Human relationships exist in a wonderful spectrum of variety that is almost impossible to completely categorize. We keep finding new and interesting ways to bond ourselves to one another, further proving the point J.M. Straczynski raised in Babylon 5: humans form communities. So why is that diversity still rare onscreen?
The standard in most mainstream and genre fiction is to see people paired in binary relationships, usually hetero-normative and romantic. This is presented as the default state of relationships, the thing everyone is supposed to be searching for. Consider the Pair The Spares trope, which has movies ending with everyone paired off with someone else. 10 Things I Hate About You is a good example of this. (Hey, don’t look at me like that. It’s based on The Taming Of The Shrew and is a readily available example of what I’m talking about.)
Not all relationships follow this mold. A recent example is found in Pacific Rim. While it’s still a binary, the friendship between Mako Mori and Raleigh Becket is a good example of a non-romantic relationship between a man and a woman, but also one that maintains a sexual undertone. Even better, it’s obviously the female that has the sexual feelings, as Raleigh never actually expresses sexual interest in Mako. He pushes and mentors her, but he never tries to sleep with her.
If there is a lesson to learn from recent Pride celebrations, it is that more than het-norm binary relationships exist. Some people, both men and women, have no one partner but plenty of friends they partner with. Not everyone practices strict monogamy, and not everyone is just playing the field until it’s time to settle down. People exist in open relationships, triads, and any number of other arrangements of gender and sex without drama and jealousy. Yet it is exceedingly rare to see this reflected in mainstream fiction.
A good example of an open relationship in fiction is found in Violette Malan’s Dhulyn and Parno books (which I really hope she gets to continue someday). The main couple in that series, the aforementioned Dhulyn and Parno, are partners in every sense of the word while in an open sexual relationship. Their bond is deeper than romance and deeper than simple friendship. They would die for each other and then avenge the other’s death without hesitation, but they really don’t care if the other has some sexytime fun with someone else. Another aspect of Dhulyn and Parno’s relationship is that Dhulyn, the female partner, is very much the more physical and earthy of the two; while Parno is more educated and sensitive/sophisticated. In a sense, the characters have switched gender roles as to defy the gender stereotype.
The problem is that the Dhulyn and Parno books aren’t exactly tearing up the NYT Bestsellers list. Don’t get me wrong, I wish they were as Violette is a wonderful author and a friend of mine, but when the best example of diversity in relationships isn’t known to a wide audience, we have to acknowledge there’s a problem.
Diversity is more than getting gay people and people of colour onscreen. We need that, but we also need to demonstrate the various ways people combine and co-mingle, rather than banging the drum that we all need one special person to be complete.