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A Decade Later, How Much Did ‘No Strings Attached’ and ‘Friends with Benefits’ Get Right About Hookup Culture?

This MEL roundtable attempts to separate fact from fiction about how the idea of friends with benefits played out in reel life versus real life, and how much the culture has changed in the last 10 years

Every once in a cinematic blue moon, two movies are released at the same time with essentially the same plot. We’ve had two Robin Hoods, Deep Impact and Armageddon, and A Bugs Life and Antz, to name a few. As rare as the doppelganger blockbuster release may be, twinning romantic comedy releases appear to be even more scarce — likely because plotlines motivated by love and relationships are usually more unique than those around blowing up a killer asteroid. But in 2011, we were given two romcoms — No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits — and they have remained spiritually linked ever since. 

Romcoms, while not always deep artistic masterpieces, are often uniquely able to capture the romantic zeitgeist of a particular moment in time. And at the end of the aughts, it seems, legacy media was very worried that young people were too blasé about their hookups. 

Skip ahead on your DVD 10 years. Today, we’re still trying to unpack a lot of the same themes these two movies sought to explore around relationships, sex and casual affairs. And so, by taking a look back at Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached, we can try to discern if either film effectively captured the shape of “hookup culture” at the time and how much has really changed in the past decade around how we think about casual sex.

First, though, here’s a quick refresher on the twinning movies in question: No Strings Attached starred Ashton Kutcher as a struggling TV producer and Natalie Portman as a doctor. They met when they were kids and reunite as adults, which leads to casual sex. And then more sex, and more, until it becomes an in issue in their friendship.

Friends With Benefits followed soon thereafter. It starred Justin Timberlake as a GQ art director and Mila Kunis as a headhunter who places him in his new gig, which leads to a friendship, which leads to casual sex, then more sex, until it, too, becomes an issue.

To better understand how accurately these two films spoke to their moment in time — and how they impacted our own personal relationships and lives at the time — I convened a roundtable of romcom-watching millennials who lived through the era to discuss. Here’s what they had to say…

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First things first, which is your favorite, Friends With Benefits or No Strings Attached?

Danielle, 35, tech babe by day, artist/writer by night: No Strings Attached.

Muhammed, 23, Nigerian multimedia journalist/art connoisseur: Friends With Benefits, because it’s more up-tempo.

Stephanie, 35, lawyer: Friends With Benefits.

Kovie Biakolo, 30, writer/journalist: First things first, No Strings Attached isn’t just my favorite, I will eventually write a longform essay as to why it is objectively better by the standards of “good vibes romcom film.”

Alicia Thompson, 37, writer: I feel like No Strings Attached is the better movie — yet, if I had to put one of the movies on tonight, I’d probably choose Friends With Benefits because I have more fun watching it. 

Ella Cerón, 31, editor: They are too different to compare. No Strings Attached is a subtle dry comedy, and Friends With Benefits is very much what you see is what you get. Also, I feel like it’s interesting that NSA uses L.A. as a character the same way FWB uses New York, (even if it’s completely unrealistic that someone working in Rock Center would do lunch at Cafe Habana in SoHo.) 

What do you remember of the hype/anticipation of these two movies? And what do you remember about the fact they were made/released at roughly the same time?

Biakolo: By the time I saw Friends with Benefits, I was directly comparing it to No Strings Attached and I just didn’t think it measured up. 

Danielle: I remember everyone mixing them up, so no one ever said the names. “I like the one with Ashton,” or “I like the one with Justin” is how you kept up. And everyone kept mixing up the plotlines. 

Cerón: I do remember them coming out around the same time and thinking it was weird that they had such similar premises. I knew very little about studio competition at the time, and I was pretty surprised that producers wouldn’t talk to each other to make sure they didn’t have competing ideas. Now I know that’s not how that works.

Thompson: I just remember being flabbergasted and delighted by the idea that two such similar movies existed in such parallel development. Kind of an Armageddon/Deep Impact situation. It’s like a movie double rainbow. I also think it’s funny that Justin Timberlake is in one of the movies… and it’s not No Strings Attached. And Mila and Ashton later married, after (I believe the story goes) starting out as friends with benefits.

Muhammed: I didn’t even know about these movies until 2015, thereabouts. So there was no hype for me. 

Steph: I just remember them being very similar movies coming out at the same time and the discussion being about which one’s better. I feel they’re similar enough that even if they weren’t released at the same time, people would mesh them together in their heads anyways. And so, more people might actually remember them both because they came out at the same time. 

Both films take place at the end of the aughts. How much do they remind you of that time in your life?

