Why Can’t We be Friends?

Update 7/9/13: The reason I couldn’t find anything about boyfriends on their website is because it’s not there.  I should have waited for the transcript to post since I misheard the transition from description of Zwirlz to description of another game Jen Shanley was offended by.  Zwirlz commits no offensive boyfriend errors and does not deserve criticism as if they do.  Apologies for being a source of error and thanks to Jen for pointing it out.

Jen Shanley was on MarketPlace today for their summer reading series.  She’s the founder of Zwirlz, a mobile game directed to girls deep in the clutches of the Disney Princess phase of life.  If she thinks empowering girls means reaffirming that they’re girls all the time and conditioning them with stereotypical girly things via a smartphone, fine, whatever, I’m way past feeling threatened by glitter and tulle.  So I went along, blithely doing the dishes while she explained that her brand of perpetrated gender stereotypes helps girls, when she accidentally sent me into a frothy rage.  I can’t find a transcript for the segment and the audio doesn’t appear to be on the site yet so this isn’t an exact quote, but it went something like this: she’s trying to explain to a group of typical i.e. male and geeky game programmers the need for games targeted at girls by proposing, “Buying as many shoes as you can, using your boyfriend’s credit card.”

Uhm, bwuhuh?

It’s not Jen Shanley’s fault, though.  That comment wasn’t any worse than anything else she said, except that it brought in a whole other issue: I hate boyfriends.  I love friends.  I love boys.  Most of my friends are boys.  But “boyfriend” is this horrific, bastardized amalgam of several good things squeezed into a package designed for a sitcom and labelled, “Abuse me, and make it boring.”

Like “art” and “porn,” “boyfriend” is one of those things that’s hard to define but easy to recognize.  Can that guy act put upon and harassed by his main squeeze as a joke?  That’s a boyfriend.  Is he expected to intuitively grok the poorly communicated emotional state of his partner and correctly apply the right mix of emotional support and problem solving, or else be blamed for failing or have his contributions to the relationship downgraded?  That’s a boyfriend.  Is he supposed to expect chastisement for even being interested or curious in sex outside the relationship, while it’s perfectly acceptable for his partner to blather on about other desires?  Yeah, boyfriend.  Boyfriends are basically a stoic pillar of received abuse where it’s okay because, hey, hopefully they’re getting laid.  Being expected to finance frivolous shopping sprees isn’t part of my standard diagnostic routine since I’d thought the idea that heterosexual relationships ran on a cycle of sex/money transference was outdated, but Jen Shanley has pointed out the error of my ways.

There are lots of great things to be had from a boyfriend, or being one.  The problem is, that list of great things has a remarkable overlap with the list of things one can get out of having or being good friends with somebody.  But friendship as a relationship model is constructive and undramatic.  We don’t have the cultural tropes of worrying about whether dedication to a friendship is equal on both parts, about whether it’s time to spit in a cup and become blood brothers, about whether our best friend is inexplicably going to get bored and wander away.  Instead we have tropes about loyalty, intimacy, deep understanding, emotional support and solace, all the same things we expect from a romantic relationship, except the sex.

To be fair, this isn’t quite a valid comparison: we don’t model friendship to ourselves much past kindergarten because we spend so much time modelling filial and romantic relationships, and the ones we do model are often between women and in the context of coping with failures of romantic and filial relationships.  Friendship, especially across the genders but even within them, gets short shrift in our culture.  We “friend” strangers on Facebook, and the only people who really care about the differences between acquaintances and true friends are too busy throwing pedantic hissy fits over the language for anybody to care what they say.  But we know.  Everybody knew the X-Files was over when it started mistaking Mulder and Scully’s intimacy for sexual tension.  What’s “Bros before hos” if not an affirmation of the superiority of friendship over being a boyfriend?*  We don’t talk about it much, as a society and culture, but we know: friendship is where it’s at.

Which brings us back to Jen Shanley with her glitter and girl power.  After listening to her on the radio and looking at her site, it seems like the thing that makes this a particularly girl-centric game, aside from the noxious packaging, is the social element.  Her game can be played with friends (and doesn’t actually involve a shopping spree as far as I can tell).  The suggestion seems to be that a game needs to involve friends in order for it to appeal to girls.  The idea that girls are more socially-oriented than boys, that women focus on and value friendship more than men, isn’t a new one.

But looking at this, and letting my brain wander slightly off topic, I have to wonder whether our tendency to scan intimate, platonic males as gay for each other has just as much to do with our sense that the intimacy we value actually lies in friendship as it does with an uptick in homonormativity.   The logic might go something like “All girls are secretly into girls**, girls form friendships, men who form friendships must be like girls (i.e. gay, too), that pair of male friends are gay together.”  We lack a model for talking about friendship qua friendship, so we apply the models for intimacy we have, and thus is born the queering of the intimate yet platonic.  Yeah, I think that works.

In summary: Stop valuing icky boyfriends, it makes Frodo gay.

*Granted, an affirmation that implies that cross-gendered relationships can’t occur, while being rather dismissive of women in general, but hey, it is a cultural model for friendship

**A false premise, but one a lot of our cultural tropes start with

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2 thoughts on “Why Can’t We be Friends?

  1. Holy mischaracterization, Batman! Wow! You really need to listen to that NPR piece again! That is not at all what I said! I created Zwirlz in response to a game that I detested. THAT game’s premise was to “buy as many shoes as possible, using your boyfriend’s credit card.” That is not what Zwirlz is about at all! I had to convince a team of male developers that there was a need for healthy positive games for girls. And, the aforementioned and horribly titled, “The Girl Game,” helped illustrate that the mobile market was already headed down a terrible path. Zwirlz attempted to do something different.

    Zwirlz is a socially collaborative, girl-power game that in incorporates Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences into a game that mixes social play with physical activity. Not anything like the dress-up, makeup, boyfriend games for girls that unfortunately permeate the market, Zwirlz encourages girls to be “creative, inventive, active and smart.” We talk about things like: the first time being left in charge of a younger sibling, the excitement of a Friday night sleepover after school, and the ability of anyone, no matter their age, to change the world.

    And, Zwirlz is not only for girls. Both boys and girls play it. It was only meant to highlight the need for games that feature female characters. We do tout the phrase, “Play Like a Girl.” But, we have taken it back from those who use it as a term of derision.

    Zwirlz was also created to encourage mobile play that gets kids to utilize technology in a different way. Using the device as a tool for design, customization and scoring, players actually (gasp!) face their friends while playing. They stand up, move around, plan, create, laugh, and have those rare unscheduled momements that have started slipping away, in today’s society of scheduled play dates. While mobile devices become even more a part of children’s play, Zwirlz gives parents the opportunity to say, “take your iPad outside and play with your friends.”

    I encourage you to look at the NPR transcript (which was designed as a specific short review of ‘Pitch Like a Girl’), to see what you missed. I also encourage you to check out Zwirlz on iTunes. It’s nothing like you’ve described. In today’s society of audio clips, snap decisions and angry spluttering, it’s important to remember that while technology is important, reading is fundamental 🙂

    While I agree with your blog post about the weird and inappropriate focus on boyfriends that society introduces to little girls, please don’t tie Zwirlz into it, especially since you are basing it on something that you misheard. So, to answer your title question, I think we can be friends. However blatant and public mischaracterization, may not be the best starting point. But a retraction and a fair review of Zwirlz, would certainly go a long way.

    • You are correct: I didn’t catch the transition from talking about Zwirlz to talking about the other game an misattributed gross boyfriend stuff to you, for which I apologize. I’ve put a note at the top of the post, including a link to the transcript, to correct the error.

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