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.