A Little Help From My Friends

The Best Bromances Tell Us A Lot About Male Friendship Today

Are you a John or a Paul? A Kirk or a Spock? A Harold or a Kumar? Is that even the right question?

Originally Published: 
Men With Friends: Stories And Reporting About Male Friendship

Are you a Harold or a Kumar? A Kirk or Spock? A Holmes or a Watson? Thanks to the pervasive influence of pop culture, those of us who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s have been inundated with readymade models of male friendship since the womb. When we zoom out, these paradigms tend to feel right. But are these kinds of friendship models helpful or harmful?

Research might clue us in. In the real world, friendships take on different shapes, and researchers who have studied them closely find that some models are healthier than others. In 2014, Todd Migliaccio at California State University at Sacramento, offered different models of specifically male friendship, including:

  • 1. Closed friendships: Buddies who bond over doing stuff together and not much else. These are common, but as they’re just scratching the surface, they don’t offer the many benefits that intimate, lifelong friendships do.
  • 2. Open friendships: Buddies who offer comfort, reliance, and understanding, but again through shared experience. It’s a stronger bond, but one that still has limits.
  • Expressive relationships: The gold standard, these strong friendships are based around more intimate bonds that grow through self-disclosure, aka vulnerability; sharing emotions; and expressed love.

Famous pop culture friendships tend to blur these lines a lot, all for the sake of keeping the audience riveted to the screen or keeping you turning the pages. Still, no matter how well-conceived the characters are, it’s tough to find anything but a glimmer of that expressive male friendship in pop culture. If we do, it’s usually bookended by a joke or action sequence. In a sense, real friendships in the real world are distorted by their pop culture reductions. Amazingly, this even happens with real people who were really friends in real life.

In his excellent book Dreaming the Beatles, Rob Sheffield puts it like this: “In any friendship, you know if you’re the John or the Paul. Everybody knows where they are in this friendship dynamic.” While this sounds reductive, it’s not a stretch to define all male friendships this way. In fact, the whole image of the John-Paul thing had such a profound impact on the world that screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman actually used John and Paul as inspiration when they wrote for Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) in the 2009 Star Trek reboot movie. This is slightly bonkers, simply because the characters of Kirk and Spock first existed in the 1960s, which happened concurrently with The Beatles getting huge. It’s like the Platonic form of John and Paul, the snarky aloof friend and the driven logical do-er, has always existed.

It’s easy to reduce John and Paul into flat characters and to argue that their friendship is a textbook closed one. They bond through the activity of songwriting and being in a band. Anything else happens “off-screen.” This is what makes something like the Get Back documentary such a revelation for male friendships: The overheard conversations between John and Paul morph their friendship from seeming closed to becoming open and expressive. In the documentary, we learn a tape recorder is hidden in a flower pot, and suddenly, we get the real John and Paul. John says he’s had “regrets” in their partnership because he’s been “frightened” of Paul. Suddenly, we have the makings of a real friendship. It may not be a healthy one, exactly, but it does feel more recognizable.

Interestingly enough, this kind of transformation happens too throughout Star Trek: The Original Series and the first six films. Kirk and Spock seem to have a closed relationship, connected only to their duties on the U.S.S. Enterprise, but then, when drama flares up — Spock goes into heat, or Kirk needs his memory erased — their relationship becomes more suggestive of an expressive one. Perhaps one of the reasons there was so much fan fiction about Kirk and Spock in the 1960s and 1970s was because the expressive aspects of their male friendship seemed repressed by the narrative; the writing and the performances from William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy hinted at more emotional intimacy than was depicted.

