This post was prompted by two things. Firstly reading this article on the lack of attention paid to studying cross-sex friendships (i.e. those between men and women) and, secondly, the most recent episodes of Gossip Girl.
The show has started to focus a lot of attention on the burgeoning friendship between Blair (Leighton Meester) and Dan (Penn Badgley). They teamed up to track down Juliet (Katie Cassidy) who was behind a vendetta against Serena (Blake Lively)- Blair’s best friend and Dan’s ex (and step-sister). Although Dan and Blair previously abhorred each other as they represent everything the other hates- Blair is a selfish schemer, while Dan is from Brooklyn- they have had brief moments of bonding in the past. Their mission to track down Juliet seems to have sparked something further however, as they became movie buddies while still claiming to not be friends. When they both got internships at the same magazine they initially plotted against each other in a bid to come out on top, but eventually patched things up and seem to have formed a solid friendship.
In addition to their cinema trips, they’ve also synchronised DVD -watching while chatting on the phone, and whilst Blair got one of Dan’s short stories published he’s also helped her out at work. Moreover he’s undoubtedly been there for her while she dealt with her ex Chuck (Ed Westwick) moving on with Raina (Tika Sumpter), and she was able to empathise with his similar feelings upon watching Serena get together with Ben (David Call), who was also sort of forced on Dan as a new flatmate.
I’ve absolutely adored watching their friendship form and grown, and it’s teased out some of their similarities. In addition to both genuinely caring about Serena they are both clearly intelligent, driven, witty people who work hard to succeed, care about culture (albeit perhaps different aspects) and who feel things deeply- finding it difficult to forgive someone who’s really wronged them and not able to get over past loves at the fast pace of some of the other characters.
And I don’t want it to go away! I’m petrified- with good reason- that this platonic relationship is doomed to take a turn for the romantic. I’ve been screaming “do not want” at my screen, but I’m worried that it’s all for naught. And that’s just not fair.
Television seems to be pretty bad at giving us decent representations of purely platonic friendships between male and female characters (unless at least one of them is gay- and preferably as stereotypical as possible). Maybe it’s because sexual tension makes for exciting “will-they-or-won’t-they” scenarios which can be drawn out as long as necessary (or longer), plus if a show runs for several seasons it’s reasonable that the characters will eventually all end up sleeping together or at least being interested in each other as earlier storylines run out of steam and something new needs to be introduced to spice things up.
So I thought I’d discuss some of my favourite examples of cross-gender straight friendships on television, as a last-ditch desperate plea to somehow keep Dan and Blair apart. And if that ship’s already sailed, as I fear, then to at least encourage TV shows to gimme some more of the good stuff.
Penny and Sheldon (The Big Bang Theory)
An easy one to start with- the overconfident prodigy Sheldon has struck up an unlikely friendship with waitress-cum-actress Penny. While he may mock her near constantly she gives as good as she gets and they do seem to genuinely care about each other. They solicit- and even occasionally acknowledge- each other’s advice and have helped each other out on a number of occasions. They’ve looked after each other- through illness and accidents, temporary homelessness and financial worries (Sheldon’s both happily leant her cold hard cash and helped her with money-making schemes like her Penny Blossoms and iPhone app). They’ve also bonded over Penny’s emerging geekery- and when she gifted Sheldon with a Leonard Nimoy signed napkin he even hugged her, despite his hatred of physical contact.
Although the actors who portray them (Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco respectively) clearly have great chemistry and there’s a fair quantity of Penny/Sheldon shippers out there, things between them truly do seem to be completely platonic. Penny’s involvement with Sheldon’s best friend and flatmate Leonard may have ended but their issues seem far from being resolved and they don’t seem to be completely over each other. In addition to Sheldon being apparently asexual the show’s added the character of Amy- essentially a female Sheldon who’s not his girlfriend, but probably the closest he’ll ever come to one- almost as a protective layer to remove him as a potential love interest for Penny in the audience’s minds.
