“Look, by this argument, it is impossible to have a subtle, complicated, adult romantic comedy in which the main couple ends up together.”
Nora Ephron, rom-com royalty, died on Tuesday. Here is an article/debate about her most famous work, in which Williams argues that When Harry Met Sally firmly enshrined the myth that men and women can never be friends in the pantheon of cultural pseudo-knowledge.
To me, this seems an example of the Pride and Prejudice effect: an excellent, clever, and complex work becomes defined in the popular imagination primarily by an appalling lesson or narrative based on a widespread but breathtakingly clueless misreading. So, with Pride and Prejudice we skip over Lizzie’s refusal to be loved on terms that pit her against her community, or Austen’s use of romantic love to demolish, purge, and reconstruct social norms, and learn that arrogant assholes are the real catches, because their jerkish behavior is proof of their smoldering love. Plus, they’re probably rich. (This, of course, is the real danger of the P&P myth: encouraging marriage for money is one thing, but they’re supposed to love us as well?)
Obviously, When Harry Met Sally isn’t in the same league, or even playing the same game, but the same thing happens. The dynamic duo ends up together and hey-presto! Harry was right all along! They really couldn’t be just friends (of course, “just” is doing all the work in that sentence, and in our ridiculous “friend zone,” with its definition of friendship as something limited and exclusive). It ignores the fact that Harry and Sally’s fall into bed occurs only after several years of chaste friendship, and their fall into love is impossible without them. Harry’s discomfort after the sex isn’t just a jab at the emotional differences between men and women–their coupling is disconcerting, awkward, and out of place because nothing about their prior relationship suggests sex as a natural step. It functions as the catalyst for their romance, but only accidentally, and only because the strength of their friendship sees them through the mess. Ephron’s point is not that men and women can’t be friends, it’s that men and women must be friends.
Friendship requires adult choices–the choice to deal honestly and virtuously with desire and concupiscence, and to see men and women as persons rather than one-dimensional categories in our relational schemas. So unused are we to seeing erotic emotions as something that can be directed or controlled that we’ve become terrified of them. When someone asks if our best pal might be a boyfriend, we respond with a shriek of disgust and a quick castration: “Ew, of course not! He’s my friend.” Something along the lines of “X is my best pal, and we’re not pursuing a romantic relationship” would be much more healthy.
Because as it stands, with everyone from the libertine masses to sententious youth pastors warning us of almighty Eros in one form or another, men and women really can’t be friends–or at least, they’re not supposed to be. And this is greatly to the detriment of both–it drives the sexes farther apart and props up their fantasies about each other. It warps sex, too, by placing upon it the unnatural weight of men and women’s entire emotional life in relation to each other. Not only does the prohibtion-by-disbelief encourage artificial and selfish courtship norms, it sterilizes the social sphere by bringing a claustrophobic pressure to bear on every flirtation, date and interaction–if only one type of serious relationship between men and women is legitimate, we doom ourselves to a compulsive grasping after it.
Yes, barring external constraints or the sort of relationship usually developed only in childhood, there will probably always be some sort of erotic possibility in a man and woman’s friendship. Who cares? Are we teenagers that we should be so afraid of our own sexedness?
Ephron’s movies are not always intelligent or morally insightful, or anything close to the thorough excellence of the 30s/screwball tradition she drew inspiration from (You’ve Got Mail is a remake of Lubitsch’s perfect The Shop around the Corner). They are always light and charming, however, qualities sorely missed in the current rom-com landscape dominated by the witless, cloying, and dully vicious.
I don’t see anyone replacing her soon, but something interesting is coming out of the Saturday Night Live crowd. I’ve always thought that the opposite of comedy is not tragedy, but horror: tradedy deals with the cyclical and fundamental–comedy and horror tend to come at the social and circumstantial from opposite angles. If Alien and Friday the 13th depict modern moral unease about lost sexual taboos through primal fear (Steven Greydanus has a great article on this here) romantic comedies navigate shifting anxieties about manners and mores. Ephron’s famous 80s and 90s movies explore and exploit a restless loneliness and displacement most obviously manifest in the fraught world of dating–consider the gimmick of You’ve Got Mail: a relationship conducted not even with the tangibility of letters, but in abstract cyberspace, while the heroine loses the business she has inherited from her mother. What is it Kathleen Kelly says–“good night, dear void”? Or Sleepless in Seattle, its cover depicting the protagonist staring wistfully into space, their cities, on opposite sides of the country, in the background. And of course the fear, in that scene where they discuss the chances of getting married after 40 versus getting killed by a terrorist–that you could be as beautiful, charming, and successful as Meg Ryan’s characters always are, and still have to face aging and insignificance quite alone.
Insofar as directors aren’t just cutting and pasting the usual montages, runs through the airport, and mood music, romantic comedies have moved to something different. It started with Juno, or maybe earlier, and continued with Knocked Up, The Backup Plan, The Switch, Bridesmaids, What to Expect When You’re Expecting and now, Friends with Kids. Many of these films look heinous, and several walk or blur the line between romantic comedy and simple farce, as the CVs of their actors might suggest. However, all of them put romance in some kind of a larger context–whether families, children, sexual consequences, small towns, or female friendship. If the 90s dealt with the frightening severance of sex and fulfillment from community, we seem to be working through the realization that sex is in fact inescapably communal, and more importantly, that we have no idea what to do with that. No one seems to have much to say or any sense of purpose aside from highlighting our tense cluelessness, but sexual love and desire is no longer solely a one or two player bid for romantic fulfillment. Worth keeping an eye on.