How 'When Harry Met Sally' Doomed Us All: A Case for Co-Ed Friendship
If you've ever considered faking an orgasm in Katz's deli to make a point, or spent a New Years countdown wishing someone would burst in and rattle off all the specific reasons they want to be with you, chances are you know — and probably love — When Harry Met Sally. Hard as it may be to believe, the Meg Ryan-Billy Crystal classic turns 25 on Monday, and in all those years, it's remained, for the most part, just as charming as you remembered — laughs and "aww"s and "I'll have what she's having"s all firmly in place. Ryan's O-face aside, however, the film's real legacy lies in its now-infamous tagline: "Can men and women be friends, or does sex always get in the way?"
In fact, in the wake of When Harry Met Sally's overwhelming success, this question appears to have carved out its own special niche in the romantic comedy canon. See: the sexy 21st century overhaul in movies like Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached — the tagline of which reads, "Can sex friends stay best friends?" Meanwhile, Friends With Kids dropped in its own twist (can non-romantic biological parents stay friends?), and who could forget Zack and Miri Make a Porno (can people who have sex on camera for money stay friends?).
I could go on — but, spoiler alert, the answer is always "no."
And that is some toxic bullshit.
Of course, you might argue that our OG pair Harry and Sally were, in fact, just friends for quite some time before they smooched, and isn't that proof enough? Still, I'd assert that their ultimate fate, especially when incorporated into that gooey "star-cross'd elderly couples on a couch" motif that runs throughout, sends a pretty powerful message. And that message — "simpatico sexual orientation + friendly interaction = eventual romance" — sets up some pretty skewed notions as to how people ought to relate to one another in a post-WHMS world.
First off, it's important to recognize that the film is predicated upon some pretty sigh-worthy Mars/Venus notions of gender: Men are voraciously and heartlessly sexual, women prefer to wait until the Moment Is Right; men leave first thing post-coitus, women take issue with this; men say potato, women say potahto, then break down because the potahto has yet to propose to them, etc.
Really, though: Can we please agree, once and for all, that these are wild, useless generalizations of how human beings actually behave? Or at least that those behaviors stem not from chromosomes but from social coding and pop culture cues, including When Harry Met Sally itself? As you're likely already aware, it's possible, if not plausible, if not likely, for there to be outliers from these stereotypes — for men to insist their boning be contingent on commitment; for women to, in the eloquent words of Wheatus, "hump 'em 'n' dump 'em"; for people to shuck the gender binary altogether, and so on.
Here, I whipped up a quick chart:
From there, it follows that in any hypothetically compatible friend pair — "men and women" or otherwise — it's statistically possible for both parties to have a casual enough attitude toward sex that, if things did indeed Go Down, it wouldn't actually "get in the way" at all. Hence, movie, disproved. Bam. QED.
Still, even within this line of reasoning lies the rather insidious assumption — as stoked by these innumerable rom-coms — that such pairs will necessarily tend toward sexing one another in the first place. Sure, certain friends may well mutually decide to venture to Pound Town, even to embark on a capital-R Relationship, Harry and Sally style — but this trajectory should in no way be considered a reasonable expectation, much less an inevitability. Otherwise, we're treading dangerously close to the Axe-scented nether-realm that is the Pick-Up Artist community — specifically, their concept of the Friend Zone, and with it, misery and ruin.
For those blissfully unfamiliar, the Friend Zone is, according to Urban Dictionary, "what you attain after you fail to impress a woman you're attracted to" — or, setting aside the (hetero)sexist "why interact with a woman who isn't your bang-maid" ethos, let's call it "a state of platonic friendship with someone you'd prefer to engage in sexy romance times" (see also: "Nice Guys of OKCupid").
To be clear, occupying the Friend Zone isn't so much "courtship" as it is "lying in wait, rhythmically tapping your fingers together like a goddamned Disney villain." Even under the least sinister circumstances, those who believe themselves "friend-zoned" also have to believe, at least subconsciously, that sexual attraction grows naturally when you take consensual proximity and add time — a lustful butterfly sprung from a cocoon of being listened to and intermittently paid for. Which doesn't seem all that absurd, really, given the pop cultural data at hand: Harry and Sally hated each other at the beginning of the movie, and just look where they ended up!
In actuality, however, being relentlessly friendly at someone isn't the cheat code to future involvement with their genitals, and to insist it should be is to effectively downgrade that person from subject to object, decision-maker to vending machine. The greater their autonomy, the greater your disappointment that things aren't going your way, not to mention the mounting sense that you are somehow cosmically "owed" the intimacy you crave — because why else did you put in all those hours, right? At least in my experience, resentment and coercion do not a lasting romance make — and meanwhile, your "friend zone" is hardly a friendship at all.
So, can men and women be friends?! I would like to posit a resounding "duh." Can people remain friends even after sleeping together? Also, probably, yes. But must their hearts and souls and loins grow slowly magnetized to one another, simply by virtue of hanging out? That's a no, Cap'n — and it's that very expectation that "gets in the way" more than sex alone ever could.
Thus, with all due respect to the aspiring Harrys and Sallys of the world, I say it's high time we disown this trope before it does any further damage. Because ultimately, when all is said and done, there are a lot of people worth knowing in the world, and the idea that any of us might be — or, rather, believe ourselves to be — limited in doing so based solely gender is, put plainly, really fucking sad.