“You’re going to love this show,” my friend told me, as he sat me down in the La-Z-Boy he had somehow snuck into his college dorm and poured me a whiskey. “I saw it and I immediately thought of you.” The show was My Boys, a TBS sitcom that ran from 2006 to 2010, and from the first scene I saw why he had been so excited. The show centered around PJ, a tomboy sportswriter from Chicago, and her “boys,” the group of men she considered her best friends. She had one girlfriend, Stephanie, who wore makeup and was usually played for laughs.
I was immediately intrigued, because it was the first time I could actually recall seeing platonic friendship between straight men and women onscreen. Up until then, I’d mostly just seen those relationships played for sexual tension in rom-coms like When Harry Met Sally, Some Kind of Wonderful, Clueless, and, oddly, Win a Date With Tad Hamilton (where the climax is that sure, they were “friends,” but they were really in love the whole time). The friendship in those movies was always just a stepping-stone — a fine consolation that could, and should, be traded for something bigger and better.
Those rom-coms were not my life. I was proudly “one of the guys” and had been for years — so to finally see a version of my experience on TV was exciting. I watched as PJ drank beer and played poker with her male friends, joking with them and seeming comfortable in her own skin.
But there was the problem: I wasn’t sure about the guy I was watching it with. He laughed too hard when Stephanie complained about the guys’ misogynistic behavior, and praised PJ for defending them. He thought PJ’s smoking cigars was proof she wasn’t “prissy.” She rejected her femininity, and that’s what he loved about her. “She’s just like you,” he told me.
My own guys, from before I went to college, were the kind of friends I’d call in the middle of the night with a crisis; friends who’ve been there for me through breakups, friends I speak to deeply about my anxieties and fears, friends I’ve complained to about my period. The kind of friends that, for most women, other women (or gay men) are supposed to be.
I valued those guys because they proved themselves valuable. But I also valued them because I had learned to devalue women. PJ was just like me, and I was starting to hate it.
I wasn’t the picture of a tomboy as a kid; I just wasn’t afraid of boys. In school, I watched the girls around me shift over the years from viewing boys as a different species to seeing them as sexual targets, when to me, they were just the people who seemed more likely to understand my obsession with Blink-182. They accepted me. They didn’t care how much I weighed, who I did or did not have a crush on, or that I wore my hair in braided pigtails every day because I had no idea how to style my thick curls. They just wanted to watch movies and play Sonic in Jon’s basement.
That’s pretty much all we did, because with best friends, there’s not much more you need to do. Weekends in high school were spent rotating between Jon’s and Alex’s and Matt’s living rooms in the suburbs around New York City, watching movies, playing video games, driving to get ice cream before the grocery store closed, and holding ziti-pizza-eating contests.
Sometimes one or all of them would come to visit me in the city, and we’d stay up until 4 a.m. on my roof, dead sober and talking about whatever was important when we were 16. We got each other concert tickets, went to each other’s school plays, and generally baffled our parents when they couldn’t figure out why none of us were hooking up.
Being the girl who was friends with guys felt like a superpower. My vocabulary didn’t include phrases like “feminism” or “the patriarchy” yet, but I knew I was uncomfortable with the boys=love and girls=friends dichotomy that had been presented to me. I felt like I had cracked something; I knew how to have a relationship that didn’t involve a consideration of gender. I had just found people who were good to me, who liked me and whom I liked back, and who happened to be boys.
Another phrase that wasn’t in my vocabulary yet was “internalized misogyny.” It’s true that I did like video games and Risk and Incubus (sorry), but I was far from the only girl who liked those things. And yet I assumed that other girls weren’t like me, that they’d rather be listening to pop music and dumbing themselves down to get guys’ attention.
Even when I hung out with my girlfriends, I did my best to stand apart. I’d call them stupid if they cared about boys or flattering clothes. I made it clear I was watching Buffy with them ironically. I detested the idea of a “girls night.” And if I flipped through wedding magazines with them, it had to be to laugh at the ugliest dresses.
It’s not that the men in my life judged me if they caught me indulging in anything that carried a whiff of femininity — I judged myself. Even though I rejected the binary that told me men were for love and women were for friendship, I had bought into the one that told me men were better. The men I hung out with were great, so that meant all men were. The things men liked were the smarter, more interesting things to like, and liking them made me smarter and more interesting than other girls. Right?
At Alex’s graduation party, there was a moment where we all sat in a circle playing cards, like the baby versions of PJ and her boys, letting the knowledge that we would all be going to different colleges for different things settle over us. We weren’t scared, though, just excited — and confident in our ability to remain the same in the face of change.
