Typically any mention of “gender” immediately makes people think of girls and women. Overlooked in this dynamic is a recognition that the problems females face in any given society is often either a result of or an interaction with the role that boys and men have in creating those problems. Consequently, to focus on the key cultural institution of masculinity is super important. Five Friends does just that, but it depicts an alternative form of masculinity lived by a small number of American men, who violate many of the key tenets of traditional masculinity—most importantly: don’t share your emotions with other men. The filmmaker himself grapples with how to raise his soon-to-be-born son (who is introduced at the end of the documentary) in a most positive fashion. Along the way, he interviews people who revolve around a single man: Hank. There are also interviews with a progressive male pastor as well as with sociological superstar Michael Kimmel, who both talk about manhood and men’s relationships with each other.
The filmmaker meets Hank through his work, strikes up a friendship, and then discovers that Hank is also friends—close, intimate friends—with another five men (probably at least that number). All five of these friends are introduced one by one. Many of these friends remark that their relationship to Hank is unique and unlike all their other male friendships, which are less intimate, personal, and emotional. The friends have varying types of relationships with Hank, too, which probably helps Hank greatly, as he can find the type of friendship he wants or needs at any given moment.
These friends feel they can be honest with each other, lovingly critique each other, be sympathetic, kind, and supportive. Some of them also say “I love you” to each other, hug, and kiss (on the cheeks, of course), and are forgiving of each other’s misdeeds. These behaviors clearly violate what Kimmel describes as the tendency to separate roles and emotions into feminine and masculine categories. Here, Hank is clearly a [straight] man, while he also embraces a compassionate and nurturing persona. Today, women can now do more masculine things, usually with far less condemnation than in the past, but men have not generally been granted (by society, women, or themselves) the same license to embody “femininity”. Kimmel argues a better future would be one where all people can express a wide range of emotions, adopt wider roles, and have this still be considered “human”—and not just masculine or feminine.
Five Friends describes how childhood sexual assault led Hank to seek more meaningful and stable relationships and friendships later in life, although he wisely states that his friends did not seek his friendship because of common tragedy like his. Thus, great harm need not befall men who seek such relationships. Hank also describes his relationship to his father. Hank sought more from the relationship and his father, which never got. This seems to drive his passion for and interest in establishing deep friendships with other men.
Although the film stands without having to interview or even include women, they and their perspectives on their male counterparts’ lives and relationships are absent. There is some description of the women in the mens’ lives, but it is mostly tangential.
It is notable that Hank’s friends are all solidly upper-middle class. They are professionals for whom emotional disclosure is more common and verbal communication skills are tantamount. Also, except for one, these are racially-homogenous friendships. Then, except for another friendship, they are also age-homogenous, too. While racial segregation surely limits the diversity of one’s friendships, age is a much more artificial limitation. The friendships are largely established through business contacts (Hank is a businessman). This raises the crucial issue of whether most men in society—who are working class, not upper-middle class—can easily establish these same kinds of friendships as these men? Perhaps, but it would take a much greater change in the norms of masculinity. Hank’s relationships amongst mostly upper-middle class white men is not as threatened by emotional disclosure and closeness. The film does not question what the challenges are for working class men, nor what could be pathways toward closer male friendships for them. Also, interestingly, the film does not grapple with themes of feminism, per se. Sure, there is a latent feminist analysis at work, but it is unspoken and appears in indirect ways (mostly through the Kimmel’s words).
While not a simple set of ideas to apply in every instance, Five Friends demonstrates the real possibilities of radically different male friendships. Given all the negative consequences associated with standard masculinity—everything from interpersonal violence, sexual assault, and war, to poor men’s health and suicide—there is a great need for evolving masculinity so that restrictive gender definitions do not continue to maul men, just as restrictive femininity and patriarchy continue to do for women.
Topics: gender, masculinity, social relationships, aging