Male-female relationships in fiction

I enjoy reading young adult books (I’ll write more about one of the reasons why in a future post), and I was listening to one recently, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, in which—spoilers—a friendship develops between a guy and the main character, a girl. It was the typical “they start out hating each other and then find out they actually enjoy being with and talking to each other and become friends” thing, which was nice if unoriginal. And then it became even more typical because the relationship turned romantic. And I was disappointed, because why couldn’t we just have a good male-female friendship story? Why couldn’t we leave it at “they actually found that they liked each other platonically and became good friends”?

That got me thinking about male-female relationships (between people who are roughly the same age and unrelated) in fiction in general, and it seems like for the most part they always do end up romantic, even if they don’t start that way (in mainstream movies even more so than in books). It’s frustrating, but it actually does kind of make sense. If a story were to end with the main male character and the main female character in a purely platonic relationship, that would be unsatisfying, because the relationship wouldn’t feel solid or lasting. There would always be the possibility that one of them would enter a romantic relationship, and if (or when) that happened, that relationship would replace or at least diminish the friendship (especially if both characters were heterosexual). And who wants to read a story where the focus is on a relationship that’s so fragile and easily dissolved? In fiction—and quite possibly in real life too, generally—to last, and thus to provide a satisfying ending to a story, a male-female relationship has to be romantic.

I found this to be true when I tried to write a story focusing on a non-romantic male-female relationship. Years ago I wrote a retelling of Cinderella in which I, typically, got around the love-at-first-sight issue by having Cinderella and the prince know each other before the fateful ball. The way my story was unusual is that their relationship never became romantic, not even after Cinderella realized that her best friend was actually the prince in disguise and he took her to the palace to live with his family. (Although when my mom read the beginning, she commented, “Ah, a romance,” and I said, “Nope! No romance here!” and she countered, “Of course it’s a romance! It’s Cinderella, and the girl is giggling at something the guy said.” I don’t know if that speaks to the flawed nature of my mom’s assumptions about male-female relationships, or the flawed nature of my portrayal of one…). I don’t remember what inspired me to keep the relationship platonic—maybe it was just a desperate attempt to bring some originality to a story that’s been told and retold so many times already. But I’m guessing that at least part of my motivation was a desire for a different kind of story—a less heteronormative, more ace-friendly one, even though I had never heard the terms “asexual” or “heteronormative” at the time—from the ones I had been told all my life.

The problem was that my ending, with Cinderella and the prince living together as best friends rather than a couple, no romance involved, was unsatisfying even to me, the author. Because yay, when the story ends they’re together and happy, but the prince at least will be getting married at some point in the future, and then what happens to Cinderella? Is the prince’s wife going to be okay with his female best friend living in the castle with them? Is the prince still going to care about Cinderella and want her around as much as he does now? Probably not. So even though the end of the story was seemingly happy, it felt wrong, because if I looked beyond the written ending things really weren’t going to be that great for Cinderella. Her happiness likely wouldn’t last; she’d probably eventually lose her friend (and her nice new life), and after he’d been the most important person to her during the story, and their relationship had been the main focus of it, that made the ending just feel sad. Maybe it was realistic, but I’d been going for a platonic happily-ever-after.

Maybe such a thing doesn’t exist, though. While I didn’t want to do the stereotypical romance thing, my platonic relationship-focused story kind of failed and would have been much more satisfying, if also more cliché, as a romance. But it’s sad that stories of platonic male-female relationships just can’t be as satisfying as romances, because it locks people into telling just one kind of story—and the fact that romantic male-female relationship stories are the only ones that get told may be part of what makes people think that men and women can only relate in a romantic way.

Right now I’m rereading The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale, which is about a friendship that forms between the two titular characters, who are both married to other people. It’s great to read a story about a non-romantic male-female relationship—but a lot of the story is about the two main characters trying to decide if they do actually have romantic feelings for each other, and people making assumptions about their relationship (that it is sexual and/or romantic in nature), and their spouses having issues with it. So when stories of platonic male-female relationships actually are told, the idea of romance is still very much a part of them—and if it’s that hard for a fictional woman and man to have a platonic relationship, think how hard it must be in real life.

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6 thoughts on “Male-female relationships in fiction

  1. luvtheheaven January 3, 2015 / 11:11 pm

    I know you were discussing male/female friendships in fiction, but I’m curious if you have read any good male/male or female/female friendship stories (or the highly unlikely friendship in a fictional context that potentially includes a nonbinary or even trans individual) where the happy ending is friendship, like your goal was in your retelling of Cinderella? I can imagine it’s harder to read a male/female friendship story where neither character is homosexual and not see romantic subtext in their relationship, but I imagine the “satisfying happy ending” despite the lack of romance is something that is equally challenging in all subgenres?? I’m not sure.

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    • cinderace January 4, 2015 / 10:40 pm

      Good question. I think the reason male-female relationships specifically stood out to me is that generally, same-sex friendships are socially allowed to continue after you enter a committed romantic relationship, whereas it’s held that you’re supposed to drop or at least take a step back from your opposite-sex friendships when that happens. So when it comes to fiction, the sense that two people will stay friends no matter what their future holds is easier to have with opposite-sex relationships.

