Much was said about the bromance in “I Love You, Man,” released in 2009. There have been “buddy cop” movies for years, but they focused on comical pairings playing on racial and class stereotypes. Similarly, movies featuring groups of male friends have typically focused on those guys’ sexual and other adventures (e.g. “American Pie,” “Clerks”). Few movies actually explored the development and minutiae of male friendship, despite scores of movies exploring female friendships, so “I Love You, Man” was somewhat of a landmark as well as an endearing film. In the film, Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd, playing against type) is a “girlfriend guy” who’s never really been into testosterone rituals typical of the “guy world.” Rather, he’s inclined to chat with female coworkers and invest time and energy in cooking and fencing rather than binging and playing football. He’s also painfully socially awkward around other men. Frustrated that he’ll be without a best man at his wedding, he goes on a friend hunt, and although the writers draw amusing parallels between this and the frustrations of dating, his search is taken seriously enough that we the audience are forced to consider our own experiences with friendship. As we watch Peter evaluate the people he hangs out with, we see the reasons they’re wrong for him as clearly as we see the reasons the random dates of the protagonists in romantic comedies are wrong for them. Clearly, we are normally so focused on the trials of dating, we forget about the perhaps more important and more painful work that both blooming and enduring friendships require. “I Love You, Man” makes us turn the mirror on our friendships and wonder why we agonize about making this one “The One,” but let friendships just happen and take them for granted when we have them. Why don’t we evaluate our friendships for compatibility and health as we do our potential mates?
So why do we settle for friends in our own lives? Friendship should be natural and rich, just like the relationships we seek. The moment we meet Sydney Fife (the always amazing Jason Segel) and see his interaction with Peter, we know they’re perfect for each other. It’s not just a (b)romantic comedy cliché—in our own lives we’ve all met people with whom we hit it off right away, while other friends we have to evaluate and second-guess in every second of conversation. A bad friendship is just like a bad relationship: You fight more than you get along, discussions are artificial and one-sided, and you aren’t quite sure you can trust them not to hurt you. Everyone should ask themselves about everyone they spend time with, “Why is this person in my life?” I appreciate “I Love You, Man” for showing what true friendship is. Sydney accepts Peter for who he is, and doesn’t cut him down or punish him for his shortcomings (“I still want to hang out, despite that joke”), and doesn’t measure him for what he can provide him, unlike Jon Favreau’s character Barry, who dislikes Peter simply because he isn’t interested in poker and beer. Sydney encourages Peter to believe in himself and acknowledges his strengths and talents while still offering suggestions for improvement. Any friendship or relationship should enrich one’s life, bring one’s most positive aspects to the surface, and give one a safe outlet for self-expression through companionship.
On the other side of things, and a rather alarming reflection of the current attitudes towards female friendship, is a film released in 2008, “The House Bunny.” While intended to be a cute movie about growing up and girl power, the movie has but one message: Female friendships are conducted superficially and are based on material changes in one’s life. A far cry from excellent films about female friendship such as “Thelma and Louise,” “The House Bunny” follows the story of Shelley, a former Playboy bunny who becomes house mother to a group of socially awkward, ugly Zetas. While Peter is socially awkward around other men, he is a good-looking, intelligent, and successful real estate agent and talented musician, and doesn’t need to be saved by some champion of popularity. By contrast, the Zetas are all defective in some way, whether it’s with extreme geekiness, personal hygiene, androgynous appearance, or handicap, and it takes flighty and pampered but good-hearted Shelley to increase their confidence and make them “winners.” The movie pretends it’s championing confidence, not makeovers, but the two are equated, and worse, the friendships among the Zetas and Shelley is based upon this. Shelley is their friend because she makes them beautiful and gets them dates. She doesn’t bring out their better selves, she raises their self-esteem by applying to them her own standards of beauty and dating.
In a world of various celebrity “frenemies” and feuds among famous women, and with increasing awareness of female bullying, it is clear that female friendship needs attention. Now I don’t intend to imply that male friendship is doing well while female friendship is suffering. But the prevalence of female, as compared to male, friendship as a topic of movies and TV shows, doesn’t mean that female friendship is healthy, either. “Girlfriends” are consistently portrayed as involving discussion of fashion, boys, and beauty, and friendships between women of different “levels” in these domains are rarely portrayed. We more often see the swan taking the ugly duckling under her wing, than we do two birds of a different feather just enjoying a friendship.
“The House Bunny” demonstrates very clearly the unhealthy notions of self-worth bred by popularity contests in grade school—a process that never really goes away for men or women. I believe this is why friendships are often treated as things to collect and then dispose of; in school, children are ridiculed if they have “only a few friends,” while the “popular” kids are liked by everyone and thus are spoken of as though they are idols. Countless teen movies have expounded upon this idea, and countless movies regularly use the stereotypes and rules of grade school to cast characters and derive plots. It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint Peter as the geeky outsider who doesn’t get along with the “real boys,” or even as the sensitive male of ambiguous sexuality. Peter is a real character, while Emma Stone’s Natalie in “The House Bunny” is a shade, a two-dimensional representation of the geek girl who can’t get guys with her own merit. Shelley may be ignorant of this fact, but the screenwriters certainly were not.
What I hope is that popular culture doesn’t reflect social reality as neatly as it represents it. I hope that most friendships aren’t conducted so superficially, or held onto or let go for selfish reasons. I myself and people close to me have experienced bullying, taunts of “you don’t have any friends,” and general meanness from people we thought were friends, and have had friendships dropped as soon as the “benefits” of friendship were no longer clear. Most of this has come from women. I encourage everyone to consider and choose their friendships carefully, and to invest in people who make us feel comfortable and good about ourselves, rather than people we have to strive to please. The bottom line is, if you feel inadequate around a person, it’s because they’re making you feel that way. Ultimately you are responsible for your self-esteem, but if you feel like the battle to increase your sense of self-worth is more challenging than it should be around your friend, they’re not being your friend. So I hope that we’ll continue to see films like “I Love You, Man,” that explore, demonstrate, and inspire true friendship, between men, between women, and—here would be the next landmark—between a man and a woman.