Some feminists argue that a lot of our modern problems surrounding relationships and connection are traceable to individualism and capitalism. We live in a highly competitive and individually driven world where we aim to maximize our individual comforts and profits, often at the expense of others. Our entire existence revolves around optimizing our own personal pleasure and undermining our role in community. As mentioned in previous modules, modern Western society encourages such behavior. Indeed, it supports utility-based friendships and marginalizes anything other than that. Basically, one typically lives in such a way that “Any consideration of others is judged by the disadvantage, inconvenience, or pain such an action would cause to him. He operates as a social atom” (Vernon, pg. 196). The idea of social atomism essentially places all emphasis on the individual, whereby all social structures revolve around the individual’s interests and actions with little regard for the impact on the whole group or community.
Communitarianism is the opposite model, whereby by individuals make decisions based on their social identities and attachments to their families and friends. Some feminists challenge this model, as well, believing that such attachments can sometimes be oppressive, such as the relationship between a husband and wife or a white majority and the racial minority. Without being aware of it, such attachments can sometimes serve to promote and encourage these unequal relationships. Out of loyalty to the community, people may not always fight against such oppressive experiences:“[I]t risks sidelining those values in the effort to shake off social atomism; valorizing social networks like family, school, church or nation can validate the relationships out of which injustice can grow by taking them as ‘the given’ of life” (p. 198).
In looking for alternatives to these two models of individualism and communitarianism, feminists often herald the model of friendship. Particularly in our urban communities in the West, friendship, unlike the other two models, is based on voluntarism or choice. While still acknowledging that friendship itself is not ideal and comes with many challenges, it does offer the following:
1. It promotes networks of support. People can gravitate toward different communities of friends who support their personal interests or help them to “reinvent themselves without having to deal with the intolerance of crabby families or insular neighbors” (p. 198).
2. These networks encourage some to engage in political activities, uniting in solidarity against various forms of oppression, whether racial, religious, or otherwise.
Feminist philosopher Mary E. Hunt proposes that particularly for women, friendship provides the opportunity to experience “mutuality, equality and reciprocity,” in ways that can become political and liberating (p. 199). Indeed, such friendships make women “relationship experts” and they then pass on this knowledge to the world, impacting every facet of social and political spheres. For Hunt, such “right relationships” will entail the following:
1. Love; feeling connected, not separate
2. Power; empowering one to fight for choice
3. Embodiment; learning to love ourselves, another and our bodies
4. Spirituality; focusing on the quality of life (p. 199).
When friendships become the “ethical norm,” they serve to undermine the paradigm of the social atom, or the highly individualized, utility-based interactions (p. 199). They serve as a more engaging and inspiring model that can help to inspire such relationships in many forums, including the work environment.
The friendships between men are often more problematic. Men are acculturated to be less affectionate towards one another, especially in public, as, historically, such behavior has been viewed as less masculine. Even so, we can see the positive impact of male friendships, especially in terms of support during recovery, as the video clip Circle of Friends [Video, 2:48 mins] explores.
In contemporary society, with gay rights on the rise, public displays of affection and connection between men as friends has become more commonplace. Indeed, popular vernacular, such as “bromance,” to describe the affection that men feel for one another as friendsserves to illustrate this point. As well, we witness the emergence of the “meterosexual” male, “who ‘consumes in all the best gyms, clubs, shops and hairdressers’ because whether gay, straight or bisexual, his image of his own masculinity allows him to do so” (p. 203). Significantly, “his sense of self revolves around circles of friends” (p. 203).
Watch this funny episode of Seinfeld, where Jerry struggles to break it off with his so-called friend. Although humorous, this Seinfeld episode underscores the centrality of friendship to life and the importance of honesty in friendship. Click here [Video, 6:24 mins] to view the video.
Indeed, it is the meterosexual male who is interested in the marriage of friendship, not so much the older model of marriage based on specific gender roles. “The meterosexual male is less interested in blood lines, traditions, family, class, gender, than in choosing who they want to be and who they want to be with” (p. 204). Still, many contemporary men continue to struggle with notions of affection, as they are often more pressured by the patriarchal, capitalist model that promotes a high level of individual drive and competition.
Some believe that gay men help to set the standards for friendship for all of us by being good at it. After all, they often learn to value friendship when the opportunity arises because of the oppression they face in the world from being gay. When they develop friendships, they become “allies against the world” (p. 205). Some philosophers, such as Michel Foucault, believe that gay men and women’s liberation means liberation for everyone. Gay liberation does not just mean more gay rights, or more relationship expressions for heterosexuals, it means a liberation from needing to define one’s sexuality at all. Foucault states: “Society and the institutions which frame it have limited the possibility of relationships (to marriage) because a rich, relational world would be very complex to manage” (p. 207).
It is a mistake to think of this in purely sexual terms. One challenge is how to experience deep, same-sex friendships without always needing to label them as heterosexual or homosexual. It is an opportunity to expand our notion of friendship and create new categories of relating. Vernon shares:
Therein lies the creative iconoclasm of friendship—its contemporary subversiveness. It presents a challenge that is more than just the introduction of another category of partners; the coupledom of the nuclear family could readily embrace more couples. Rather it opens up the far larger matter of how men and women relate to one another (p. 209).
Essentially, philosophers like Foucault argue that there is a “new ethic” that can develop by expanding our limited notions of what friendship entails. Indeed, it is not just homosexual relationships that offer this opportunity to encourage us to rethink friendship. As we considered in the previous module, relationships with those who are of a different race, creed, class, or even age can challenge some of the status quo ideas about friendship and are therefore significant.
With studies showing that the majority of people are now single (Miller, 2014), and with many people choosing to cohabitate over marry, and alternative unions on the rise, a new understanding of contemporary friendship may be emerging. Although our institutions still support an individualized, competitive society, our needs for connection may undermine some of the traditional messages we receive from our society about forging deep and abiding connections.
Vernon, M. (2010). The Meaning of Friendship. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. Chapter 6: Politics of Friendship.