Like most holidays in America, Valentine’s Day has come to stand in for the entire month of February. While romantic love is all good and well (as are cheap chocolates and roses), WWAC Lifestyle is celebrating love of the platonic variety (and the many variations therein) this month. We started with Catie Coleman’s tips on how talking can be as important in a friendship as listening, and now Laura Harcourt shares her thoughts (and research) on romantic friendships.
You know a lot about me, readers. You know I love Wonder Woman, and that I’m a nak muay, and that at my gym, I go by Batgirl. You may not know that I’m straight. Honestly, it hardly matters, except for this small point: throughout my whole life, my most intense romantic feelings have been for—that is to say, my soulmates all have been—women.
This confused me for quite some time. I’ve never fully understood my place in traditional gender roles, and when in college I spent four years portraying male romantic leads onstage, I felt as comfortable and as confident being Prince Charming as I did in a skirt and heels on a date—maybe more so. But aside from my comfort in taking on the role of gallant girl-turned-boyfriend, I have spent my entire life falling in love with women.
In our current world of labels and definitions, full of discussions about sexual identity, the gender binary, internalized misogyny, and gender identity (to pick only a few), I’ve still felt adrift. In college, everyone assumed my best friend and I were dating. These days, I still get some careful, curious questions about my relationship with my best friend. I get crushes on girls I know and admire. Part of me still pines for my childhood best friend.
Here’s the thing, though: these feelings are intimate. They are deep, and complex. They are romantic. They make me giddy and silly and moony smitten. What they are not is sexual. It’s a distinction I’ve mulled over for a long time, but was never quite able to put my finger on until I read an article about Anne Shirley and Diana Barry positing that their relationship was a coded lesbian one. I am certainly not going to sit here and tell people not to interpret canon however they want—put on those slash goggles and infer away, friends—but something about this particular piece didn’t quite jive with me. It wasn’t only the shrugging off of Anne’s love of Princes, both dark and charming, or of Gilbert Blythe, or of her college beau: the piece entirely neglected to take into consideration the prevalence of—the widespread acceptance of—romantic female friendships in the 19th century.
Here’s how Wikipedia defines a romantic friendship:
A romantic friendship or passionate friendship is a very close but typically non-sexual relationship between friends, often involving a degree of physical closeness beyond that which is common in the contemporary Western societies.
I tend to agree with them. Romantic friendships have many of the perks of romantic relationships, minus the sexual aspect. There’s physical affection like cuddling, hugs, and hand-holding, similar emotional rollercoasters with that addictive swoop of butterflies, and the security of having someone to play confidante and advisor. The Greeks might consider it to be some combination of agape and philia: the highest form of love between friends. I sometimes consider it to be a modern version of courtly love: Passionate, but chaste.
(Anne, I feel, with her dreams of Lancelot and the Lady of Shalott, would tend to agree.)
Anne and Diana’s relationship was important to me. I’d always seen my own bosom friendship mirrored in Anne and Diana, Anne and Phillipa, Anne and Katherine, and I wondered: what happened to the romantic friendship? Where did it go? Why is it no longer a welcome and accepted aspect of society? And would we have fewer girls proclaiming themselves to be “tomboys,” attacking and putting down “girly-girls,” denigrating the feminine, if female friendship was celebrated once more? What if we all strove to be a little more like Anne and Diana, or Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins?
So I did a little digging.
Emerson, Thoreau, Tennyson, and plenty of others have written reams, novels, epic poems about romantic friendship between men, but there are few similar texts devoted to the romantic, but non-sexual relationships between women, despite the fact that female romantic friendships were not only common, but culturally condoned. These friendships weren’t unique to young girls: this Cosmopolitan articles in Life in Girls’ Colleges details the actions of “gallant sophs” at Smith College acting as cavaliers, taking their freshmen dates to a dance:
“She sends her flowers, calls for her, fills her order of dance, fetches ices and frappes between dances and takes her to supper. The whole method of procedure is apt to impress the freshman ludicrously … Every ‘soph’ sees her partner home, begs for a flower.”
Another famous instance defines the term “smashed,” used at Vassar to describe the infatuation of one young lady with another:
“When a Vassar girl takes a shine to another, she straightway enters upon a regular course of bouquet sendings, interspersed with tinted notes, mysterious packages of ‘Ridley’s Mixed Candies,’ locks of hair perhaps, and many other tender tokens, until at last the object of her attentions is captured, the two women become inseparable, and the aggressor is considered by her circle of acquaintances as—smashed.”
In a world where young women were largely discouraged from consorting with members of the opposite sex, and where they were surrounded by like-minded girls their own age, and faced with role models in the form of female faculty members who had formed partnerships akin to common law marriage, romantic friendship was not only accepted, it may even have been the norm.
I don’t want to suggest that all of these relationships were sexually innocent, or that some weren’t in fact lesbian relationships, but many of these women had something the modern Western world has trouble accepting: strong, often lifelong, friendships and partnerships with each other, based purely on the depth of their affection.
The interpretation of Anne Shirley and Diana Barry as lesbian lovers feels to me a modern one: we’ve fallen out of believing in romantic friendships, now certain that those intense intimate feelings must always be linked to sexual feelings as well. For some reason, falling in love with women must be sexual, rather than, as Anne might say, a longing of the soul, a desire to simply be around her. How did we get to this point? When did we, as a society, forget that love and sex aren’t the same thing?
In 1900, or slightly thereafter, there was something of a turning point in that regard. Freudian analysis began finding latent sexual undertones in nearly every intimate relationship; men, in particular, began distancing themselves from anything that looked like homosexuality … and the romantic female friendship was attacked as a destroyer of traditional marriage. Romantic feelings towards anyone but your significant other became something almost shameful:
“Dishonest with ourselves about erotic feelings (erotic does not mean sexual), we often hide the truth from our friends. We deny the cravings we feel for them, how we pine for them like Tristan and Iseult, the inordinate, contradictory feelings that friendship should not prompt, say our minds, but often does. We feel deep attraction toward our best friends. We long for each other’s company.”
Listen, I say we kick all that shame nonsense straight out the door.
I say we get “smashed.” That we embrace the intensity of female friendships, that we celebrate each others’ beauty and strength and intelligence; that we admit to our infatuations, that we tell those girls we love that we love them. The world can only be a better place when women are able to feel deeply for each other … and who doesn’t wish for a little more of the magic of romance? Why reserve the headiness of a crush, the seduction of a new and overwhelming passion, their steady devotion, only for the person you’re knocking boots with?
Sara Eckel (a writer I now deeply want to befriend) described herself and her new friend as “star-crossed lovers,” and says:
“Although I am straight, I am constantly falling in love with women. I slip them my business card at parties, or shyly suggest a cup of coffee after yoga class. I strategize about the best ways to reel them in: dinner party? Invitation to a play? Some pretext about work? I swoon when I get their emails and chatter endlessly about them to the men I date. When it works out—when my new pal and I emerge from an hour-and-a-half of feverish conversation and realize we’re just getting started—I’m over the moon.”
There’s no need to bring in the prince for these fairy tales; no sex required for an emotionally intimate experience. If you do find yourself smashed, if you fall in love with a girl, try not to stress about it—just buy her some flowers.