Goodbye “Friend Zone,” Hello Platonic BFFS


Romance is out, and platonic relationships are in. TV Shows are centering on sisterhoods, bromances, and platonic opposite-sex buddies. Celebrity friendships generate huge interest. And story endings aren’t necessarily giving us romantic closure, while focusing a lot more on how non-romantic relationships can be among the most impactful in our lives. Relationships between men and women on screen have traditionally been depicted as romantically charged, whether the attraction is one-sided and unrequited, or if the two friends just need a push to realize they’ve always been in love. But more and more stories today are moving beyond “friend zone” or “friend to lover” tropes of the past to make way for more positive, nuanced platonic relationships onscreen. There’s even the Apple TV show called just Platonic, which investigates the way that, as men and women settle down with families, making new opposite sex platonic friends often becomes culturally discouraged and taboo. But illustrating women and men having strong platonic relationships affirms to all genders that they are worth more than solely their ability to be in a romantic or sexual relationship. Here’s our take on the much needed revamp of male-female friendships on screen and why these platonic relationships are so important to audiences.


All opposite-sex Platonic Friendship stories onscreen have to refer back to When Harry Met Sally, which was all about the question, “can men and women really be friends?” The movie ultimately proved Billy Crystal’s Harry right. Of course, the friends-to-lovers trope is grounded in a heartwarming message: that real love is based, first and foremost, on a great friendship. But despite those good intentions, in the friends to lovers trope, friendships between men and women become merely a prerequisite to their inevitable romantic relationship. And this trope’s prevalence has skewed audiences’ expectations of opposite sex friendships, thus reinforcing the cultural idea that these bonds are only worthwhile if they have some romantic potential.

In the early 2000’s we saw this shift to a villainization of male and female friendships, with more films and television shows using “The Friend Zone” as a seething insult, or term of despair. When a character, particularly a woman, didn’t feel a romantic connection that a man felt, the male character was “punished” with their friendship. Even stories of male and female friendship targeted for children and tweens were tied up with complicated crushes and rejection. Shows like Lizzie McGuire and Zoey 101 showed the wide-eyed boy best friend of our lead character doomed to have an unrequited love that everyone other than the main character was aware of…until, of course, one day the girl realizes that she also loves her boy best friend.

But what’s so damning about meaningful friendships of the opposite gender? Actually, the term Platonic Love (which is named after Plato) has long been interpreted by philosophers over the centuries not just to mean lacking romance or sex, but also to speak to inspiring each other’s souls to greater heights of wisdom and spirituality. So in light of that picture, to call a platonic pair “just friends,” is more than a little reductive. Some stories have already highlighted the powerful potential of characters ultimately settling for a platonic friendship.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s three main characters and best friends were originally in a very prominent love triangle. However, once Willow and Xander come to accept that their wishful romances aren’t meant to be, they come into their power, literally defeating evil and a Hellmouth with their friendship. In Veronica Mars, best friends Veronica and Wallace never harbor romantic feelings towards each other, yet they continually act as the other’s support system, confide in each other, and understand one another in ways most can’t. Veronica and Wallace also share platonic touch on screen - they sit close to each other, casually hug, and hold each other during vulnerable moments - but it’s never misconstrued or interpreted as romance.

The sitcom Friends, despite the title, ended up with four of the six coupled up and had audiences rooting for the “one-true-pairing” of Ross and Rachel through their 10 season will-they-won’t they saga. But later shows centered around friend groups, like Community, directly spelled out to audiences that, while romance may weave in and out of the group dynamics, their friendships are where the heart of the story lies. Romantic relationships do ebb and flow within the group, but at the end of the day, the most interesting part of the show is their ability to remain tight-knit friends despite their vastly different backgrounds. Friends’ Joey and Phoebe are the only pair in the group who don’t couple off with each other, and at times they almost seem to have a purer relationship than the others. They spend quality time together as just the two of them, make sacrifices for each other, and make their affections known.

Perhaps the most valuable testament to the importance of this dynamic is Seinfeld. The series writers felt pressured to commit to a will-they-won’t they relationship between Jerry and Elaine. However, after Jerry polled fans of the show on the road, the audience overwhelmingly preferred the two as friends, and their obligatory romance was quickly written out. Free of expectations to end up as the girlfriend, Elaine’s character was able to flourish, drifting away from pressure to be the “voice of reason” and joining her male counterparts as an equal player in their antics, proving that women can be just as messy, antisocial and odd as men.


