I Love You, Man: The Renaissance of the Platonic Male Relationship

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There are two well-received shows based on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle currently in the mainstream: Elementary on CBS and Sherlock on BBC. Sherlock is, personally, one of my favorite shows, so I’m not going to sit here and deny a slight bias, but I have never watched Elementary, and here’s why: Watson was cast as a lady.

Now I am all for kicking gender normativity in the butt in any kind of media. Every little bit help, and I’m sure Elementary is a perfectly entertaining show and I’m sure Lucy Liu makes for a very entertaining Watson. However, part of what makes Sherlock so fascinating for me is the relationship between the two main characters. There are other interesting male/male relationships in the show, but Sherlock and Watson’s relationship is the hub on which the show turns. It’s historically been very rare that a deep, emotional, platonic relationship between two men has been the central focus of a TV show. That’s not to say male friendships haven’t appeared on television. Seinfeld is the first example to come to mind (probably because I love the show to tiny bits). The four-way Jerry/George/Kramer/Elaine friendship is the most central element of the show. However, the nature of the show, being a sitcom, relies on sex, dating, and general everyday absurdity as a backdrop. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the development of those friendships. Jerry and George’s friendship does not change in any way from season one to season nine – and that’s okay. Because that isn’t what the show is about. Their friendship is not the most important thing, simply an essential element. How I Met Your Mother runs into this same thing. Ted, Marshall, and Barney are good friends, but their relationships do not change or develop and revolve mostly around the women in their lives (or in Ted’s case, the women constantly rotating in and OUT of his life, but that’s another conversation). We all know how hard it is for films and TV to pass the Bechdel test. (For anyone unfamiliar with it, the Bechdel test is passed when a piece of media features a prominent female character who converses with another prominent female character about something other than men. For most media, this is already one female character too many, but again…different conversation.) There IS a masculine equivalent to the Bechdel test, and it’s going to sound cheesy, but it requires that one male character converse genuinely with another male character about how one feels about the other.

This doesn’t happen. We know, being human beings and all, that men have opinions about one another, and that men are complex, emotional, feeling human beings. However, they are rarely portrayed that way. James Bond is a MAN and does not talk about his feelings. Superman doesn’t react emotionally (on film) to anyone but Lois Lane – that’s safe, of course, because she’s a woman. There’s this sense that masculine characters can’t behave emotionally in the presence of another masculine character, like they’re going to lose their street cred or something. This tends to resultsin a lack prominence of close platonic relationships between men in film and TV, because if you don’t allow them to talk about themselves or eachother and there aren’t enough women around to talk about, well, what the hell are they going to talk about? So, just leave it out, or stick it off to the side where it can’t do any harm.

However, one of the really wonderful things happening in film and television today is, those relationships are coming back, in full throttle. More than ever, we are seeing movies and tv shows that not only include these kinds of relationships between male characters, but we are even seeing shows whose structure depends on those relationships, which is the truly remarkable thing. Sherlock is a wonderful example. Sherlock and Watson are non-romantic but nonetheless depend on one another, support one another, express themselves to one another, and the show could not exist without all of that.

Harry Potter is an interesting example. Granted Harry, Ron, and Hermione are effectively children for the vast majority of the series, but Harry’s relationships -almost all of them non-romantic – with the people around him are crucial to the function of the story. Fantasy has always been good at this. Basically anything by J.R.R. Tolkien has an abundance of emotional platonic relationships between men, from Frodo and Gandalf, to Legolas and Gimli, to Merry and Pippin, to Frodo and Sam, to Bilbo and who-even-knows-how-many, even Frodo and Smeagol/Gollum. There are virtually no women in the stories and therefore virtually no romance. The story requires that they are open and trusting with one another, or everything would fall apart. We see this in the platonic love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu as well, all the way back in the Epic of Gilgamesh. For fantasy, this is not a new thing. It may even be the sharp upswing in interest in mainstream fantasy (we have to remember that once upon a time, this stuff was only for the minority collective of sci-fi nerds) that has facilitated this newfound respect for and interest in emotionally-based relationships between male characters.

The Big Daddy for me is Supernatural. (Give me a moment squeal. I love this show so freaking much. Okay, I’m done.) What makes it so fascinating and addictive and kind of a little bit perfect is the relationships. The relationship between brothers Sam and Dean is deeply emotional, even to a point of heartbreaking codependence, but never does the viewer start to fit either of them into the harmful “sissy” stereotype reinforced by so much media. Both are extremely masculine in a very classical sense – good-looking, denim-wearing, ass-kicking John Wayne warriors. When Dean cries for his brother, or when Sam is feeling guilty for doing stupid things, you don’t call them sissies. Fact is, sometimes men cry, and sometimes men get depression or anxiety or post-traumatic stress, and sometimes men need to get things off their chest. The difference between Sam and Dean and the rest of the pigeon-holed “real men” in the media is, they do it. Add to that the complexity of their relationships to their father, or to their surrogate father Bobby, or to the angel Castiel… The friendship between Castiel and Dean is unlike anything I had ever seen. When I first began watching the show, I had honestly never seen men and male relationships portrayed with such depth, and it was stunning to watch. They have complexity, and they develop over time.

Here’s hoping this trend keeps up. Everybody knows how the media harmfully distorts and manipulates its images of women. A lot of people are talking about it, as well they should. However, men face a similar issue of harmful stereotyping in the tough guy image, and it locks our men and boys into a closet of their own anxieties that they fear letting out. Any step toward making anything in the world even a little better is a good one. For now let’s hear it for Frodo and Sam, Harry and Ron, House and Wilson, Kirk and Spock, Sam and Dean Winchester, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

If anyone has any other thoughts, input, examples, aaaanything, feel free to add on! 🙂

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