In literature, arguably, the model for this kind of male friendship comes from the famous Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The vast majority of these stories are narrated by John Watson, writing the adventures of his best friend. Sherlock is the eccentric weirdo and Watson is the down-to-earth everyman. In the first book, A Study in Scarlet, their relationship begins in buddy-comedy fashion; they each need a roommate, and Watson is introduced to Holmes through another friend called Stamford. Now, in real life, most friends are like Stamford — easygoing, reliable, and, mercifully, predictable. Within A Study in Scarlet, Watson’s relationship with Stamford is laid out. They were in the army together, and now they’re having a drink together. This is what most of our friendships look like. Stamford means Watson zero harm; he helps him out when it’s convenient and is happy to hang out. He is a solid friend.

Still, you can’t write cool adventures about having a beer with Stamford. The adventure for Watson only begins when he moves in with Holmes, and later, even when he gets married and moves out, his friendship with Holmes continues to define his life. Make no mistake, Sherlock Holmes is a sh*tty friend to Watson. He’s constantly disrupting his life, and often gives him backhanded compliments, like in The Hound of the Baskervilles when Holmes says “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light.” Ouch, dude.

This isn’t to say this specific kind of male-friendship paradigm always involves a sidekick. Watson isn’t the sidekick of Holmes; he’s his biographer and partner. In his own life, Watson has a medical practice and (at least one) marriage. He’s also an accomplished author. Holmes is a good friend insofar as he drives Watson to find meaning in life and to appreciate his own well-earned accomplishments. Meanwhile, even after Watson moves out, Holmes continues to have unpredictable income and bouts of drug abuse. In Watson’s life, he’s the hero of his own story, but the way he writes his own story, he’s playing second fiddle to this other guy, who is clearly a mess.

In Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), we get almost the exact same Watson-Holmes dynamic. Kumar (Kal Penn) is the pot-head eccentric, while Harold (John Cho) is the square who doesn’t want to get into trouble. They may not be solving a crime, but their adventure is all about pushing each other in and out of various boundaries. Holmes and Watson have the common goal of justice and cheap rent in London, while Harold and Kumar specifically want those White Castle mini-burgers. How to get to that goal leads to philosophical bickering. When Harold asks Kumar to use the preset radio stations in the car, Kumar objects, saying “your whole life is presets!”

As with several other Hangover-era buddy comedies of the early aughts, a lot of the relationship in Harold and Kumar involves the insinuation that the other person is gay — or, the regressive implication goes, “weak” because they are unwilling to take decisive action. Such homophobia is textbook “toxic” masculinity — stemming from a sense of rugged individualism that puts action above emotion, accomplishment over love. Men taunt their friends into doing things rather than talking about feelings. Case in point: Holmes is always getting Watson out of bed at strange times of the night. In the short story The Creeping Man, Holmes sends Watson this note: “Come at once if convenient. If inconvenient, come all the same.” This is no different from Kumar putting Harold in awkward situations. Empathy be damned — friendships like these trade on the concept of loyalty — and, sure, the promise of an adventure worth talking about.

This dynamic, where one guy picks on the other one, happens in Star Trek, too. There, Capt. Kirk frequently teases Spock about his emotionally repressed status quo, which Spock tolerates long term. The flip side of this is that Kirk tends to sacrifice himself more for Spock in ways that are pretty unhealthy. In “Amok Time,” Kirk lets Spock choke him to death, in order to satisfy a specific Vulcan ritual. And after Spock dies in The Wrath of Khan, Kirk then turns around in The Search for Spock and sacrifices his career, and his starship, and gets his only son killed, all in the process of bringing Spock back to life. Spock hasn’t manipulated Kirk into doing these things, but the friendship does seem a tad extreme.

Life goes on, and eventually Spock retires and becomes a diplomat, Sherlock Holmes moves to the countryside, or in the case of John and Paul, each gets married and does their own thing. Another way of looking at it: Everyone split up. The friendships lead to adventures and stories but once that runs out, they were doomed. Meanwhile, for a real literary model, it might behoove us to picture Watson and Stamford, hanging about a pub at a ripe old age talking about the London rain and sharing a pint. You know, the stuff of real friendship.

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