Platonic Love Is Not a Consolation Prize


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Twenty years ago, Sex and the City’s Charlotte (Kristin Davis) sat down with her three best friends—Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon)—at a diner in the middle of the night. She had a radical proposal: “Maybe we can be each other’s soulmates,” she said. “And let men be these great, nice guys to have fun with.”

This overture began with the disclaimer “Don’t laugh,” because the very notion that women could abandon the idea of a fairytale romance for their platonic friendships sounded ridiculous in 2001. But in 2021, after we were deprived of the physical presence of some of our closest relationships for more than a year, those connections seem to have been reprioritized—at least onscreen.

The final season of Shrill offers the most intentional example. Created by Aidy Bryant, Alexandra Rushfield, and Lindy West (and based on her bestselling book of the same name), the series began in 2019 with a familiar premise: A young woman named Annie (Bryant) aims to navigate life, love, and work without changing—or losing—herself in the process. But by its third and final season, the series leaves us with a poignant image of Annie and her best friend Fran (Lolly Adefope) toasting their relationship with each other after leaving their respective romantic partners.

Though it isn’t as explicit as Charlotte’s suggestion, Annie and Fran’s sweet celebration of each other is just as earnest and loving. More importantly, though, it’s not a consolation for having not found their romantic soulmates, as Charlotte’s offer could be interpreted. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that what they have together is beautiful and mutually meaningful—the foundation of any healthy relationship.

In fact, Mollie Volinsky, a New York-based relationship expert and psychotherapist, says that that same spark you feel first meeting someone who will become your romantic soulmate is very similar to the feeling you get when you encounter your platonic love for the first time.

“It is a romantic or platonic connection,” she explains. “Some people you just click with. Like, ‘I met this super cool girl and we’re going for a drink and it is completely platonic. But we just clicked and now we hang out all the time.’ And it happens pretty quickly.”

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As Hollywood has done for so many romantic tales, including When Harry Met Sally…, Shrill similarly traces Fran and Annie’s platonic love story back to when they were both in college and involved in friendships that weren’t right for them. Fran, who is gay, was closeted and deeply in love with her friend, while Annie found herself in a one-sided friendship with a woman who was in a monogamous relationship with herself. As casual acquaintances, the two finally sit down for a much-needed one-on-one—and hit it off right away. Or, like Adefope says of her real-life relationship with Bryant, “It was love at first sight.”

These moments in Shrill are reminders of how crucial platonic relationships are, and not just when we’re in the midst of an ongoing a global crisis, where physical human touch can feel fraught. Even Volinsky has seen an uptick in people intentionally seeking these kinds of relationships in New York City, which saw a large exodus during the pandemic. “It was surprising to me, actually, how many clients I got throughout this past year that moved to the city during the pandemic,” she says. “What was interesting is, people were lonely and looking for connections.”

It’s not a consolation for having not found their romantic soulmates…it’s an acknowledgement that what they have together is beautiful and mutually meaningful.

Hollywood has apparently also just realized this, as film festival hits like Together Together and Language Lessons flip the romantic comedy on its head to center platonic love in their narratives. Why did it take so long for us to realize its value? Because we have been socialized, by both media and society, to think that there is no other relationship worth caring for to the degree that we would our romantic ones.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Usually in traditional TV shows or movies where there’s a female character, the goal is romantic love, and the friends are these one-dimensional cheerleader types,” Volinsky says. “Platonic love is like romantic love in that it needs to be nurtured and worked at.”

We see that process throughout the final season of Shrill, as Annie, a journalist, struggles to hold herself accountable for a story she wrote about a white separatist sect. Fran feels understandably betrayed and unseen, but the two find a way to work through their conflict together so that both are heard. Annie realizes her missteps, and the two work together to chart their path forward.

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But even as platonic love gets more screen time these days, some viewers still fall back on the archaic idea that romantic love stories are paramount. Two fictional characters with great chemistry can’t just have an amazing platonic relationship without audiences “shipping” them. A prime example are detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) from the Law & Order universe. Fans have been eager to see them hook up since the late ’90s.

Volinsky admits getting emotional while watching a recent episode of Law & Order: Organized Crime when Elliot tells Olivia he loves her—but in a platonic way that underscores their lasting relationship. “I was crying,” she says. “I also didn’t want them to, like, start making out or anything. That would be weird.”

We need to get to a point where we can accept platonic love as end game. Not just because COVID-19 has made us all a little more sentimental about the special people in our lives, but because they matter that much to us—and are as significant as any romance could be.

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