Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

'When Harry Met Sally' Is Bad For Ladies

When Harry Met Sally is a commercial film. Its mission is to be entertaining, to ensure as much watching as possible. As a commercial romantic comedy, its entertainment stems from its romance (Harry and Sally ending up happily together) and from its comedy (“baby fish mouth”). The film is romantic, it is comedic, and thus it was a commercial success.

But to When Harry Met Sally’s fans, it is not about commercial success but about the question of whether men and women can be friends. This is the hook of the movie, the foundation for its romance and jokes. Within the first fifteen minutes, Harry makes a statement which the rest of the film debates: “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” Sally argues that she has platonic men friends, but Harry says these friendships are invalid because those men secretly want to have sex with her.  It’s a universal rule, he says. All men want to have sex with all women, regardless of whether or not the man finds the woman attractive. And according to Harry, it doesn’t matter if the woman doesn’t want to have sex with the man, “because the sex thing is already out there, so the friendship is ultimately doomed, and that is the end of the story.”

The film’s hook and its commercial obligation to romance create a tension. Before the question is even asked, we know whether Harry and Sally can be friends; they can’t. They inhabit a rom-com, and so they ultimately have to end up together romantically.

Harry and Sally do, for a good portion of the film, have a strong platonic bond. They are the only friends in the film who talk about subjects other than romance. They joke about dead people’s apartments, talk in silly accents, and do karaoke at Sharper Image. Harry and Sally are as comfortable together as they are with themselves; they are one soul in two bodies. While the idea of “soul mates” is now associated with passionate love, throughout history (in the Bible, in Plato, in Cicero) it has been reserved for exceptional friendships. That Harry and Sally are a split soul is visually emphasized in the split-screen scene where they sit in their separate apartments and watch a scene from Casablanca: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

But their beautiful friendship exists in a rom-com. They must end up together, and when they do the thesis of the film becomes men and women cannot be friends. The film resists this inevitable thesis for as long as possible because that thesis is pretty obviously incorrect. Nora Ephron had male friends. Meg Ryan has male friends. I have male friends!  Male friends are everywhere, they cannot be stopped. Yet this legendary movie that my lady friends and I are obsessed with essentially claims that our lives are impossible. It’s a bit ludicrous. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that Ephron and Rob Reiner originally planned an ending where Harry and Sally remained friends, which they felt was the “true ending”; only later did they bow to the expectations of genre.

When one considers how false the film’s ending is to its creators and audience, it becomes creepy how predetermined that ending is. When Harry Met Sally begins with and is intercut with documentary-style interviews of old couples.  These remind us of what Harry and Sally must finally become, and they also emphasize how little choice Sally has; in most of the talking heads the woman is extremely passive, and in two she never even talks. It makes sense that the fatalism of the film favors Harry and not Sally. He is, after all, the man who reads the last page of a book first. What is important to him is not the details of the meaningful friendship he and Sally build, but whether they will eventually have sex. Against all logic, the film vindicates Harry’s fatalism and his ill-informed position on heterosocial friendship.

This is unsettling. Harry should not “win.” Harry is obnoxious. Harry is rude and aggressive. Harry picks his teeth while he makes the film’s central claim. He’s controlling — his belief about men and women rests on the man’s unwillingness to look past sex, regardless of the woman’s feelings. He’s self-absorbed — rather than participating in a conversational give-and-take with Sally, he speaks in long monologues better suited to stand-up. His logorrhea minimizes the space given to Sally’s character development and takes up any time that could have been used to show us Sally’s other men friends (thereby proving Harry’s point about their absence!).

(Just FYI: I actually love When Harry Met Sally. But, feminism-wise, it’s kind of fucked up.)

There’s more misogyny going on than Sally being proven “wrong” when clearly she’s right, or than Sally being overshadowed by Harry. She is also completely dismissed on a professional level. Though she is a journalist who writes for New York magazine, she is only referred to once as a writer and she never speaks about her articles. Meanwhile, Jess, who writes for the same magazine, constantly mentions his job and talks about his pieces. In fact, it’s a source of great humor (“I’m a writer, I know dialogue, and that was particularly harsh”) and attraction (Marie quoting his line). While Jess is defined by his successful career, Sally is only allowed to be defined by her unsuccessful relationships. Her lack of agency in the film as a whole is mirrored by Harry’s dismissive description of her career choice: “writing about things that happen to other people.”

Perhaps most importantly, Harry is absolutely horrible to Sally. He is the worst. He more or less tells Sally that he only had sex with her because she was so pathetic. Throughout the film he doesn’t listen to Sally and is dismissive of her, and when he goes too far he apologizes but doesn’t actually change. When Sally tries to break this cycle, he aggressively invades her space with “cute” phone messages. Even when Sally directly tells him to stop, that she is not his consolation prize, he won’t leave her alone. In a determination bordering on harassment, Harry tracks Sally down on New Years Eve to express the basic sentiment that his feelings are more legitimate than hers.

And sorry, this is supposed to be a love story?

