Of all the different kinds of human relationships, art has explored platonic friendships between men and women the least. Heterosexual romance is the reigning heavyweight, and countless works celebrating Eros have been created each year since the Paleolithic age. Same-sex friendships place highly, since traditional norms have historically segregated people by gender. Even unlikely animal friendships are getting more visibility today, burning through social media in listicles and slideshows. While art celebrates other forms of connection constantly, though, non-romantic bonds between men and women have gone mostly ignored.
Pop culture usually looks skeptically at cross-sex friendships, as researchers call them. The few sitcoms that feature cross-sex friendships, like 30 Rock or The New Girl, largely use them to mine humor from battle-of-the-sexes wackiness. When they come up in film and television, it’s almost always to set up a contentious courtship before an inevitable third-act union. Romantic comedies in particular reject the idea that these friendships can exist at all, instead exploiting them for will-they-or-won’t-they tension á la Sam & Diane or Ross & Rachel. The prototype, When Harry Met Sally, answers the question “can men and women be just friends?” with a definitive no and in the process “set the potential for male-female friendship back about 25 years,” according to Michael Mansoor, author of Women and Men as Friends.
Even in the early 21st century, as many traditional gender norms start to look as archaic as smoking on airplanes, it’s still common to see articles asking if cross-sex friendships are scientifically possible, or touting their benefits to skeptical readers. As pop culture explores male-male Bromances and female-female BFs-F configurations, the little non-academic material looking at cross-sex friendships is being done in niche works, like a non-fiction book from this year about the correspondence between the founding fathers and their female friends. However, there’s one genre that’s given itself more space to explore cross-sex friendships, and it’s the one that’s traditionally been the most daring, political, and imaginative.
Though its release is still a month away, the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is already breaking pre-sale records. It’s also garnered pre-release praise for its diverse casting, indicating that Disney sees a value in making the galaxy far, far away look more like our own. Seeing John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey together in the trailer, though, holds additional promise. Given that the Star Wars universe has never made romance a strong suit, there’s a possibility that The Force Awakens could feature another of sci-fi’s great cross-sex friendships. Today, if there’s a non-sexual friendship between a man and a woman, odds are that it’s in a science fiction movie. Of course, this isn’t to say that sci-fi can’t be traditional. Even Ridley Scott’s The Martian, which marooned Matt Damon millions of miles from the nearest person, managed to sneak a heterosexual coupling into the end credits. But the most memorable and touching cross-sex friendships in film today tend to come from science fiction.
The emotional core of this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road is the relationship between Tom Hardy’s Max and Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. The two meet as enemies, but have to work together out of sheer necessity in order to escape warlord Immortan Joe and his War Boys. In the cab of Furiosa’s war rig, the two come to depend on and trust each other. As the two make their way across the wastes, watching their relationship evolve is one of the joys of the film. Furiosa and Max are two broken people, forced to be as hard as possible and atoning in their minds for a lifetime of failures. In order to work together, the two have to be progressively more open with each other. These moments of vulnerability are praised as some of the film’s highest grace notes.
Moments like that moment are better than just tender romance—they’re intimate moments, of two people supplementing each other for a mutual good. It’s not that George Miller’s film doesn’t have time for romance; the relationship between war boy Nux and wife Capable takes on romantic overtures. The kinship between Max and Furiosa is built on trust and respect, rather than amorousness. The fact that this enables mutual growth for the two makes it look more like a rich and fulfilling friendship, but the lexicon for male-female friendship is so barren that the default descriptive language is romantic.
That particular moment, where man, woman, and machine give way to unexpected tenderness, isn’t totally unique. There’s a similar moment anchoring the emotional journey in Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic Robocop, between another man and woman whose friendship is richer than romance. Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is a cop partnered with Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). The two have each others’ backs, shooting the shit and working together before bad guys blast Murphy to shreds and OCP reconstitutes him as Robocop. Following his resurrection, OCP sells Robocop as a piece of machinery that’s going to save Detroit. It’s Lewis who reminds Robocop who he was, then saves his life when OCP plans to leave him in the scrap heap. Having escaped, Murphy tries to remember his past life. It’s Lewis who sees his face, connecting him with his humanity and spurring arc of Murphy’s character. In a movie where a man gets shot in the balls and another gets blasted into pink chum, the non-romantic intimacy between Murphy and Lewis provides the film’s emotional core. Continue reading Sci-Fi is doing the best work depicting non-romantic relationships between men and women