The genuine lack of sexual tension between Penny and Sheldon makes watching their friendship develop enjoyable, and props to The Big Bang Theory writers for not taking the normal sitcom route and hooking them up behind Leonard’s back. Sheldon’s interaction with Penny has definitely brought out a sweeter- more human- side of him, which has made him the show’s breakout character and in my opinion an excellent wingman. Plus it leads to them singing ‘Soft Kitty’, which is just fricking adorable:
Mason and George (Dead Like Me)
I don’t entirely get why Georgia “George” Lass wasn’t crushing on fellow grim reaper Mason, cos Callum Blue (who plays him) provides some seriously nice eye candy. Maybe it’s because he was technically more than 40 years older than her, died while trying to chase the ultimate high by drilling into his head and was portrayed as pretty much the ultimate fuck-up- as well as a petty thief and addict. Whatever.
They form a close attachment, Mason almost acting as a big brother to her and helping her adjust to life after death and the role of a reaper. He becomes even more important when Betty, another fellow member of “The Club” whom George was starting to form a significant bond with, disappears out of their (un)lives after following a reaped soul into the great beyond. Betty is replaced by Daisy Adair with whom Mason falls madly in love, and George has her own romantic dilemmas with Trip- the guy who abandons her swiftly after she loses her virginity to him.
George and Mason might both be foul-mouthed and somewhat apathetic, but they are genuinely supportive of each other, as are the whole group most of the time. Plus they went trick or treating together on Hallowe’en and shared candy, you just can’t fake friendship like that.
Davis and Tru (Tru Calling)
Davis starts off as Tru’s slightly creepy boss at the morgue, but when she discovers that he knows more than he let on about her it’s the beginning of a real intimacy. He is able to give her insight into her powers- the ability to relive days and stop people dying- and provides her with invaluable help as she races the clock and tries to figure out how to save these lives. Davis is also able to provide Tru with a modicum of information about her long-dead mother, and philosophical meanderings on her purpose.
Since she has to keep her abilities secret- and for a long time her brother Harrison won’t even believe her anyway- having Davis to unburden herself to is a real boon to her. In return Davis seems very happy to help, and truly glad to have a part in such an important purpose. Davis becomes even more important to Tru when the new morgue attendant, Jack, turns out to be her greatest enemy and they have to work even harder than before to save people.
It’s a pity that Davis never realised that his girlfriend, Carrie, was actually working for Jack- but Tru genuinely seemed sweetly invested in getting them together. And in turn Davis was very supportive of her attempts to make her relationship with Luc work- attempts which were often thwarted by the complications of reliving days.
Lexi and Stefan (The Vampire Diaries)
Lexi and Stefan’s completely platonic relationship was rather refreshing, given that portrayals of vampires often focus on sexing them up. It was great fun watching her loosen Stefan up when she came to visit, and there wasn’t that much opportunity for anything between them to be read as romantic given Stefan’s devotion to Elena (and his previous obsession with Katherine), and in the course of Lexi offering Elena supportive advice about human/vampire relationships she reveals that she turned her originally human lover so they could be together forever.
Lexi’s recently turned up in flashbacks in season two, and I hope that we’ll have an opportunity to learn more about how she and Stefan developed this closeness. The Vampire Diaries seems to be particularly good at- and concerned with- portraying purely platonic relationships, which might seem a bit odd for a teen drama filled with ridiculously good-looking types on the CW. Maybe it’s just because there was enough drama with vampire brothers Stefan and Damon both being obsessed with Katherine, and now in love with her doppelgänger Elena.
Another good example would be Rose and Trevor- who were dependent on each other across the centuries, but as Rose avows more than once they were best friends, practically family, but never lovers. In fact Trevor was in love with Katherine (which got them into the fine mess which involved them spending all their time running away), and Rose and Damon ended up connecting unexpectedly. Rose’s affinity for Slater (a helpful vampire geek) also seemed to be entirely chaste. In a similar vein, while Stefan is incredibly caring and helpful towards the freshly turned Caroline, there’s not even a whiff of anything untoward.
Marcy and Hank (Californication)
A friendship between someone and their best friend’s partner might seem like a bit of a cop-out, which is why I was reluctant to include certain other pairs on this list (such as Harriet and Danny in Studio 60 or Cher and Murray in Clueless, for example). However, I’d say that Hank and Marcy’s attachment to each other is based on more than the fact that each other’s partner/ex is the other’s best friend. To explain: Hank’s best friend is his agent Charlie who was once upon a time happily married to Marcy, who is the best friend of Karen- Hank’s ex/sometimes lover/love of his life/mother of his child. Clear?
Hank and Marcy seem to have a genuine friendship beyond just convenience and familiarity, and quite a lot in common. Although the fault lines often form with a gender bias when drama explodes in the show, Hank and Marcy reveal a soft spot for each other. Marcy’s brash and outspoken, likes sex and has a fondness for drugs- so you can see why her and Hank might get along. He often refers to her as a smurf, and is clearly adoring of her, and I swear that any groping that may or not have happened between them was purely accidental.
Lily and Barney (How I Met Your Mother)
Given that Barney’s a serial womaniser, his opportunities for significant friendships with women seem somewhat limited. And then he had to go and fall in love with his only other female friend (Robin), and their subsequent break up made things super awkward for a time, although they seem to have found their footing again and be on good terms.
Barney and Lily’s interaction however has never been anything but platonic. Although Lily sometimes seems to be utterly disgusted and appalled by Barney’s behaviour (especially when it suits the writers to have Alyson Hannigan and her baby bump disappear from the show for a little while) most of this frustration seems to come from her honestly believing that he could, and should, be better. Furthermore, prior to Barney’s addition to their little group Lily was definitely a boy’s girl, hanging out mostly with her long-term boyfriend Marshall and their best friend Ted, so she’s probably not as easily put off Barney as some women might be.
Barney does seem to honestly respect Lily- for all his scheming, he thinks of Lily as the ultimate ‘diabolical puppet master’, which seems to be a title he’d aspire to. He obviously genuinely cares about her and her relationship with Marshall- when they briefly broke up he was the one who kept women away from single Marshall, and he was the one who convinced- and paid for- Lily to come home. Although Barney was reluctant to let Lily move in with him initially when her raccoon-infested apartment was falling apart, they eventually really enjoyed living, and snuggling, together- and he found her very useful; she’d pretend to be his wife and chase off his one-night stands who wouldn’t get the hint and leave.
Maybe Barney and Lily aren’t the kind of people who would have started hanging out by choice, but thanks to Ted they’re entrenched in each other’s lives- and bringing his group of friends together may well be the best thing Ted’s ever done.
CJ and Josh (The West Wing)
I had a hard time pinning down which set of West Wing friends to focus on, given that it’s an ensemble show comprised- at least in the early seasons when Aaron Sorkin was still in charge- of a group of characters who are chock-full of camaraderie. Of course there is the occasional strand of romance tossed in their too, but for the most part that’s not what the show was focussed on. In the end I had to plump for the one between the cocky Joshua Lyman and the self-possessed C.J. Cregg- mostly because they get to have the best scenes together.
They obviously genuinely respect each other, having worked alongside each other over time and having unexpected success with their campaign to get Jed Bartlett elected president, and there’s countless scenes of them discussing policy and ideology- and clearly not disregarding each other. However they also have some of the best banter and fights on the show, and that’s seriously no mean feat.
C.J. and Josh screaming at each other for being a “paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista” and an “elitist Harvard fascist missed-the-deans-list-two-semesters-in-a-row Yankee jackass” respectively- and then get on with things happily is pretty hilarious, but I don’t think anything will ever beat the episode when C.J. has root canal, let’s Josh take over her press briefing and wackiness ensues. (He ends up claiming that the President has a secret plan to fight inflation, although he doesn’t seem to support it, and insults the entire press corps in the process.)
Wash and Kaylee (Firefly)
Firefly is another ensemble show- and even more than in The West Wing the crew of Serenity are reliant on each other- given that they’re outlaws stuck on a spaceship together most of the time. Again, it’s not a show without romantic relationships- such as Wash and Zoe’s marriage or the obvious attraction between Kaylee and Simon- but it’s not actually the main thrust of the plot.
