I have generally found it easier to be friends with women rather than men. Some of my best friends are women. There I’ve said it. I mean that in a completely platonic sense.
Perhaps its not too surprising considering how I grew up surrounded by women (2 sisters and mom – dad was mostly absent due to his job), and have now replicated that again as father to two lovely daughters. Even in the intervening years of college and grad school, though, I found it easier to relate to and become friends with girls rather than boys – and again, I mean that in a completely platonic sense!
This was particularly true after moving to America where the male culture seemed so much more testosterone drenched, so driven by particular notions of loner macho masculinity that it takes considerable effort to develop any close connection with most American men. Especially without the props of sports or beer or (of course) crude sexual humor to foster the typical “bonding” that is supposed to pass for male friendship in popular culture. What probably handicapped me further even among the nerd/geek set was that I never really got into the comic books or gaming scenes either! When all that’s left to talk about is… I don’t know… science, literature, art, poetry, philosophy, and everything else in the universe – it can get oddly difficult to engage men in conversations! Except movies, and sci-fi – those I do have in my social toolkit, and they did help break down some of the barriers leading to deeper friendships. Don’t get me wrong, I do have some good strong male friendships with American men, but its taken longer to develop them. In the early years of grad school, my closest male friends were almost all foreigners, followed by a few Yanks who had been abroad! Weird.
How about women, though? I’m sure my female friends can come up with equivalent vacuous lists of topics that dominate female conversations too. It seems likely though that what made it easier for me to make friends with women was that I wasn’t hitting on them! I sense that this was a relief – not to have to engage in nor repel flirtations, and be able to engage in somewhat deeper conversations. (Of course, some of them might have found me odd too!) It was a relief for me too not to have to try to fit into some socially accepted gender role, and I’m sure that worked both ways. So much easier to get to know someone if one can drop all that social artifice. So I’ve enjoyed the friendship of women, including but not limited to my sisters, my wife, and hopefully my daughters too when they grow up. Some of my best friends are, therefore, women. It helps that Kaberi is not the jealous type and has been perfectly happy to leave me entirely on my own for months on end (as she is doing right now!) even at times when I’ve been surrounded by more female than male colleagues.
The occasional downside to rejecting traditional gender roles, of course, is that when the hour does come calling for some “macho” capability — helping Kaberi traverse a tricky trail across a cliff face in the Himalaya, or wade across a raging monsoon-fed stream in the Western Ghats, for example, or just fixing some broken things around the house — she only turns to me with some hesitation, after exhausting other apparently more male options that may be available! Even though she knows that I have been a rock-climber and hiker in some extreme conditions! (but let’s skip lightly over the fixing things bit…)
Yet it seems most people cannot really conceive of purely platonic male-female friendships in most of our cultures! There has to be more, they think, some hidden sexual tension, barely suppressed, that could burst out into the open any minute and consume that relationship or those around it. There has to be something profane underlying those friendships! Sometimes (perhaps too often?) that expectation itself destroys relationships even if there is nothing there – because the very concept of male-female friendship makes us uncomfortable. That article in Slate (linked above, and hat-tip to Jennifer Ouellete) examines the problem, but if you really need an example, look no further than the biggest pop culture phenomenon right now, the new Harry Potter film, which revolves beautifully around the relationships between the teenaged Harry, Hermione, and Ron. People can’t help but picture some sort of love-triangle there, even though the friendship between Harry and Hermione is deeper than any suppressed sexual attraction! The most tender, unexpectedly (because its not in the book) lovely, and touching scene in Deathly Hallows (part 1) is when Harry lifts Hermione up from her despondent chair and gets her to dance with him to a crackly tune on the radio during one of their darkest moments of despair (and boy does this story have an abundance of dark moments of despair!), and they actually smile momentarily as they twirl around their lonely tent. Until the tune fades away and the darkness descends once more. I registered nothing sexual in the scene at all, just a special moment of reaching out between friends who have been through a lot together. To their credit, the young actors play it that way too – and wonderfully. Yet, you have but to search for the phrase “Harry Hermione dance” in Google or on YouTube to be deluged with all kinds of fevered interpretations of sexual tension between the two of them in that scene, and elsewhere in the movie. Honestly? Where?! It seems these people all share the dark fantasies of Ron, whose jealousy is at least stoked and warped by that piece of Voldemort’s soul around his neck. Not sure what excuse everybody else has for their fantasies.
If our attitude towards opposite-sex friendships is odd and limited in imagination, what can one say about our attitude towards same-sex friendships that go beyond friendship? That is where our minds become truly unhinged. Witness this American judge, who is against gays serving in the military, but is ok with lesbians being there because (and I am utterly incapable of making this up) he thinks they can be cured by heterosexual male soldiers raping them!!! Seriously?! Or, to take a perhaps lighter but still bizarre example, we have zookeepers in Germany breaking up an apparently homosexual male pair of Griffon Vultures to force them to mate with females! Seriously!
How is it that this third branch of the chimpanzee family tree ended up in such bizarre territory in terms of our attitude towards sex and friendship? Why didn’t we evolve more like the Bonobos, for example? Can we transcend our narrow culturally constrained mindsets and envision greater dimensions of relationships? I hope so.
Let me leave you on a more uplifting note, with a clip of that tender, chaste, platonic dance between Harry and Hermione: