A few months ago, I was halfway through watching the series finale of Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and felt confused. Glimmer and Bow, whom I had always seen as a rare example of a close friendship between a female and male character –who could potentially be romantically attracted to each other –although never crossed that line, confess their love for each other romantically. As the episode neared its triumphant end, several more pairs were confirmed, or at least strongly hinted at as canonical couples, such that nearly all the main characters became romantically paired up as the show bid viewers goodbye.
While these developments are heartwarming and deserve praise for treating same-sex couples on an equal level as couples of the opposite sex, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. She-Ra was one of the very few stories on screen that deeply explored and celebrated the emotions of friendship, giving it the attention most shows only give to romance. By having almost every pair that shares a profound connection end up a couple, the show seems to present romance as an example of connection and an end goal that all intimate friendships inevitably lead to.
Can two people who could be romantically attracted to each other be close friends without any romantic attachment? This is the question that When Harry Met Sally famously investigated, particularly between straight men and women, and ultimately answered with a resounding NOPE. Romantic comedies continue to portray friendships between straight men and women as merely a transitional stage on the way to the romantic and sexual relationship they both actually desired all along. Although the most common pairing up of characters in the media is a heterosexual one, this relationship hierarchy also applies to queer characters. If a queer character in a TV show meets another queer character of the same sexual orientation, chances are high they are a love interest and the two would hook up.
There are many ways to love. Of course, friendship is the bond at the core of any strong romantic relationship, and the best-friends-to-lovers trope is one of the more healthy and realistic rom-com tropes out there. But, as fandom shipping culture shows, we are often too eager to interpret close intimacy on screen through a romantic and sexual lens and this translates to how we interpret intimacy in real life too.
To get slightly meta, our culture of prioritizing romantic over platonic love, so influenced by the media, is reflected in the media we consume. In The Half of It, the Netflix movie directed by Alice Wu, this causes Paul Munsky to misinterpret his feelings toward Ellie Chu after they gradually deepen their friendship and suddenly believe this intimacy means he’s in love with Ellie. Us viewers, however, know they would not date because we know from early on in the movie that Ellie is a lesbian and has a crush on a girl. The question of “will they, won’t they” is completely thrown out, allowing us to focus on rethinking the way we understand love and chemistry between two people; love doesn’t have to be romantic to be enduring.
Would a story be able to similarly put platonic love front and center, if there is a possibility of romantic attraction between the two characters?
We’re seeing more and more that that can be achieved in stories about friendship between men and women. Elementary, starring Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller, proved that a TV series can develop a compelling relationship between the male and female leads over seven seasons, which is described by the characters themselves as “two people who love each other,” without any sexual tension along the way. In a similar way, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson teamed up for not one, but two movies—Thor: Ragnarok and Men in Black: International—where they played non-romantic partners who supported each other through trauma and loss meaningfully and without any kissing.
Screenwriters should choose to explore platonic relationships over romantic ones when it provides for a more meaningful understanding of intimacy and connection. Netflix’s Never Have I Ever missed the opportunity to seriously develop what could have been an interesting friendship between Devi Vishwakumar, who’s obsessed with becoming popular, and her longtime crush, the school’s popular jock Paxton Hall-Yoshida. Although Paxton grew to genuinely care for Devi as a friend, she sees it as being friendzoned and only wants a sexual relationship with Paxton. In the end, Paxton is set up to become a rival in a love triangle in the second season, and the resulting drama would likely override any chance of the two of them learning from each other about friendship as the obsession with romance and status is prioritized. In She-Ra, purely platonic friendship might also be healthier than the romance that is not-so subtly hinted at between Scorpia and Perfuma in the series finale, considering that Perfuma is Scorpia’s first true friend after a few toxic “friendships” and Scorpia is still figuring out what true friendship should be like.
However, a discussion about pairing up of Scorpia and Perfuma must consider a whole other set of factors, compared with that of Devi and Paxton. The relative lack of queer couples on screen makes trying to draw a line between platonic and romantic love a lot more complicated and perhaps less helpful for queer characters than it is for straight ones. “They’re just friends” can feel like a convenient way to dismiss any intimacy that seems more than platonic between two men or two women, and when it gets intentionally misleading, it’s queer-baiting.
But queer friendships and community are also important forms of queer representation that we rarely get. Queer people do not only form friendships with straight people, as mainstream media typically portrays. We need more representation of non-romantic intimacy between queer people to fight against the culture of over-sexualization when it comes to them and their romantic relationships, while also highlighting the range of intimacy they experience, no less rich than those between straight people. Their social marginalization makes having other queer friends, including those of the same sexual orientation, especially valuable, to form connections that help them feel understood and not alone. In real life, many queer people seek to form a community of fellow queer friends, so why should that not be reflected and explored on screen as well?
One way to give representation to both queer romances and friendships is to simply have more queer characters in the movie or show. The L Word, Orange Is the New Black and Pose gave us queer communities where some may date, sure—but they also get dinner together, gossip together, give each other dating advice, and support each other through hard times. These shows all notably have multiple queer characters, not just one or two.
If the movies and shows we watch constantly romanticize love as the most important form of love and companionship in our lives, it’s easy to adopt the same attitude and neglect the power of platonic love and community. When there is the possibility of romance and sex, forging non-romantic connections becomes more nuanced and can open us up to deeper experiences of intimacy. Popular media needs to do justice to the many ways there is to love by normalizing and valuing the fact that two people, who could potentially love each other romantically, can love also each other deeply without romance.
Edited by Abeer Khan