Kaylee and Wash’s friendship isn’t given all that much screentime (especially as there was only fourteen episodes and a follow on film of the prematurely cancelled series) but their dynamic is definitely important as she’s the mechanic and he’s the pilot of the oft-attacked and falling apart ship. They have to work together using their expertise to get the crew out of several tough situations. They also have quite similar personalities- being funny, kind and a little cowardly (they’re not the fighters, so they’re often sitting back on Serenity waiting for the others to return from a mission).
Not that I don’t have huge amounts of love for all of them but these two are probably the two nicest characters, and the most relatable. Kaylee’s frustration over Simon’s properness and his preoccupation with his sister River often reaches very high levels, especially as she’s certainly not a prude, and Wash cheering her up is one of the sweetest exchanges ever:
Kaylee: Everyone’s got somebody. Wash, tell me I’m pretty.
Wash: Were I unwed, I would take you in a manly fashion.
Kaylee: ‘Cause I’m pretty?
Wash: ‘Cause you’re pretty.
Brennan and Hodgins (Bones)
Despite his misanthropy and penchant for conspiracy theories, Hodgins probably has the most in common with Brennan than any other character on the show- except perhaps her squinterns. But unlike Zack and the revolving series of his replacements, Hodgins doesn’t experience the same kind of hero-worship for her and is able to engage with her on the same intellectual plane and with mutual respect.
They’re both incredibly intelligent, a tad socially inept, dedicated to their work and, unlike some of the other characters, not easily disgusted by the aspects of death that they have to deal with in order to solve their cases. There’s not even a hint of romance between them however- Hodgins is in love with her best friend Angela, and Brennan’s sexual tension with her FBI partner Booth is one of the main aspects of the show.
The proof in the pudding? When Hodgins and Brennan get buried alive together and face almost certain death, they don’t give into the adrenaline and desperation and have sex (as TV and film have taught me is totally appropriate) but try to comfort and support each other verbally. Hodgins even takes the opportunity to admit to being in love with Angela.
Angel and Debra (Dexter)
At the beginning of the show Debra, Dexter’s sister, seems to have trouble being taken seriously as a cop, and Angel Batista’s support and belief in her has really helped not only her career but her ability to have faith in herself more widely. She has terrible luck with men- falling in love with the Ice Truck Killer in season one- and of the various relationships she’s been embroiled in over the seasons the most important, with Special Agent Lundy, ends dramatically when he’s shot. Most recently she has embarked on a tumultuous relationship with her partner Quinn.
There doesn’t seem to be anything even vaguely romantic between her and Angel though- he was married at the outset of the show, although that relationship ends when he admits to cheating on his wife. After he picks up the pieces of his life he ends up getting together with the boss Maria LaGuerta- and eventually marrying her (in part to avoid them getting into trouble at work). His support of Deb does cause some tension between him and Maria at times, but merely because he’s disobeying her or visibly contradicting her opinion- which reflects the difficulties of navigating having a professional and personal relationship with the same person.
Angel is essentially a decent and kindhearted man (the kind Dexter would want to be if given the choice) and his friendship is very important to Debra who’s been through a lot and doesn’t necessarily get all that much help from others. Although her brother does try he’s a sociopathic serial killer, and murder can take up a surprising amount of time.
Will and Bella (Young Americans)
As real New Raleigh townies, Will and Bella have a lot more in common than her rich love interest (and possible half-brother) Scout. The two of them grew up with each other, know each other’s families and their troubles and can properly understand what these problems mean in an empathetic rather than purely intellectual fashion. Time after time they go out of their way to help each other- she reluctantly agrees to be his date to the cotillion, he rides like a bat out of hell on a stolen bike to get her to the gas delivery that her sister was supposed to be dealing with, she hot wires a car to help him steal back his laptop (and so that she can get a personal letter back) and when she’s on a time sensitive mission to track down her mother she stops to try to help Will out (he’s depressed about losing his scholarship) and he ends up coming with her. They’re definitely great friends who support and trust each other.
There’s no real sexual tension between them- he feels like he’s known her forever and still sees her as the little girl he grew up with and while she teases him about wandering around in his underwear (after a prank) she only has eyes for Scout at the time. He’s almost gleeful over Scout’s interest in Bella, although things take a turn for the sour when there’s tension between his townie friends and boarding school friends like Scout, and of course when Scout’s told that he and Bella share a mother. Will’s also completely supportive of her relationship with his BFF Sean, and in turn Bella tries to help him out with his infatuation for Caroline. Although in the final episode Bella admits that she had a huge crush on Will when they were kids, it’s not a loaded comment merely a sweet reminiscence about a lifetime shared.
Of course it could also be argued that Will and Scout had a very pleasant platonic relationship with Jacqueline Pratt throughout the series, but as she was pretending to be a boy called Jake the entire time the dynamics were a bit fuzzier than usual.
Fred and Lorne (Angel)
Although it deeply troubles me that I couldn’t think of a great example from Buffy, at least there’s this lovely one from Angel. Entirely devoid of lovey-dovey overtones (Winifred “Fred” Burkle had enough trouble with Gunn and Wesley, and later Knox) it was an incredibly adorable closeness. They were definitely the two sweetest characters on the show- and the two most removed from the violence. A large part of what bonded them together is that Fred was sucked through a dimensional portal into Pylea- Lorne’s home which he was desperate to escape. She probably had a worse time than he did as humans are treated as slaves, but it was pretty awful for him to be stuck somewhere without music.
Once she’s rescued by Angel and his team, her and Lorne definitely bond. The usually shy Fred is even willing to dress up in a skimpy outfit in order to save him from Vegas, where he’s been kidnapped. Lorne’s love for her is neatly summed up in the tear-jerker episode ‘A Hole in the World’:
“Winifred Burkle once told me after a sinful amount of Chinese food, and in lieu of absolutely nothing, “I think a lot of people would choose to be green. Your shade, if they had the choice.” If I hear one note—one quarter-note—that tells me you had any involvement, these two won’t even have time to kill you.”
Veronica and Wallace (Veronica Mars)
Veronica and Wallace are one of the most refreshing depictions of platonic friendship, ever. He appears in her life at just the right time- she’s suddenly friendless in the fallout of her best friend’s murder and her then-sheriff father’s accusations. Likewise Veronica seems to have good timing- she first meets Wallace when he’s been duct-taped to a flagpole and promptly cuts him down. They begin not only eating lunch together but solving crimes. He’s generally willing to help her out- despite the oddness of some of her requests- and she’s always there for him too, even sneaking baked goods into his locker.
Whilst they each have their own dramas- amorous and otherwise- they’re always there to support the other. Wallace is the one that she opens up to about her rape, and Veronica is the one who Wallace turns to for help when he’s framed for a hit and run.
I think this scene where he returns and surprises her on NYE tangibly sums up how much they adore and need each other. And I’m totally not sniffling, shut up.
Basil and Polly (Fawlty Towers)
Although she’s often frustrated by her boss Basil’s ridiculous schemes, Polly does tend to go along with them loyally. She’s the member of the staff that he most trusts, and she does try to be the voice of sanity amongst all the madness and the hapless Manuel. A good portion of the time she’s caught up in covering Basil’s mistakes from his wife Sybil, and the subterfuge only serves to make things worse but somehow Basil never seems to learn his lesson. When they’re not screaming at each other or running around like headless chickens (or when Basil isn’t inexplicably incapable of recognising himself in Polly’s caricature of him) they seem to get on well- although admittedly circumstances like that didn’t appear to occur that often in the show.
Interestingly despite their completely pure portrayal, the actors who played Polly and Basil (Connie Booth and John Cleese) were the married co-writers of the show.
Sarah and Casey (Chuck)
One of the most likeable things about Chuck (and I’d argue that there’s not all that much on that list) is the comradeship between CIA Agent Sarah Walker and John Casey of the NSA. Although there were tensions between the two agencies initially, the two are able to work together successfully- at least most of the time- to protect and abet Chuck on his missions and to help him deal with the database he accidentally downloaded into his brain. They almost acts like parents to him- coaxing him into a fully fledged spy. Although they occasionally clash, they have a lot in common in that they’ve been moulded by somewhat similar experiences and often share opinions which Chuck sees as extreme or inhumane. They’ve both killed before, and are comfortable developing cover lives which involve lying to everyone- whereas these are things that Chuck clearly struggles with.
Although they both grow to care about Chuck- Sarah entering into a relationship with him- in some ways Sarah and Casey provide a bit of a respite for each other, especially in the earlier episodes, from Chuck’s over-emoting. They clearly respect each other on a professional level and work well together, and go out on a limb to save and support each other at various times. An affair between them would have probably been horribly mechanical and perfunctory, but they make a good set of friends, especially as they’re both focussed on the same aims.
Rita Sue and Samson (Carnivàle)
It’s not all that easy to think of purely platonic relationships in Carnivàle, given the complicated situation between Lila, Lodz, Ruthie, Ben, Sofie, Libby, Jonesy, Rita Sue, Felix and Catalina. This was definitely a show with a many-sided love polygon at the centre. Nonetheless the interaction between Rita Sue and Samson provided a refreshing change. Although Samson was her sort-of boss as the de facto leader of the carnival troupe, Rita Sue and the others never seemed scared of him like they were of Management. The carnies definitely did respect and trust Samson, and Rita Sue was shown to be one of the most immediately loyal to him. He certainly earned this trust in his turn- avenging the murder of her daughter Dora Mae. He shows Rita Sue other kindnesses too, such as giving her the money she needs to pay off her husband’s debts.
Despite the fact that her husband Felix pimps her out, she does appear to love him, and the only other significant romantic involvement she has is with Jonesy. Asides from the reappearance of Samson’s ex-wife his relationships don’t get explored in the show. Even though Rita Sue is, in the words of her husband’s lover Catalina, “one sexy mujerzuela” there’s never anything suggestive between her and Samson, but they are genuinely friends rather than having an employer/employee relationship. And given Rita Sue’s fucked up family situation she probably sorely needs all the pals she can get.
Daphne and Frasier (Frasier)
Technically Daphne and Frasier did have an employee/employer relationship, at least to start with, but I think it’s definitely fair to claim that they were friends- although how someone could put up with the irritating titular character of the show is somewhat mind-boggling. Perhaps they are freer to become friends because she’s hired to help his father rather than Frasier, and given that his father comes to live with him it means that they end up spending a lot of time together. Daphne’s easy manner leads to her revealing a lot about herself, and Frasier’s busy-bodying conspires to bind them closer together; very quickly Daphne seems to have become part of the family. All of the characters on Frasier have their idiosyncrasies- maybe that’s why they can’t seem to get any other buddies- but they do support and help each other.
There’s never any romantic developments between Daphne and Frasier (and I only wish I could say the same for him and Roz), partly because they would have barely had time to fit anything in given that they both tended to have disastrous love lives, but mostly because Frasier’s brother Niles fell desperately in love with Daphne as soon as he met her, despite being entangled in a messy marriage. It’s Frasier who eventually, albeit unwittingly, reveals Niles’ feelings to Daphne which provides the impetus for them to finally get together. And if wingman-ing isn’t what friends are for, then what is?
And one cheat…
Chandler and Phoebe (Friends)
I do wish that Phoebe and Chandler had been closer to each other, because it seems as if Friends ought to be able to provide a good example of people who are, well, just friends. But in various permutations they all at least came close to hooking up- or happen to be siblings. While Phoebe and Chandler obviously were friends (and even briefly colleagues) they didn’t seem to have much in common or to really mesh most of the time- it was more out of convenience because they were part of the same group.
Nevertheless, I cannot pass an opportunity to post this video of them singing ‘Endless Love’, cos I still think it’s one of the most adorable things in the world: