‘When Harry Met Sally’ got it wrong 25 years ago


This week marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the beloved romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally... Directed by Rob Reiner and written by the late, great Nora Ephron, the movie that gave us one of the most famous one-liners in Hollywood history -- "I'll have what she's having" -- has become a modern classic with good reason. It asks a question that is as relevant in 2014 as it was in 1989: Can men and women be "just" friends without, as Billy Crystal's Harry put it, "the sex thing getting in the way"?

When Harry Met Sally... concludes that friendship between men and women is possible but ultimately unsustainable. Sooner or later, the friendship will involve sex and, in Harry and Sally's case, love. Like so many other Hollywood romantic comedies, the movie posits that friendship between men and women is a holding pattern en route to the most desirable kind of relationship they can have. Harry and Sally's friendship is based on respect and honesty, and it's mutually beneficial; these are two people who care about and for each other. And yet, that's not enough for them -- or for the audience.

The notion of friendship as a consolation prize is the basis for the "friendzone," a term that did not exist in 1989 but that would have made complete sense to a man like Harry. The friendzone is, in 2014 thinking, the place to which women cruelly relegate men in whom they have no sexual or romantic interest, with whom they want to be "just" friends. It is a hellish place, cultural wisdom tells us, a purgatory devoid of sex where men are forced to enjoy women's affection, support and admiration without any coitus whatsoever. To be friendzoned is to be stuck at the halfway house with no hope chloesworld of reaching your desired destinations: Sexburg and Boyfriendville.

harry2There are myriad problems with this way of conceptualizing friendship and of understanding sex. To believe in the friendzone, you have to believe that spending time with women doesn't really count unless you're having sex with them, and you have to believe that a woman's friendship is a consolation prize, with the first-place trophy being her body. In other words, you have to believe that a woman's true value lies in her willingness to have sex with you -- which means that anything short of that represents a loss for you. If being "just" friends with a woman leaves you feeling shortchanged, you must first believe that women owe you sex and love.

Nothing could be more corrosive to genuine friendship. The good news for men who don't want to be "just" friends with women, who accuse women of heartlessly friendzoning them, is that doing so is a very effective way to lose yourself a woman friend. Unrequited love and sexual interest are unpleasant, to say the least, but there are few things more insulting than telling a person that being her friend feels like settling for less than she owes you.

In contemporary Hollywood romantic comedies, the friendzone -- and escape from it -- is a common theme, from Made of Honor to this year's What If, starring Daniel Radcliffe. There is, in fact, a romantic comedy called Just Friends. Nowhere does the notion of friendzoning rear its head in an uglier fashion, however, than in romantic comedies about men whose expertise is in tricking women into sex and/or romantic entanglements. In movies like Hitch, the 2005 Will Smith vehicle, Smith plays a "dating consultant" who helps lovesick men score dates with the women of their dreams. "Any man has a chance to sweep any woman off her feet," he says, "all he needs is the right broom." For Hitch, this involves creating a dossier on the woman in question and fabricating situations in which the man can rescue her, or her pet, along with other assorted and allegedly harmless hijinks. He does this, Hitch argues, in order to help women "get out of their own way" so they'll notice the wonderful men who have been right in front of them all along. By the end of the movie, he has abandoned his work, having realized the error of his ways, but not before his methods have been repeatedly proven to work.

Men like Hitch exist in the real world, too, and they're far less charming than Will Smith. In recent years, self-proclaimed pickup artists like Neil Strauss and Erik James Horvat-Markovic (who goes by the giggle-inducing nom de plume "Mystery") have emerged from the darkest and most misogynistic bowels of the Internet to prey on the insecurities and disposable incomes of men who believe in the friendzone and want nothing more than to escape from it. Pickup artists, the snake oil salesmen of social interactions, offer no end of books, workshops and websites aimed at other men who believe themselves to be trapped in the friendzone. Their advisees, who view women as inconvenient obstacles to sex, who can be "seduced" -- that is, manipulated and coerced -- into bed, call themselves "nice guys." But there's nothing nice about a man who is faking friendship in the hope of getting laid.

Which brings us back to the central question of When Harry Met Sally... and of so much contemporary popular culture about relationships between men and women. Can men and women really be friends? The answer is the same in 2014 as it was in 1989: They can, if men respect women as equals and not as possessors of a prize -- sex -- that men must wrest from them.

Some people watch When Harry Met Sally... for the happy ending, the moment when friends finally decide that they want "the sex thing" to get in the way, then decide to get married and spend the rest of their lives together. In initial drafts of the script, they stayed friends, and I think I'd have preferred it that way. The happy ending is fine, but when I'm watching their friendship, when I'm watching them advise and support each other, when Harry is being utterly honest with Sally because he isn't trying to get her into bed, when Sally is being her quirky, table-pounding self, all I can think is: I'll have what she's having.

PHOTOS: REUTERS/Corus Entertainment/Handout

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