In the mid-to-late 2000’s we started seeing more platonic male-female duos centered around the workplace on screen. 30 Rock turned the “enemies to lovers” trope on its head when Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy’s relationship quickly grew from enemies to close friends - a friendship that spans seven seasons, never skewing romantic or sexual in nature. In fact, the reason Jack and Liz are an interesting duo is because they are so incompatible at surface level. But as they get to know each other more - through witty repartee and casual insults - the more alike their characters are revealed to be in their cores. Both Liz and Jack are ambitious in their respective careers, with hard exteriors and defensive attitudes that are only chiseled away by their unique friendship. And while their relationship may start out as a mentor-mentee dynamic, it grows into an equal partnership - one in which they never sacrifice who they truly are, but challenge themselves and flourish with each other’s viewpoints in mind.

A more dramatic pairing to Liz and Jack’s comedy duo can be found in the mentorship turned meaningful relationship between Don Draper and Peggy Olson in Mad Men. While gender roles of the 60’s are an obstacle to their relationship, it doesn’t present itself as sexual tension. It’s Don’s unwavering faith in Peggy’s work that gives them a deep connection - one that he doesn’t find in his own romantic partners. He may struggle to watch his mentee rise above him in the ranks of business, but their shared ambition and history of seeing one another through vulnerable moments allows him to pass her the symbolic torch.

With the workplace as the foundation for these relationships, men and women are given the space to share their dreams and goals - creating powerful connections and planting the roots of meaningful friendships. Ron and Leslie in Parks and Recreation are stark opposites with very different aspirations and values, but they support each other where it counts. This shift showed us that craving friendship is just as valuable as wanting a romance -

- and that fostering platonic relationships can give us different perspectives into our own lives, but ultimately provide us with someone who will always have our backs.

In Ted Lasso, football manager Ted and his boss, club owner Rebecca, eventually become deep friends in a way that shapes both lives for the better in so many ways. In Platonic, former best friends Will and Sylvia feel a bit weird about reconnecting in middle age, especially since she has a busy family life and he has a cool job as a brewmaster at a bar. But as they spend time together, they have fun and behave authentically to a degree they can’t experience with others in their everyday life. And in moments, we see how Will can support Sylvia in an uncomplicated way that her husband at times can’t because his life is so much more bound up with hers – like when Sylvia drunkenly starts a confrontation with her husband’s boss and Will doesn’t try to stop or undermine her. When you find a true friend, what does it matter whether that person is of your same sex?


Centering platonic love between men and women onscreen can also counter harmful gender stereotypes. How many times have we heard parents jokingly refer to their children’s friends of the opposite sex as their “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”? While it may seem harmless, experts believe that this subconscious coupling of men and women is detrimental to kids’ development. Studies show that it’s good for kids to have friendships with opposite-sex kids. They also find that the way kids play is almost indistinguishable by gender, and when boys and girls do play together, many of their socialized differences begin to wash away.

Onscreen when gender expectations are taken out of the mix, we can see play happen between male and female characters. Characters like New Girl’s Cece and Winston, who in earlier seasons don’t get a lot of screen time compared to other character combos, give the show new life when their characters get time alone. Soon, they discover their mutual love for pranks and “mess-arounds” that secure a deeper bond. Similarly, the pairing of Robin and Marshall in How I Met Your Mother isn’t bound by any romantic or gender expectations, and therefore they’re able to have fun bonding over their similar upbringings, and their mutual love for sports. The great times they have together gives them a chance to let their guard down and be vulnerable without complication.

When men and women can have fun together, and break out of gender stereotypes, they can also begin to develop deeper levels of trust. Gen Z in particular understands the importance of seeing platonic intimacy on screen, as there has been a rise in adopting “platonic life partnerships.” It’s becoming more common to see young people prioritizing strong platonic friendships above romance, because friends get to the heart of who you really are. Platonic connections as a whole give us confidence and lower our stress. And having platonic relationships with people from different backgrounds, orientation, and gender give us different points of views, allowing us more room for empathy and compassion.


Even as the landscape changes and these friendships pop up, fans can be quick to “ship” men and women who appear compatible in favor of romance. But platonic relationships between men and women give us insight into each other’s different perspectives; they expand the way we think about our own life, and ultimately bridge our similarities together. Romance can be fulfilling too, but by representing an alternative to the assumed One True Pairing we’re placing value on the bonds of friendship and celebrating our connections as individuals beyond fitting into one tried-and-true formula.


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