      But now that I think about it, you’re right that a platonic happy ending may be hard to achieve no matter what the sex of the characters. Looking back on the books I’ve read over the past few years, in many the protagonist’s primary relationship is romantic, or else there isn’t a primary relationship that’s focused on. So I have had a hard time finding one where, as you said, the happy ending is friendship. Here are some relevant ones, though (the list ended up long enough to be its own post, so this may be a little more than you bargained for!).

      Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (young adult) has a romance subplot with the female main character, but I’d say more of the focus is on her friendship with another girl. Spoilers—the other girl leaves at the end, though—to get married—so while you know the two are going to stay friends, you also know they won’t see each other often, and the other girl already has another relationship (a romantic one) that overshadows the friendship.

      Cast Two Shadows by Ann Rinaldi, Halfway to the Sky by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley, and Out of Order by Betty Hicks are three juvenile/young adult books that focus on family relationships (the first is grandmother/granddaughter, the second mother/daughter, and the third siblings), with the happy endings being greater closeness/better understanding between the characters. And What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows is a middle-grade book I read ages ago where at least part of the focus is on the main character forming a new, strong friendship with another girl. Focusing on platonic relationships seems easier to do in children’s books than adult books (although to be honest I actually haven’t really read much contemporary adult fiction), because in books for kids you don’t have that expectation of romance.

      The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman features strong nonromantic friendships between same- and opposite-sex characters, although the main character does have a primary romantic relationship too. And of course there’s Harry Potter, with the strong friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione lasting through all the books and definitely being focused on more than the romance between Harry and Ginny—although of course the friendship isn’t the main point of the story, and nor is it in The Magicians.

      Considering specific books also got me thinking more about ones I’ve read that feature male-female friendships, so here’s a rundown of some of those:

      Quicksilver by R. J. Anderson and The Bone People by Keri Hulme are two books with ace main characters that focus on (at least in part) their friendships with people of the opposite sex. In Quicksilver, though—spoilers—the main character’s male friend likes her, and although she doesn’t feel the same way at first, their relationship does turn romantic at the end (but not at all in a sappy way; the main character may be wtfromantic). In The Bone People—spoilers again—the main character’s male friend also wants a romantic relationship with her, but she seems to be aro and isn’t at all interested. His desire for romance isn’t made a huge deal of, so it’s not really a main part of the story, and in the end he’s accepted that it’s not going to happen—so I think this might be perhaps the only book on this list that I would say actually does have friendship as the happy ending (The Actor and the Housewife would be another one, and I will be examining that one in-depth in its own post. I plan to write a post about The Bone People as well).

      Two more books that feature platonic male-female relationships are The Year of the Hangman by Gary Blackwood—the relationship isn’t a huge part of the story, but a young guy and a girl are thrown together and I assumed they would have a romance (because of course main character plus character of the opposite sex equals romantic relationship), but that actually doesn’t happen—and the Matched/Crossed/Reached trilogy by Ally Condie. In those the main character is in a love triangle, though, trying to sort out her feelings for her best friend, who’s a guy and in love with her, and a new guy she’s recently met. Spoilers once again: she commits to the new guy pretty quickly but the best friend still loves her throughout the trilogy, even though her feelings toward him remain platonic. I haven’t read Twilight but it seems similar. The happy ending in Reached is that the guy friend ends up with another girl. :P

      And one more; in The Opposite of Invisible by Liz Gallagher, the main character has a male best friend and during the book has a romance with another guy. At the end that romance has ended and the male friend tells the protagonist he likes her, and while she isn’t ready to commit to a romantic relationship with him, she isn’t completely closed to the idea either (this ending actually left me a little disappointed; I always like stories where the pair of best friends gets together, since for me romance and friendship are inextricably linked—which is why I think wtfromantic may be the best label for my romantic orientation).

      Anyway, sorry for the crazy-long response! You gave me a lot to think about so I appreciate the comment. :)

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      • luvtheheaven January 5, 2015 / 12:18 am

        Thank you for the very long response! ;) And yeah, I’m wtfromantic too, btw. :P

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        • cinderace January 5, 2015 / 1:11 am

          Yeah, I remember reading a post about that on your blog. :) Also, I can’t resist adding one more book I thought of that’s kind of relevant–The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Leguin. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Left_Hand_of_Darkness Especially interesting because it features a friendship between the main character and a nonbinary person (it’s sci-fi so this person is one of an androgynous alien race).

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          • luvtheheaven January 5, 2015 / 1:34 am

            Oh, awesome. :D Thanks for all the recs.

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      • cinderace January 14, 2015 / 5:36 pm

        I might just keep adding to this list as I think of relevant books…

        Guardian of the Dead features male-female best friends. The guy is asexual and probably aromantic, so them getting together would never really be a possibility. It didn’t come to mind before because of that plus the fact that the friendship isn’t a main part of the story (we don’t see it develop and the guy isn’t in most of the book), but still, a male-female friendship with no romantic element is good!

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