Theory Teacher's Blog

The Missing Friend in Dramatic Narrative

Someone recently forwarded me this silly YouTube video of the “Sassy Gay Friend.” Its basic premise is simple: if all the tragic female characters in Shakespeare’s plays had a sassy gay friend, then their tragic demises could have been avoided. The acting and dialogue in this video is pretty bad, but it does make an important point about how narrative works — often by the careful deletion of an important part of daily life. Check out this Sassy Gay Friend scene added to Rome and Juliet.

Putting aside the question of whether this video’s stereotype of homosexuals is offensive, what does this video teach us about narrative and ideology? For one, it points out that we never see Juliet have a conversation with a friend in this play. (It doesn’t really matter if that friend were male or female, gay or straight.) If Shakespeare had written scenes of real friendship, would her suicide seem plausible to us?

Quite a lot of plays, novels, and movies have this same plot feature. In the relationship between the troubled male figure (Romeo/Hamlet) and the female figure (Juliet/Ophelia), the female figure is presented with a choice between the male figure or nothing. This is a false dilemma, but dramatic narratives are often structured by false dilemmas. (So are many of the ethical conundrums taught in philosophy classes, but that’s a blog post for another day.) In reality, we have more options than that, and any real friend would point out these options, but such reality would get in the way of the narrative.

Such reality would also get in the way of plots that end up serving a male’s fantsy about his own selfhood — what psychoanalytic theorists Freud and Lacan call the “ideal self.” To put it another way, the idea that there would be a beautiful and interesting woman who has no friends and who, therefore, would need my attention and my attention alone is a rather typical male fantasy that gets re-played over and over again in many a story (not to mention, in many a young man’s fantasy life.) This fantasy is how a man might imagine himself (or how a woman might imagine herself) as a “good” person. So often in literature, as in real life, this “ideal self” requires a figurative “other” (often a female other, but there are other kinds of others) to be the foil through which the individual finds his or her identity.

One of the best (or worst) examples of this is the movie Knocked Up, which I’ve blogged about before [here]. In that story, a highly successful, charming woman has a one-night stand with an ugly loser and becomes pregnant. Initially she hates the guy, but the comedic plot serves to bring the two of them together. The improbable “happy ending” (which was not really happy in my view) is that they decide to get married. At no point in the movie do we ever see this highly scucessful, charming woman ever have a conversation with friends, and in fact, it doesn’t even seem like she has any friends. If she did (or had), her decision to marry the guy would have seemed absurd. In other words, the plot simply would not have worked if this character had a friend to talk to.

The point here is not simply that these missing friends are necessarily missing for the dramatic narrative to work, though this is often true. And the point is not simply that dramatic narrative always requires something to be missing or absent for its plots to work, though this is always true. Rather, my point is that these absences serve an ideology, whether that ideology is the bourgeois nuclear family (as in Romeo and Juliet) or a conservative pro-life and family values story (as in Knocked Up) or simply an ideology that serves an individual’s imagined sense of self.

Moreover, this YouTube skit not only points out the holes in narrative and the holes in ideology; it also points out the holes in ordinary life. And by that I mean the ways that friendship is an important component in all ethical decisions. When friendship is missing, then life and ethics get more difficult. This is why philosophy that ignores this social dimension is (in my view) bad philosophy. This is also why today’s postmodern counselors often prescribe group therapy as a supplement to one-on-one therapy. Cheap support groups can be more successful than the expensive, classic couch sessions with a psychiatrist (though please don’t mistake me here — I don’t mean to suggest that one-on-one therapy with medical professionals is a bad thing, since those can be quite useful and good, so long as that medical professional has no financial relationship to the pharmaceutical industry.) For instance, long ago, the famous psychoanalyst Karl Jung had an alcoholic patient and was unsuccesful in his treatment. But the patient went on to contribute to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is highly successful. What’s the point here? The narrative of psychoanalyst-and-patient is a narrative that functions because the psychanalyst takes the place of the friend. Once the patient has a multiplicity of friends or even simply a group of like-minded people, then the whole ediface of the psychiatric treatment  immediately appears less essential to the psyche of the patient.

This is true not only of psychiatric treatment but of all authoritarian social structures. Hence, the “sassy gay friend” in the YouTube clip is a transgressive figure in the way that he undermines not only the romantic fantasy of Romeo and Juliet but also the need for an authoritarian social structure.

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April 6, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

3 Comments »

  1. This is a great post, Steve. I hope all is well… and that you have lots of good friends wherever you are. xxoo

    Comment by Hasana | April 9, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks Hasana. It’s certainly been a while since our grad school days!

      Comment by steventhomas | April 14, 2010 | Reply

  2. Friendship is important to these types of dilemmas but I’ve seen many women feel like once their man is gone then they have/are nothing even when friends are standing RIGHT there. Why? Because their identity is within that relationship. They don’t know themselves outside of it and/or they need a relationship to validate themselves. When you’re so wrapped up and in “love” (gag) then what your friends say isn’t important or almost is non-existent. I don’t think Romeo and Juliet is a complete stray away from reality.

    Comment by Ashley | April 28, 2010 | Reply


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