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Platonic Relationships between Male and Female Characters in Movies

Updated on November 6, 2014
Sometimes men and women do succeed in just staying friends in the movies, unlike these two.
Sometimes men and women do succeed in just staying friends in the movies, unlike these two. | Source

Introduction

There are dozens of movies out there where a man and woman start out as friends or enemies or even “frenemies” and then get together at the end of the story. What’s really interesting, though, is when a film can present a man and woman partner team where the two characters never link up romantically. It’s a much more unique and challenging way of building a relationship between two characters that doesn’t end in the typical embrace in the rain. This relationship has become more prevalent in movies over the years. Below are a few examples of this team up and how it shapes the tone, focus, and characterization in a film.

Dottie and Jimmy in "A League Of Their Own"

Morals and Responsibilities

One reason why a male and female character might not form a relationship is to preserve the moral values of two characters. One example of this is in the 1992 film, A League of Their Own. Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) and Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) form a strong connection throughout the course of the baseball season that should surpass the coach and player relationship. However, Dottie is married, and Jimmy is an authority figure. So, this relationship never grows beyond a mutual friendship.

There is a long sequence that was cut out of the film in which Dottie and Jimmy have a romantic moment which results in Dottie’s temporarily leaving the league. This sequence totally changes the characters and even the movie itself (Youtube it and see for yourself). Dottie’s motivations and underlying feelings come through here. However, the ambiguity of this relationship in the original cut gives the film better characterization and originality. After all, this is a story about female baseball players holding their own in a male-dominated society, not a love story between a baseball player and her coach. The filmmakers recognized this when cutting the film and took a more levelheaded approach to their story. It was a bold move, but I think it was ultimately the best one.

Robert and Anna in "I Am Legend"

Time

This friendship dynamic may also explored in a story that follows two characters who spend just a small, though very significant, time together. Sometimes there just isn’t enough time for a romantic relationship to develop in a film that only takes place over the course of a few days or even a few hours. So, the film spends its time in the friend zone and keeps the film focused on the story itself, especially non-romantic movies. In 2007’s, I Am Legend, for example, Robert Neville (Will Smith) spends most of the film on his own until the third act when he meets Anna (Alice Braga), a survivor who is headed to a fortress away from the disease-stricken population.

Robert and Anna share moments, but it never gets beyond a connection between two survivors, one of whom has not spoken to another human being in years. Their relationship is tense at first due to Robert’s shock and confusion upon meeting her, and their philosophic differences later clash, creating a temporary distance between the two. After bonding over Robert’s knowledge and affection for Bob Marley, though, the characters become better acquainted and connected to each other. The film ends with Robert’s death, or as the alternate ending shows, a journey north with Robert, Anna and little Ethan in tow. The audience is given just a glimpse of the future ahead of them and not so much how these three will continue on in their quest for survival. A romantic component is not necessary in either ending. The importance of Anna is to give Robert a face to the human population that he is trying to restore and to give him the opportunity to connect with another human again after years of solitude.

Another example of this short-lived friendship is in the movie, Identity (2003). In this film, two of the main characters, Edward (John Cusack) and Paris (Amanda Peet) bond over their similar circumstances. Paris listens to and sympathizes with Ed’s haunting past while Ed feels the need to protect Paris when he learns what brought the characters together in the first place. Again, it is not important for the two to bond any further than they do, especially since neither of them truly exists except in the mind of their creator.

Ed Opens up to Paris in "Identity"

Robert and Sophie's Goodbye in "The Da Vinci Code"

Doing Their Job

Professionalism too can sometimes take precedence when dealing with male and female characters. There are plenty of movies where characters get together despite being co-workers or professional rivals, but it is more surprising when they don’t. In The Da Vinci Code (2006), for example, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) team up to locate the holy grail in order to solve Sophie’s mysterious family history and clear Robert’s recently tarnished name. This keeps the focus on the mystery surrounding the characters, and Robert and Sophie’s bond takes on a more interesting dynamic in the way that they help each other, working together to solve the code and even casting out each other’s personal demons.

The 2010 film, Inception, is another movie that creates an intimate, though strictly professional, relationship between a male and female character. In the film, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) recruits Ariadne (Ellen Page) for his team of dream intruders, but he gets an added bonus out of Ariadne’s services. Her curiosity causes her to question Cobb’s motives and methods. She is able to see the slippery slope that he is on personally and demands to go along for the ride so that she can monitor his shaky mind and aid in the success of their mission.

There is no reason why Ariadne should go to such lengths to save her employer. After all, she is merely a college student taking on a short-term job. She could have easily played her part as a dream architect and stayed out of the dream sharing as intended, keeping her out of harm’s way. It says a lot about her character in her volunteering to actively participate in the mission by acting as Cobb’s therapist. You never do find out why she wants to put herself in danger for Cobb, but a crush or any kind of romantic affection never comes to mind. Meanwhile, the cryptic Cobb, gets himself some free therapy and ultimately a vital asset to his team which ultimately leads to the unconventionally executed yet successful outcome (depending on how you interpret that spinning top in the final scene). This could have easily been achieved by hinting or even outright declaring that their motivations were inspired by physical attraction, but it is admirable from a writer's perspective that Nolan didn't cop out behind an obvious solution (to make them love interests).

Cobb and Ariadne in "Inception"

Motivation

A very recent example of a male/female character team up is in the movie, Gravity (2013). While George Clooney’s character, Matt Kowalski, can come across as flirtatious, his relationship with Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, cannot be characterized as romantic, and his candid comments come from silliness rather than attraction. Kowalski is skilled at breaking the tension with calm, confidence, and humor. Again, the film takes place in a short time span, and the characters do not have the screen time to develop and play out any romantic feelings onscreen. There is actually very little characterization in the movie. Instead, just enough information is given to the audience to provide a little insight into the two characters and understand what motivates their actions.

Kowalski is in his element in space so choosing to sacrifice himself for Stone does not come as much of a surprise, despite the fact that we know little else about him aside from his long-winded and seemingly pointless stories. Stone, on the other hand, really has no reason to return to Earth herself. We learn about her past tragedy and discover that there is really no one awaiting her return. What drives her to live is her desire to make Kowalski’s sacrifice count. Their week-long working friendship becomes her life’s defining relationship and the one that makes her work through the impossible task of rescuing herself from space with no direction, little training, and no other reason to carry on. This could not be explored had Kowalski and Stone been, say, married or even having developed a romantic attachment during the mission. Losing Kowalski may have been too great a loss for Stone to continue on. Such a relationship opens up a film to give female characters the drive and independence that an audience can root for and ultimately make them the heroes of their own story.

Kowalski's Advice in "Gravity"

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Conclusion

You may have noticed from these examples that the platonic relationship between a male and female character often works out in the woman’s favor. The woman gains a sense of empowerment while the man merely relish in their friend's success. This relationship is a really a useful tool to present a feminist perspective in film. It’s not easy for a writer to steer away from romantically linking two characters. It is actually something that a writer may have to resist at the risk of disappointing the audience who may be rooting for that arc, but good writing can make the audience forget all of that and keep them invested in the progression of the story without a romantic element. It is important to explore various relationships, and the safe bet is not always the best bet for the movie. These films, and those like it, benefit from not taking the easy way out and have created great stories that will have a lasting effect on the viewer.

What is your favorite male/female non-romantic character relationship in a movie, book or other story? Leave your answers in the comments below!

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    • Breanne Ginsburg profile image

      Breanne Ginsburg 2 years ago

      This is a very interesting article, Laura. I think it's important that movies show that there can be a strong bond and friendship between two characters of the opposite sex without actual sex being involved. I chose Will Smith and Alice Braga in "I am Legend" in your poll because their relationship is so important and they depend so much on one another and yet they manage to be close without being sexually involved. Braga's character is able to carry out Smith's character's legacy and make a difference.

    • Laura335 profile image
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      Laura Smith 2 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      Thanks for the comment! Yes, I agree that the "I Am Legend" duo's relationship is really crucial to the story that is being told, and I think that the filmmakers made the right choice keeping them allies with conflicting viewpoints rather than love interests.

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