News & Politics

"Friends With Benefits": The New Casual Sex?

The millennial's romantic comedy has shifted to a structured kind of free love, reflecting our generation's changing feelings about sex.

The romantic comedy's rigid formula celebrates the burgeoning relationship between two straight, white, financially comfortable, bumbling, star-crossed lovers, who after numerous unavoidable disasters, finally achieve their love-like nirvana.  Wikipedia generously defines the genre as “films with light-hearted, humorous plotlines, centered on romantic ideals such as that true love is able to surmount obstacles.”

So what is it about the romcom that draws in so many of us who do not identify with being white, skinny, straight or upper class? It rises from the dichotomy between acknowledging that idealistic love is in reality unattainable, and the masochistic longing for that “one true love” despite it all. Yet in 2011, the millennial's vision of the romantic comedy has shifted to a structured kind of free love, reflecting our generation's changing feelings about sex and flip attitude toward romanticism.

Generally, the overall framework remains unchanged—the romcom continues to reincarnate, with slight revisions that allow us to relate to its promise. New iterations reflect the progressiveness of time, but ultimately reinforce antiquated ideals of monogamous, heterosexual love. In the 1980s, there were a rash of films about (not so) liberated women “married” to their jobs—who, even with success, would be nowhere without the love of a man. (See Baby Boom and Working Girl.) The 1980s was the first full decade after a mostly white and middle-class feminist movement that focused on achieving equity for other mostly white, middle-class women in the workforce. The romantic comedies of the period reflected the realities of becoming working women, but reinforced the age-old necessity for a man’s love to provide true happiness. Progress—but only to a certain point.

Then, the 1990s presented us with a slew (why so many?) of films starring Jack Nicholson, about the possibility of geriatric love—As Good As It Gets and Something’s Gotta Give. Those films catered to graying baby boomers who suffered from high divorce rates (an overwhelming number of which were filed by women) but who were being encouraged to still hope that they could find their “one true love,” even as they entered their golden years. More progress—but only to a certain point.

Which brings us to the romantic comedy theme for those of us born between the mid-1970s and the 1990s—the “millennial generation." In a recent article in Salon, Andrew O’Hehir identifies the concept of friends having casual sex -- "friends with benefits" -- as the new “mini-genre” of romantic comedy. In the last year, four films were released on the subject: Love and Other Drugs, starring Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal; Going the Distance, with Drew Barrymore and Justin Long; No Strings Attached, with Natalie Portman alongside Ashton Kutcher; and finally, the newest member of the casual sex between friends club, which is aptly named Friends With Benefits. Each film centers around two attractive and well-to-do white friends who, for one reason or another, don’t want to commit to a relationship. O’Hehir says of the mini-genre: “I’m not sure this great leap forward into sexual postmodernism is enough to save the romantic comedy, at least as long as it remains tied to an inflexible three-act formula with nebulous happy-ever-after ending.”

But I think it is precisely the very inflexibility of the three-act formula that we are all stuck in. The millennial generation, as the generations before us, oscillates between drifting away from the fairy tale narrative and apotheosizing it. And that is what these movies are – a balancing act between the real and the fantasy. Unfortunately, like us, they are stuck, like gerbils in a romcom cage going up and then coming back down. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t made efforts to alter the romcom formula—and our acceptance of sexual structure—once and for all.

The re-imagining of the "relationship” played out in heterosexist films such as No Strings Attached owes itself to those that are less represented as heroes of love on the silver screen. The millennial generation has come of age during a period of significant growth for a group of people whose rights—let alone an acknowledgment of their existence—were null just 50 years ago. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people have made inroads in popular culture at a significant and rapid pace. There were expressions of different types of love in To Wong Foo With Love Julie Numar and The Crying Game—two iconic films of our generation.

Also in popular culture, we witnessed Rosie O’Donnell, as she went from gushing unpersuasively about her obsession with actor Tom Cruise, to coming out as a lesbian during her tenure as a morning major network talk show host. A more sobering episode was when Ellen DeGeneres tearfully berated John McCain for his anti-gay marriage stance on her wildly popular talk show. Growing up witnessing the movement of LGBT people from the fringes into the center, witnessing the expansion of sexuality as we know it, is what allows the friends-with-benefits genre to exist.

It is not only the presence of LGBT people in popular culture that has its effect on the friends-with-benefits genre, but also the form these relationships have taken. An article in the New York Times in January 2010 reported on a study that followed “556 male couples for three years— about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.” Because “gay” as a sexual designation was unacknowledged for so long, LGBT people have fought hard to subvert the trappings of hetero-normative relationships, and have instead begun to restructure “the relationship” away from the antiquated idea of monogamy and into newer, more malleable terms. And those terms, though unnoticed in the genre, do inform it. (See: Dan Savage's whole existence.)

Then there is the Internet. The millennial generation is the first to grow up using the Internet as a tool to explore sexuality. Where once upon a time finding a person who wanted “casual” sex was complicated, it can now be accomplished by a simple click of a button. We live in an age where you can peruse or choose to be electronically matched with a person who unabashedly and explicitly shouts “OK!” from cupid clouds that he or she is fine with, if not interested in, well, friends with benefits.

The millennials are a generation caught between the re-articulation of who and how people choose to live “happily ever after,” and the quixotic, antiquated bombardment of pop culture phenomena like romcoms. It's where pretty white girl must have handsome white boy to ensure supreme happiness.

While there is much movement toward a changing articulation of “the relationship,” the popular culture gods maintain a firm grip on their premise – that if we look a certain way, ascribe to a certain sexuality, and have enough money where we don’t have to think about money, then we will be able to reach a state of love-like nirvana. And there are those of us—think MTV’s Teen Moms—who aspire to achieve a slice of that nirvana, despite mitigating factors. Despite knowing it’s a hoax, all of us, in some fashion, have aspired for that intoxicating, arresting, unavoidable love. But if we continue to acknowledge the work being done to promote a judgment-free, non-conformist approach to sexuality, perhaps we can finally begin to see the benefits of our friends take form in the romcom structure. Maybe we’ll even get to see those benefits with our friends... biblically speaking.

Collier Meyerson lives in New York City and writes the blog carefreewhitegirl.com. Follow her on Twitter at @youngcollier.