SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: FRIENDLY NO MORE
This is the sixth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
Friendly no more
What makes these films, these relationships, worth considering in isolation? They express a truth, vaguely understood in the past though never crystallised in words, that the much vaunted “first love” of boyhood need not be with the opposite sex, and indeed more frequently was not, provided we leave the word “love” out of it. They recognised that a boy’s emotional growth often requires the forging of intense friendships with men other than his father, that a father could not, indeed, supply that intimacy because of his authority status vis-à-vis the son. These relationships, in cinema, have always been portrayed as beneficial to the boy, as growth-enriching, personality-forming, maturing experiences. And the culture we live in today has done all within its reach to prevent such relationships ever forming again. That is what makes them interesting. There is a disjoint between the received social “wisdom” of today and the implied and assumed truth conveyed by all of those films. What, we are entitled to ask, has changed?
Society’s newfound paranoia about close friendships between children and any adult outside the immediate family (provided that adult is male) has hugely impoverished the socialising environment of an entire generation. So far from “liberating” children from a supposed potential for exploitation, it has imprisoned them in a narrow ghetto nervously policed by their parents and schoolteachers — that is to say, predominantly by women. If boys once swarmed on the streets of late 19th-century London (and every other major city of the world) they were studiously ignored there, being mere boys. On the streets of 21st century London they must be ignored, because no adult male dares speak to a child he doesn’t know, and children have been thoroughly groomed by schools and parents to scream for help if anyone does. Kids have evolved in the space of a century from being invisible because they were unimportant to being invisible because they are special. It seems a strange definition of promotion.
This has created the deeply perverse assumption that any adult who enjoys the company of children may have, could well have, an ulterior sexual motive, whether it be the friendly old fellow in the park, the childless neighbour across the street, the Scoutmaster, or the local vicar. Teachers (male teachers) must now be vigilant against any casual expressions of affection to their pupils, doctors (male doctors) must take stringent measures to protect themselves against allegations of “improper” touching with child patients, and even fathers must be careful that their public displays of physicality are not open to be misconstrued by onlookers. It is a profoundly sick society that projects its sexual neuroses onto children in this fashion. It is our own society today. And we did not reach this lamentable state by accident or oversight. This is a disease that has been, is being, purposefully spread by those who see a political advantage in it. We hear a good deal today about ‘the fear culture’ in Western society. This is one major element of it that remains immune to criticism. The seed of social mistrust, so diligently implanted in our children, does not bode anything positive for communities of the future.
But the cinema of boyhood has always placed great importance on these extra-familial friendships, rationalising them by less pejorative criteria, so that the kindly old hermit in the woods was seen as a “surrogate grandfather”, the charismatic adult to whom a boy attaches himself an expression of “hero worship”, the rugged but decent outsider who always understands was a necessary “role model” for the boy deprived of a father or whose natural father maltreated or neglected him. These special friendships are by no means an exclusive male paradigm, but since the venom of sexual politics underscores most of the paranoia we see about us today, it is only children’s friendships with men which fall under suspicion. Comparable doubts are never raised about the friendly old woman in the park (Brenda Fricker in “HOME ALONE 2”), the kindly woman recluse (Ingrid Bergman in “FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER”) or the understanding woman house servant (Ethel Waters in “THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING”). Male chauvinism is dead. Long live female chauvinism.