‘When Harry Met Sally’ Is Bad For Ladies

When Harry Met Sally is a commercial film. Its mission is to be entertaining, to ensure as much watching as possible. As a commercial romantic comedy, its entertainment stems from its romance (Harry and Sally ending up happily together) and from its comedy (“baby fish mouth”). The film is romantic, it is comedic, and thus it was a commercial success.

But to When Harry Met Sally’s fans, it is not about commercial success but about the question of whether men and women can be friends. This is the hook of the movie, the foundation for its romance and jokes. Within the first fifteen minutes, Harry makes a statement which the rest of the film debates: “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” Sally argues that she has platonic men friends, but Harry says these friendships are invalid because those men secretly want to have sex with her.  It’s a universal rule, he says. All men want to have sex with all women, regardless of whether or not the man finds the woman attractive. And according to Harry, it doesn’t matter if the woman doesn’t want to have sex with the man, “because the sex thing is already out there, so the friendship is ultimately doomed, and that is the end of the story.”

The film’s hook and its commercial obligation to romance create a tension. Before the question is even asked, we know whether Harry and Sally can be friends; they can’t. They inhabit a rom-com, and so they ultimately have to end up together romantically.

Harry and Sally do, for a good portion of the film, have a strong platonic bond. They are the only friends in the film who talk about subjects other than romance. They joke about dead people’s apartments, talk in silly accents, and do karaoke at Sharper Image. Harry and Sally are as comfortable together as they are with themselves; they are one soul in two bodies. While the idea of “soul mates” is now associated with passionate love, throughout history (in the Bible, in Plato, in Cicero) it has been reserved for exceptional friendships. That Harry and Sally are a split soul is visually emphasized in the split-screen scene where they sit in their separate apartments and watch a scene from Casablanca: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

But their beautiful friendship exists in a rom-com. They must end up together, and when they do the thesis of the film becomes men and women cannot be friends. The film resists this inevitable thesis for as long as possible because that thesis is pretty obviously incorrect. Nora Ephron had male friends. Meg Ryan has male friends. I have male friends!  Male friends are everywhere, they cannot be stopped. Yet this legendary movie that my lady friends and I are obsessed with essentially claims that our lives are impossible. It’s a bit ludicrous. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that Ephron and Rob Reiner originally planned an ending where Harry and Sally remained friends, which they felt was the “true ending”; only later did they bow to the expectations of genre.

When one considers how false the film’s ending is to its creators and audience, it becomes creepy how predetermined that ending is. When Harry Met Sally begins with and is intercut with documentary-style interviews of old couples.  These remind us of what Harry and Sally must finally become, and they also emphasize how little choice Sally has; in most of the talking heads the woman is extremely passive, and in two she never even talks. It makes sense that the fatalism of the film favors Harry and not Sally. He is, after all, the man who reads the last page of a book first. What is important to him is not the details of the meaningful friendship he and Sally build, but whether they will eventually have sex. Against all logic, the film vindicates Harry’s fatalism and his ill-informed position on heterosocial friendship.

This is unsettling. Harry should not “win.” Harry is obnoxious. Harry is rude and aggressive. Harry picks his teeth while he makes the film’s central claim. He’s controlling — his belief about men and women rests on the man’s unwillingness to look past sex, regardless of the woman’s feelings. He’s self-absorbed — rather than participating in a conversational give-and-take with Sally, he speaks in long monologues better suited to stand-up. His logorrhea minimizes the space given to Sally’s character development and takes up any time that could have been used to show us Sally’s other men friends (thereby proving Harry’s point about their absence!).

(Just FYI: I actually love When Harry Met Sally. But, feminism-wise, it’s kind of fucked up.)

There’s more misogyny going on than Sally being proven “wrong” when clearly she’s right, or than Sally being overshadowed by Harry. She is also completely dismissed on a professional level. Though she is a journalist who writes for New York magazine, she is only referred to once as a writer and she never speaks about her articles. Meanwhile, Jess, who writes for the same magazine, constantly mentions his job and talks about his pieces. In fact, it’s a source of great humor (“I’m a writer, I know dialogue, and that was particularly harsh”) and attraction (Marie quoting his line). While Jess is defined by his successful career, Sally is only allowed to be defined by her unsuccessful relationships. Her lack of agency in the film as a whole is mirrored by Harry’s dismissive description of her career choice: “writing about things that happen to other people.”

Perhaps most importantly, Harry is absolutely horrible to Sally. He is the worst. He more or less tells Sally that he only had sex with her because she was so pathetic. Throughout the film he doesn’t listen to Sally and is dismissive of her, and when he goes too far he apologizes but doesn’t actually change. When Sally tries to break this cycle, he aggressively invades her space with “cute” phone messages. Even when Sally directly tells him to stop, that she is not his consolation prize, he won’t leave her alone. In a determination bordering on harassment, Harry tracks Sally down on New Years Eve to express the basic sentiment that his feelings are more legitimate than hers.

And sorry, this is supposed to be a love story?

The climatic New Year’s Eve scene is super problematic. On one hand, hello. It’s romantic. It’s witty. It’s a legendary scene that spawned a clichéd horde of copycats. On the other hand, it is Harry listing Sally’s faults, which are now acceptable only because they are man-approved. It is Sally’s final loss of agency, where her completely justified protestations of “I hate you, Harry. I really hate you,” must actually mean “I love you,” because the man who has caused her so much emotional anguish has impulsively decided that he’s romantically in love with her. (He protests that “it’s not because I’m lonely and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve,” which is a great line I attempt to throw into every conversation, but we see your game, Harry.) This scene, with its excess of romance that doesn’t fit the previous storyline and its dialogue that doesn’t match the emotional meaning, is the scene in which the tension between the film’s two goals is most felt. Intellectual examination of friendship between men and women has to this point played out realistically; here intellectual examination gets too cocky, listens to music while walking in the dark, and gets mugged and stabbed to death by happily-ever-after romance. Though — is it happily ever after? If love meant having to be trapped in a talking head with a man who subtly ridiculed my careful planning of our wedding cake, I would probably end up divorced.

But there’s a reason I love this film, beyond just “Yes sir, that’s my baby! No sir, don’t mean maybe.” I love that the film even tries to debate the possibility of male-female friendship. Though the genre of romantic comedy doesn’t allow the debate its logical end, the rom-com format of a normal dude and lady dealing with their relationship makes it the best genre to give the debate its logical beginning. And though, like Harry, we have read the last page of the book, all the other pages are thoughtful and realistic. While the New Year’s Eve scene isn’t emotionally or logically true, it is beautiful. Even the most strident feminist would explode into a billion hearts if told, “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” This is arguably the greatest rom-com of all time, written by arguably the greatest rom-com screenwriter of all time. Its necessarily romantic ending guarantees a massive audience for its thematic question. By simply posing that question, When Harry Met Sally allows the viewer to have the debate in her own life, where the answer is not predetermined.

Blythe Roberson is a Harvard student, but she doesn’t know Megan Amram personally. She is a producer and writer for On Harvard Time.

‘When Harry Met Sally’ Is Bad For Ladies