Romcom roundup: the friends with benefits phenomenon

'Friends with benefits' is not such a novelty as a recent series of Hollywood films is trying to present it, says Evelyn Krampf, debunking the phenomenon as a mere plot device serving the usual goals of good ol' heterosexist romcom

Evelyn Krampf, 6 September 2011

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While Joan Didion probably did not have the fuck-buddy phenomenon in mind when she noted that films tend to treat decade-old social changes like taboo topics, the recent siege of sex-friend romcoms fits the premise. Released in the beginning of 2011, Ivan Reitman's No Strings Attached (above), soon to be followed by Lon Scherfig's One Day, spawned the spin-off Friends with Benefits (directed by Will Gluck) which opens in UK cinemas this Friday. While last year's Love and Other Drugs (directed by Edward Zwick) does not explicitly exploit the 'friends with benefits' plot line, it also includes two lovers in which the female partner is almost identical to Natalie Portman's Emma (in No Strings Attached) in her brashness, intelligence, and early preference for noncommittal sexual relationship.

All these movies regurgitate the unfortunate premise that any woman who doesn't want to be in a relationship must have serious emotional issues

This latest romcom plot device is not in fact that novel. In No Strings Attached, the viewer sees Portman's face glow with realisation when she suggests to Ashton Kutcher's Adam that they "use each other for sex". As if no one had ever thought of this before... Although Portman's character is presented as sexually liberated, she clearly never perused the Casual Encounters section of craigslist.

However, a montage of Kutcher and Portman having sex constantly in every place they can find is not meant to convince anyone that such a thing could work. Both NSA and FwB include supporting characters repeating the conventional wisdom to the leading man: sex between friends never works. Probing whether it could is not the point. It's just a variation on the formula, and the films conclude the same way as any other factory Hollywood romance.

The plot device provides a means for positioning certain heterosexist tropes as complementary: the female fantasy of being pursued by a man who will do anything for her; the male fantasy of succeeding in seducing a resistant woman. What is obnoxious about this strategy is not even that the friends-with-benefits arrangements aren't treated like something that could work (and why not?). What's annoying is that all these movies regurgitate the unfortunate premise that any woman who doesn't want to be in a relationship must have serious emotional issues.

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The leading ladies in NSA and L&OD (left) are smart, sexually liberated, slightly unconventional (while remaining, of course, totally hot) and, it is implied, slightly feminist. Both Portman and Hathaway portray a woman who avoids relationships, but not because of a legitimate desire to stay single. No, no. Why then? Emotional issues, of course. Portman has daddy issues because her father passed away when she was young. Deep-seated emotional issues. Hathaway was dumped by some guy because she is chronically sick. Again, serious emotional issues. The message is that any woman who is not seeking a relationship that ends in marriage surely has some grave emotional problems.

The unfolding of the relationships in both films (NSA and L&OD) is virtually the same: the leading lady, at first emotionally unavailable, is broken down by a handsome leading man who is also transformed by their relationship into a better person (another heterosexist fantasy) and turns out to be a really a good guy after all.

Portman's and Hathaway's disinterest in relationships is depicted as irrational, and never as based on some real legitimate distrust of men. Moreover, their attitudes towards relationships are there to be proved wrong. They really do want the happily ever after! And the friends-who-fuck storyline wraps up in the same fashion as your typical romcom.

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FwB (right), on the other hand, pokes some fun at romcoms in a way that can be seen as refreshing, but ultimately follows the formula without adding anything really interesting. Kundis' Jamie is a true romantic, who (of course) has daddy issues as well, and really believes in Prince Charming (as she confesses to a disgusted male date who fucks her and dumps her after the fatal fifth date). And while she repeatedly says that she is "emotionally damaged", she wants to be in a relationship, and is not earnestly portrayed as troubled i. e. resistant to relationships i. e. implied feminist. And like Hathaway and Portman, she just has to find the right man. Ugh.

The horrible things these two women plot to do to each other are despicable pranks worthy of the legendary duelling dames of Hollywood - Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

But there is a light at the end of this rant and that light is the brilliantly funny Paul Feig's Bridesmaids. Sassy, well-written, well-acted, romantic but not sappy, and it passes the Bechdel Test to boot.

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Regrettably, its main character Annie, who is a more kick-ass version of Bridget Jones (left, with her best friend Lillian), also has serious emotional issues. Ensnared in a sexually and emotionally unsatisfying arrangement in which she has casual sex with a total jerk, she almost misses her chance at happiness with a sweet and handsome police officer because she is too disturbed to recognise a good thing. At one point, arguing with him, she says, "I know how guys work. You want to get laid and get gone," offending her suitor with her candour.
Again, the leading lady's distrust of men and relationships is not treated like a reasonable response to her life experience. Just like the women in L&OD and NSA, she is shown nearly ruining her future with the perfect man by her defensive posture. Thankfully, unlike them, at least she is not pathologised: we never learn that her father passed away when she was really young or that her uterus is broken or anything of that kind.

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Although not perfect, Bridesmaids is saved by its lead, played by Kristen Wiig, who is hilarious, inappropriate, devious and seems remotely like a real person. The romances are mere sub-plots, the real action is in her conflict with another member of the wedding party, a woman who is competing with her for the title of best friend of the bride. It is worthwhile to watch the horrible things these two women plot to do to each other, despicable pranks worthy of the legendary duelling dames of Hollywood - Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Finally, the mass attack of food poisoning in the bridal boutique scene is enough reason alone to watch another wedding movie.

You can still catch Bridesmaids in some cinemas and Friends with Benefits opens nationwide this Friday:



Comments From You

Elle // Posted 13 September 2011 at 04:05

The only film that I have been able to watch comfortably in the last few months without wanting to cry or diet is Bridesmaids. Thank you for writing this post which shows me I'm not just doing it wrong. Though I would like to be able to be angry at negative portrayals of women in films without feeling like shit myself and not being able to enjoy any part of the film. Any advice? This website is wonderful. I'd never heard of the Bechdel test before, and it makes me incredibly happy that it exists.

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About the author

Evelyn Krampf

Evelyn Krampf is a social work burn-out turned writer, editor and musician. She hails from Berkeley, CA and studied Social Welfare at U.C. Berkeley. She moved to Berlin last year and spent the winter explaining why anyone could possibly want to move away from warm, sunny California to various parties

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