes, I must say, even at this point they are laying on the gay couple jokes quite thick. I don’t oppose for ideological reasons, but on aesthetic grounds I think they’re pushing it too far. It just gets a bit boring and predictable.