The film When Harry Met Sally’ is a love story portrayed as taking place over a decade. Initially, both characters find one another generally unlikable and largely incompatible with one another. At the same time, Harry admits to Sally that he finds her physically attractive. But then he shares a personal belief with her that more or less doubles as a theme the film goes on to explore in great detail. His belief is succinctly captured in this quote from the movie: “You realize of course that we could never be friends… men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” This question about the possibility of male-female friendship in the face of male heterosexuality becomes a motif the film explores from the opening scenes through to the finale.
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The theme is first introduced in the couple’s dialogue on a road trip they take together as strangers to New York City after graduating from the University of Chicago. This tension between platonic possibilities between men and women and erotic masculine compulsion is repeatedly introduced throughout the film as the duo’s bond evolves from friendship to confused lovers to committed spouses.
On the surface, the film is a love story. In my view, this popular assessment is fair but superficial. Instead, I posit that the film is better understood as a movie about how a man and a woman, each governed by heteronormativity, cope with both (a) ambivalent feelings about .intimacy and (b) existential fears of loneliness. To help both Harry and Sally deal with these issues, I would employ Salvador Minuchin’s Structural Family Therapy (Minuchin et al. 2013). This approach to treatment focuses on identifying patterns of interaction that cause and embed problems within family and couple relationships (Minuchin et al. 2013, pg. 11).
The goal of treatment is to alter these patterns of interaction not necessarily to change the people engaged in the therapeutic process (Minuchin et al. 2013, pg. 4). In Minuchin’s approach, a key means to effecting change in relationship patterns is the identification “ and ultimately the challenging “ of latent or implicit rules that relationship members follow without necessarily being able to consciously articulate that their behavior is rule conforming.
Importantly, the therapist is encouraged to become a participant observer of familial interactions and relationships, working to become an active member of the treatment process with clients (Minuchin et al. 2013, pg. 5). This immersion by the therapist in the family interactional patterns helps him or her to better understand the system as an insider does. Equally important, it also helps the therapist to nudge the family towards change while also enabling the therapist to strengthen a revised structure and rules at the same time (Minuchin et al. 2013, pg. 11).
Being an utter novice, the treatment approach I’d take would follow steps advocated for by Minuchin himself. As indicated above, a key facet of my approach would be to challenge the couple’s conception of their interpersonal problem. The issue isn’t about tensions between erotic compulsion and platonic possibilities, per se. Rather, I posit that the core issues in the relationship revolved around intimacy ambivalences, loneliness fears, and heteronormative assumptions about adult male-female relationships.
The ambivalence theme is expressed well by Sally in the film when she utters:
You see? That is just like you, Harry. You say things like that, and you make it impossible for me to hate you.
Similarly, Sally expresses the loneliness theme directly during a New Year’s Eve scene at the end of the movie:
I’m sorry, Harry. I know it’s New Year’s Eve. I know you’re feeling lonely, but you just can’t show up here, tell me you love me, and expect that to make everything all right. It doesn’t work this way.
And finally, Harry captures heteronormative assumptions in this dialogue between the couple following one of Sally’s breakups:
Sally: I don’t have to take this crap from you.
Harry: If you’re so over Joe, why aren’t you seeing anyone?
Sally: I see people.
Harry: See people? Have you slept with one person since you broke up with Joe?
Equally important, I would work to unwrap the manner in which the identities of Harry and Sally are cathected to these ambivalence, fears, and assumptions. To accomplish this work, I would work to develop an empathic relationship with each member of the relationship, though I suspect I’d need to ward off countertransference issues related to Harry’s hegemonic sense of masculinity.
The social justice issue I would tackle is hegemonic masculinity (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). He clearly finds it easy, even seemingly natural, to objectify women and to orient towards women as a means to sexual gratification.
This theme is expressed clearly in the following dialogue from the film:
Harry: No man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally: So you are saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry: No, you pretty much want to nail them too.
For much of the film, women to him are conquests not full human beings. In his view, intimacy is a zero-sum game and sex is an aggressive act (you want to nail them). Even if he is able to be a physically pleasing partner to his mate, Harry still considers sex a kind of victory. If he scores, so to speak, the woman loses, structurally speaking. This is exemplified by his compulsive flight response after sex with women, including Sally. As Sally suggests in response to Harry’s description of his post-coitus flight response, You are a human affront to all women and I am a woman.
The logic of the game he’s playing makes no sense once he’s consummated the act; this reflects his limited conception of intimacy and his warped sense of what it means to be a man. Harry’s issues with masculinity, I believe, would need to be tackled directly if Sally and Harry stand a chance of cultivating a healthy, sustainable bond and sexuality in their relationship.
Personally, I had a surprisingly difficult time doing this assignment. This film has a special place in my relationship to my wife. When we were younger, she and I would often spend weekends at her family’s vacation home in Vermont. During the evenings, we would watch movies together. This was back in the day when movies were watched on VCRs. Her family’s movie collection was remarkably limited. So we wound up watching When Harry Met Sally too many times to even count. The film is part of my marital lore. Beth and I have considered the film a kind of romantic comedy. On some level, it is.
However, this assignment forced me to critically engage with complex and unflattering themes in the narrative and in the characters, especially Harry. On this level, the film has been de-romanticized for me. But the experience cuts even deeper as I can see in hindsight that I held many of Harry’s sexist beliefs when I was a younger man, despite the fact that I was raised by a feminist and worked for a battered women’s organization for several years. In this way, the film is a piercing reflection of a previous version of myself that, frankly, makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. This film analysis assignment dredged up some unresolved issues for me.
In the end, however, I still found the film peppered with funny lines, such as the following:
Harry: I had my dream again, where I’m making love and the Olympic judges are watching. I’ve nailed the compulsories so this is it, the finals. I got a nine eight from the Canadian, a perfect ten from the American, and my mother disguised as an East German judge gave me a five six. Must’ve been the dismount.
This line would be an intellectual feast for a Freudian Psychoanalyst, I’m sure.
The film When Harry Met Sally. (2019, Mar 19).
Retrieved January 23, 2022 , from
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