The climatic New Year’s Eve scene is super problematic. On one hand, hello. It’s romantic. It’s witty. It’s a legendary scene that spawned a clichéd horde of copycats. On the other hand, it is Harry listing Sally’s faults, which are now acceptable only because they are man-approved. It is Sally’s final loss of agency, where her completely justified protestations of “I hate you, Harry. I really hate you,” must actually mean “I love you,” because the man who has caused her so much emotional anguish has impulsively decided that he’s romantically in love with her. (He protests that “it’s not because I’m lonely and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve,” which is a great line I attempt to throw into every conversation, but we see your game, Harry.) This scene, with its excess of romance that doesn’t fit the previous storyline and its dialogue that doesn’t match the emotional meaning, is the scene in which the tension between the film’s two goals is most felt. Intellectual examination of friendship between men and women has to this point played out realistically; here intellectual examination gets too cocky, listens to music while walking in the dark, and gets mugged and stabbed to death by happily-ever-after romance. Though — is it happily ever after? If love meant having to be trapped in a talking head with a man who subtly ridiculed my careful planning of our wedding cake, I would probably end up divorced.

But there’s a reason I love this film, beyond just “Yes sir, that’s my baby! No sir, don’t mean maybe.” I love that the film even tries to debate the possibility of male-female friendship. Though the genre of romantic comedy doesn’t allow the debate its logical end, the rom-com format of a normal dude and lady dealing with their relationship makes it the best genre to give the debate its logical beginning. And though, like Harry, we have read the last page of the book, all the other pages are thoughtful and realistic. While the New Year’s Eve scene isn’t emotionally or logically true, it is beautiful. Even the most strident feminist would explode into a billion hearts if told, “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” This is arguably the greatest rom-com of all time, written by arguably the greatest rom-com screenwriter of all time. Its necessarily romantic ending guarantees a massive audience for its thematic question. By simply posing that question, When Harry Met Sally allows the viewer to have the debate in her own life, where the answer is not predetermined.

Blythe Roberson is a Harvard student, but she doesn't know Megan Amram personally. She is a producer and writer for On Harvard Time.

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  • Bambi

    LOVE! Just as good as the first (personally my favorite)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500015357 Brian Calandra

    I'm going to get lost in the layers of meta, but it seems like the post suffers from the same problem the film does: When Harry Met Sally is a rom-com loved by women, but shouldn't be because it's about an ineffectual woman who is rewarded with a boorish man who's dismissive of her and still gets her in the end when he's good and ready. This post is a convincing argument that the film's gender politics are awful, but seems to want to admit that the analysis is all hooey because "Even the most strident feminist would explode into a billion hearts if told, 'When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.'" Cognitive dissonance!

  • Cravy

    What a beautiful examination of this story. Thanks, Blythe. You definitely put it on my rewatch list.

  • http://mattpayton.tumblr.com MattPayton

    Or if you'd prefer Harry's philosophy more succinctly:


  • Amber

    I took the point not as being that men and women simply cannot be friends, but that "the sex thing" often taints the friendship. Essentially, that women may wish to indulge in a notion of asexual male-female friendship, or "just friends," which may appear to be the scenario to the females perspective in a very substantial number of cases, all the while the male "friend" is wishing he wasn't too much of a wussy to either make a move or give up on the girl? Isn't it more a question of suspicious male motives in the supposed friendship? That in many cases a guy is really just friends with a woman because he couldn't take rejection?

  • Helen

    Why is this written like a college essay?

    • Robinseggblue

      I felt the same way about this, but really enjoyed reading it. But I think it might be because she is a college student.

  • Monty Johnston

    I stopped reading fairly early on because it went both/and in the direction that they had to be together and blow up the friends thing. I take it that the point is not a choice between either sex or friends, but that sex and friendship can go along together – which, alas, is the thesis the end of the film posits without showing it in action. – although of course Sally and Harry are out there still, happily together.

  • http://twitter.com/MollyMalone12 Molly Malone

    This isn't how I see the film at all. Harry's initial proposition suggests that men are being friends with the woman in the expectation of getting her into bed. It then becomes clear that being friends isn't a placeholder or second-best, but a good thing in its own right; the first time they sleep together isn't presented as Harry 'winning', but is uncomfortable because they are friends. The eventual romantic relationship arises from the friendship, rather than replacing it or opposing it.

  • Weevil

    But they were friends. Harry said men and women could not be friends because of sex and then you see two people who are very close friends for a very long time. And they are friends at the end of the movie, too. You can be friends and be in a romantic relationship. They aren't mutually exclusive, at all.
    Harry was being a jerk, at first, because he was a young kid out of college who thought he knew everything. Who couldn't imagine the value in a woman if he didn't want to sleep with her. Age and heart break changed him and he did see the value in really connecting with Sally on every level.
    I think the thesis of this article is wrong. Hary and Sally ends on the idea that a good relationship is not a man chasing down a woman (as early Harry thought). A good relationship is two friends who see each other as equals and connect sexually.

  • Ugh

    I don't understand why 'feminists; have to try so very hard to find things that are 'bad for women'. First of all, it's a Meg Ryan movie from the 80s, so I'm not looking for it to inspire me nor do I expect it to change my views on relationships. If there was a pretense of something deeper, and this is what they produced- then maybe, as a women, I'd be peeved. But these arguments are borderline annoying. Her career isn't profiled? It's not a movie about a writer, it's a movie about a 30-something struggling with relationships. I've seen that movie 50 times and I couldn't tell you what Harry's job is. And Jess' job was most mentioned because it ties into how he got into a relationship….the point of the movie. So Harry harasses Sally after they sleep together? Um, I didn't see any scenes with Sally calling up Leia to bitch about it. Cops/Restraining order? Nope. As far as Harry always being right, or him being an asshole and self-absorbed,…well duh. My best friend is a dude and from time to time he is exactly like that. In fact, most men are. And sometimes it's amusing. And like some women, Sally is kinda crazy, from time to time . And as an occasional crazy women, I know some of the things I do are amusing. I wonder why they highlighted those moments of stereotypical man-asshole and women-crazy……to make a wildly successful rom-com, perhaps? Whether or not men and women can or cannot be friends shouldn't even come into question in real life, nor should this movie about a man and women who were friends and then became lovers change your views on your actual relationships. First of all- people/time/place/situations all change in life, therefore you never know what's going to happen (like in the movie). Second- It's a damn movie! So stop worrying about how it will negatively effect the minds of women, and do something useful.

    tl;dr: Go write for Jezebel

    • Felicitasz

      Harry is a political consultant, he says so several times.
      But this is not my point :) I love the movie and am quite troubled with the post's interpretation. I find Sally a woman who can't (as Harry words it) "soften up" and accept the idea that her vulnerable part and even her possible "dark side" are part of the general picture of her being "attractive". For me the film tells a lot about how a friend can safely say this while a lover cannot, how we are our relaxed true selves in our friendships but feel pressured to display a perfect picture of ourselves when "being on the market out there". This conflict affects women more because their clock starts ticking at a certain point, as we all know :) Many women respond by playing it even stronger, acting as Sally does, sounding ever so healthy until the moment when everything collapses.
      It is OK to be friends if you want a friend. It is not OK to pretend (even in front of oneself) that you just want to be friends while in fact you are looking for love, but are too scared to admit that you fear your vulnerable not-perfect self ending up as not good enough and rejected.
      (If this isn't true, then why the fake orgasms?)

  • danrydell

    "On the other hand, it is Harry listing Sally’s faults, which are now acceptable only because they are man-approved."

    THAT's how you view that scene? Wow. You go waaay out into left field to dump all over it. They're not "man-approved" faults; they're the little quirks that people who love each other love _about_ each other.

  • Tellmehowyoureallyfeel

    This is exactly how I feel about the movie. One of my good friends of 6 years dated me and we agreed we love each other sooo much. He dumped me while acting like an angry toddler, and then we didn't speak for 6 months. Fast forward, he claims he adores me and even my bad parts are god parts and wants a reconciliation. No dice, kid – I've seen this movie and I ain't dumb. We cannot be friends or lovers now, cause you wrecked it. My mom didn't raise any idiots.

  • Doug
  • anonymous

    Man, it's funny how simple things can get twisted and overly complicated.
    Here's a message for the complexity-lovers of the world, in a language you'll understand (; …

    Friendship and love; what are they? These words conjure up so many different and ever-changing images in our minds. As a result, we confound what we are told to believe with what they really are; we're left in a daze wondering about questions like "can men and women be friends?"

    With a cold, academic approach – one which is, for some reason, hailed as the pinnacle of human achievement – one fails to understanding the meaning of friendship. The same goes for sex; in a culture that scolds and represses passion and feelings, people forget how to be sensual. They start to either frantically leap from one partner to another or to obsess about staying "pure." Both, however, are just different reactions to the same repressive mindset.

    "Can men and women be friends?"

    The answer to this question lies beyond the wordy, the brainy, the scientific; get your nose out of your books and your head out of your *** (i.e, the lecture hall) and just live your life, unfazed by the nearsighted knowledge everyone seems to profess.

  • Kathy Bailey Rose

    You have some valid points (Sally's career being nonexistent while Jess's is celebrated, for one), but you neglected one important aspect of this film that I think bursts the bubble of your entire argument: The Arc of Change.
    Harry STARTS OUT as a male chauvinist pig, and Sally can't stand him. She tries to avoid him, makes faces at his sexist comments, and, in the celebrated orgasm scene, shows him that just because HE thinks women are OK with his shallow, sexist views, that doesn't make sex the end all be all – nor does it make him a good lover.
    I fact the true point of this film is actually the converse of the stated theme. If men and women cantbe friends is the stated theme, and the fact that Harry's character arc changes and grows to the point where hes actually capable of love, then that makes the actual theme implied this: the foundation for love is friendship. Without it, relationships are shallow, only about sex, and thus are doomed.

    Theres a reason we all love this movie. You wouldn't love it if the theme came across as "men and women cant really be friends". Nora Ephron and rob Reiner spent four YEARS writing this screenplay. Part of the reason for its success is that it shows both the male and female points of view. The ending they ultimately chose was the correct – and only – ending that would work. Because men and women MUST be friends for any relationship to wok.
    And harry and Sally prove that.