As we played, someone made a joke about my being a girl. Before I could react, Alex corrected the offending party: "Jaya isn’t a girl, she’s just a guy with long hair." At the time, I took it as the highest compliment.
In college, I continued to assume that because I had known good men, all men would be better friends than women. But there, in a way that I hadn’t been before, I became the Girl Doing Guy Things. I attracted the guys who thought it was a riot when I chugged beers and played football, who couldn’t believe that a girl liked Blues Brothers. In their eyes, this made me different. Instead of inspiring them to see girls as whole and human and full of varied interests, it just confirmed their contempt for any girl but me.
Identity is not something most of us can opt out of. We can fight to make the identities we care about most — sexual, racial, geographical — more prominent, but ultimately somebody is going to categorize you, whether you like it or not. I wanted to be seen for more than just my gender, but slowly, my gender had become not just an identity, but a commodity.
Patriarchy is a hell of a drug, and being in the catbird seat of male attention (however it was thrown at me) was intoxicating. If men wanted to be friends with me, I thought, I must be doing something right. But certain things didn’t feel right. These guys didn’t seem to understand that chugging beer and talking about “girl stuff” weren’t mutually exclusive, and that I wasn’t just performing camp masculinity to be their mascot.
I started questioning, quietly. If I liked all these “guy” things, why couldn’t other girls? If these guys hated girls so much, why were they always trying to fuck them? And since I had found other girls who were into all the stuff that I was, who were funny and motivated and totally cool, why wasn’t I reaching out to them?
Still, I refused to believe the women in my life who told me that maybe these college guys were just no good, dismissing them as even more naysayers to the concept of men and women being friends. I got defensive and doubled down.
It didn’t matter if some of my new guy friends were rude and sexist, or if some of them were trying to sleep with me, or even if I was harboring feelings for one or two of them. It became my job to defend the entire concept of platonic friendship. And then I would IM my boys back home and be reminded of just how it could be, and I’d cry to myself. Why isn’t it like this with everyone?
By the time I sat down in that recliner to watch My Boys for the first time, I was hungry for any depiction of platonic male-female friendship — if only for outside validation that it existed, and that I wasn’t crazy.
What I saw were some pretty convincing performances, which made it believable that these guys and this girl had developed deep bonds with each other. But looking at it now, their platonic friendships seem passive on PJ’s end. She is the one who is “like a guy,” rather than the guys being like her. She requires nothing from them, and they love her for it. I saw their friendship, but I also saw an implied threat: Start acting “like a girl,” and these new friendships will disappear.
In attempting to assert my identity as a person, not just a woman, I had replaced my joy at finding people who understood me (regardless of gender) with a quest to find men to be friends with. And at the same time, I was undermining my own femininity. There were things coded as feminine that I liked and wanted to explore that I was denying myself; there were women I met who wanted to go to punk shows and play Risk and talk until 4 a.m. about nothing and everything. But I had created a new binary for myself, where men were for everything and women were for nothing. I was the one letting gender get in the way.
Over the course of My Boys, I started paying more attention to Stephanie, PJ’s sole female friend. She was funny, she was smart, and she had no problem shutting the men down when they were being assholes. She also started dating one of PJ’s friends, and eventually joined their poker table. She wasn’t perfect, but here was a woman with her own interests and career, who hadn’t centered her life around men, and yet was having a fine time being friends with them. I wanted to be seen as a whole person, but what it took me too long to accept was that to do that, I had to stop catering to the men in my life.
When the show finally ended, I was a few years out of college. PJ had fallen in love with one of her guy friends, Stephanie and her boyfriend moved to London for her career, and I went out to dinner with my uncle and some of his friends. I had loosened up by this point, embracing friendships with more women and being more judicious about the men in my life. I had also begun dating Matt, one of my longtime male friends.
I explained to my uncle how nice this was, to have had a longstanding friendship that grew into something more, and to have a partner who wasn’t jealous or wary of my other male friends. “Yeah, but you won’t have those for long,” he told me. “As soon as they get girlfriends, you’re done.”
I smiled and excused myself to go outside, where I called my friend Dan and burst into tears. I made him swear I was his friend, no matter what. He told me to breathe, and assured me he wasn’t going anywhere. And he hasn’t.
Binaries breed insecurity, because there is no clear path when you find yourself outside of them. To this day I’ve had both strangers and new friends assume that my friendships with men are not real. But they are, and they have endured. Some as friends and one, now, as my husband.
The best friendships, with men or women, aren’t static. They don’t rely on you being one thing, staying one way. Good friends don’t require you to be “one of the guys”; they let you be your whole self. And I’m lucky I had my boys to teach me that.