Is ‘When Harry Met Sally’ a Realistic Depiction of Male-Female Friendships?
Years ago, when I was studying screenwriting at an Australian film school, I walked into class —running a little late, as usual. The teacher was in the middle of delivering an animated monologue, and as I entered the room, he turned to me and said, “Claire, would you agree that When Harry Met Sally is a realistic depiction of male-female friendships?”
Every student knows that a “Would you agree” question is a classic teacher’s trick and that if you would not, in fact, agree, then you are very wrong.
Without context, although I’m not sure my answer would have been different had I been given any, I said “No.” The teacher was so infuriated by this response that he began actually shaking with rage. Rather than engage the class in a meaningful discussion about why I might not feel that a 1989 romantic comedy reflected my off-screen relationships in 2013, he shut me down with a sarcastic quip: “I’d like to see you write a better film.” And that was that. (For the record, I probably haven’t.)
I was later to learn that the teacher saw himself in the Billy Crystal character, which was why he perceived any critique of the film as a personal attack. He also didn’t ask me whether I liked the movie itself. At that time, I did — even if I believed (and still do) that it is entirely a work of fantasy.
If he’d asked me the reason for my answer, I might have explained that the heteronormative conventions of rom-com dictate that a leading man and woman must end up together. Apparently, Nora Ephron’s original screenplay didn’t end with a happily ever after for Harry and Sally, but that didn’t wash with studio execs/audiences.
A more accurate portrayal of male-female friendships where the people in question accidentally sleep together would either have them never speaking to each other again or working through the awkwardness to re-gain the friendship. Having them realise they are in love completely undermines the film’s own thesis — or rather, reinforces Harry’s worldview that men and women can’t be friends because sex always gets in the way.
But re-watching in 2020—with my mother of all people (who complained loudly all the way through it) — the ending is not the only place where When Harry Met Sally falls flat. Here are a few of its other problems:
It is loaded with gendered stereotypes…
I started to feel acutely pained fairly early on in the film, during a scene where Sally is seated at a table with two girlfriends — she has just broken up with her boyfriend of five years. They lament the lack of available men to marry and the race against their ticking clocks at the grand old age of 31. They worry that they need to get married before the men start to die off. “At least you can say you were married,” one of the women remarks without irony, as though this is life’s crowning achievement.
Sally’s relationship with Joe fails because he refuses to marry and have children with her. Now that I’m in my 30s myself, I understand that these are still life goals for a lot of women and that’s fine. But they are rarely a woman’s only goals. The female characters’ obsession with getting married, in particular, and the suggestion of a non-married de facto relationship as inherently lacking commitment strike me as particularly shallow and dated stereotypes of women.
It also doesn’t help that none of the women (or indeed of any of the characters) seem to have any interests outside dating. Don’t these people have jobs?
… And occasional casual racism
I know I know, if we rule out any thirty year old films that have racist jokes, there won’t be anything left. But Harry’s quip that the dishes in an Ethiopian restaurant should just be empty because there’s no food in Ethiopia is pretty jarring at best.
And that’s before we even get to the random Chinese couple who explain how they met while washing clothes outside in a village. (Of course they did! Because it’s the 1980s and there are no cities or washing machines in China!)
The most famous scene makes absolutely no sense…
I’m willing to suspend disbelief while watching movies — so I can pretend that it is possible a woman might simulate a fake orgasm in a crowded cafe in order to make a point to her male companion. But I do not, even for the sake of the movie, believe that woman would be Sally. It simply doesn’t fit with her character at all. We know her to be neurotic and uptight — because Harry is constantly pointing out these traits in her (generally as flaws).
And that would be fine, if it was presented as pivotal turning point in Sally’s narrative arc — if it marked the moment where she opens up and learns to start expressing herself, for example. But instead it is just played for laughs and she goes right back to being just as rigid as she was before. So what is the point of the scene?
…And why the hell do they refer to sex as “doing it”?
I mean, just why. Are they 12 year olds? No, they are grown-ass adults who talk about sex non-stop for one hour and 36 minutes, but still somehow have to use this childish euphemism because they can’t name the act out loud. Was this an 80s thing?
For what it’s worth, my screenwriting teacher would use the same expression and he was at least 15 years older than both Harry and Sally are by the end of the film. Also, it definitely wasn’t the 80s and we were adult students — we could have handled it.
Nothing about their friendship rings true
From faking an orgasm at the corner deli, to debating the odds of having great sex with a guy named “Sheldon”, there’s nothing Harry and Sally don’t do together.
I read this blurb on the Google Play store to my Mum, and we laughed that this didn’t exactly demonstrate a great range in the things that Harry and Sally do together. But on watching the film, this is, in fact, an entirely accurate summation of their entire friendship. They literally only talk about sex. That is what they do together.
However, contrary to the blurb, there are plenty of things they don’t do together — namely everything except talk about sex. How many friends do you have where that is the case 100% of the time? And if it is, then would you consider them a close friend? Your best friend? If this is friendship, are we also supposed to believe that Sex and the City is a realistic representation of female friendships?
Why don’t Harry and Sally ever talk about their jobs, for example? Which comes back to my question — do they actually have jobs or do they stroll around New York and look at carpets while disclosing their sexual fantasies as a full-time thing?
But what it really makes me wonder, since their entire friendship revolves around dissecting their dating lives, what are they actually going to talk about once they are dating each other? Look, I can’t see it lasting more than six months tops TBH, before they go their separate ways and admit the whole thing was a terrible mistake — as per the original ending. You should have stuck to your guns, Nora E.
So is it a realistic depiction of male-female friendships? Allen, if you’re reading this, my answer 7 years later is an even more emphatic no. (Also you really could pick a better role model than Harry.)
But is it even a good film, worthy of its status as an enduring classic? In the end, some little-known critic from a now-defunct newspaper called Lawrence Journal World said it best: “Overrated nonsense about two people who would never date in real life.” (Thanks, Rotten Tomatoes.)
I would go one step further and assert that Harry and Sally would never even actually be friends.