Danielle: The late aughts were a great time for me. But movie-wise, this was a horrible time for women’s fashion — so many of the outfits in the film are like, “What the hell is this?” I always wanted to live in New York, though, so Friends with Benefits had me ready to live this fabulous city life. 

Thompson: Honestly, these movies don’t bring me back to that time of my life at all. I think it’s because I don’t have a clear memory of the first time I saw them. If anything, they remind me a lot of the early pandemic days, because I got briefly obsessed with watching both of them back-to-back and making friends watch the movies with me and compare them to each other. 

Biakolo: I was in my final year of school at the time. I don’t know if that “friends with benefits” dating and sex culture was becoming more prevalent or if I was at the age where I was becoming more aware of it. It seemed both related to but also separate from “hookup culture.” They don’t really remind me of that time of my life personally, but they do sort of speak to my observation of how people in my generation were handling dating and sex in some ways. 

Did you ever have a friend with benefits? If so, how’d it go compared to the movie version?

Muhammed: I’ve had quite a lot. Often, what happens is that they either find someone they want a relationship with, or they fall in love and I have to end it. In some cases, too, I’ve found myself dreamily thinking of a FWB as a romantic relationship, but the truth soon pops in your face.

Thompson: I’ve never had a friend with benefits! I’ve been with the same person since I was 17, so it just never came up.

Danielle: Oh sure, who hasn’t? Being friends with benefits always works until it doesn’t — because, like the movies, someone doesn’t communicate their feelings. I found more success with it as I got older and could communicate better. People expect me to fall in love because I’m a woman and I guess that’s what the movies teach us, but with the right person I can definitely have a mutually beneficial casual relationship. 

Unlike the movies, I’ve found people aren’t very good at the friends part. Sometimes people assume if you want a casual relationship that you don’t have to communicate. You’ll ask someone for the bare minimum of friendship — decency, communication, honesty and respect — and they’ll find a way to give you none of that. It’s not always like that, but sometimes it is and those situations can be a headache. 

Steph: I’ve never had it discussed, like, “We are friends with benefits.” I’ve had friends that I slept with more than once and only stayed friends with, and it never turned into more. Actually, in law school, there was my best dude friend, and we both were dating people from undergrad. Our relationships ended roughly at the same time. In the beginning, we were both very much like, “Neither of us is in any emotional space for feelings right now.” It was discussed just like, “We should probably start sleeping together, even though we’re both emotional wrecks and still completely in love with these other people.” But then it got messy for a variety of other reasons. We were too close and spent too much time together, and it was like we were dating.

What was your take on the whole cultural phenomenon of friends with benefits more largely? 

Danielle: I was a few years out of undergrad at that point, so the lines were being drawn — you were either in a long-term relationship about to get married or you were going to work hungover. There was no in-between. I think it was reflective of what people were doing or trying to do at the time — get their needs met without all the drama, while falling into a few tropes of how women or men behave in those situations. 

Thompson: Friends with benefits felt like something other people were doing, but not necessarily most people I knew. Again, I’d dated the same person since high school and we’d gotten married and had a kid by the time this movie came out; so while I was of a similar age to the main characters, their dating experiences didn’t necessarily track with mine. I knew that there was a general cultural idea of “friends with benefits,” I just didn’t necessarily know anyone in real life who was in that kind of relationship.

Muhammed: The film was real to me and to my friends. I wouldn’t say that I was looking for FWBs, but I wasn’t opposed to the idea of it. I even idealized it at some point. I’ve been inspired by a lot of cultures, and I cannot say if it had a direct influence or not, but there was definitely some influence from the FWB movie.

Biakolo: Some of my friends were definitely in the friends with benefits crew. Honestly, I was not. I was an international student trying to get a job or go to graduate school. I didn’t really have boys on the brain. From what I observed about hookup culture, a lot of people seemed to want to satisfy emotional desires from it in a way that I didn’t think was possible. The people who probably enjoyed it most were those who had strictly physical desires being met. To me, hookup culture/friends with benefits is something that probably makes more sense as you develop a stronger sense of self, which isn’t necessarily attainable for everyone in their early twenties. 

I think it made a lot of people feel insecure because they substituted what they wanted (real committed relationships) for what they could get on the day (a continuous fuck buddy). Again, the people who benefited the most were those who weren’t substituting anything. They just wanted regular sex, maybe with a friend or someone who would become a sex friend and call it a day. Of course, emotions don’t always work out like that. As you get older — and after you’ve been in some adult relationships — you’re probably in a better frame of mind to honor what you really want and whether such situationships are right for you or not.

Steph: The notion of friends with benefits as a thing that’s discussed between two people is overblown, and more a Hollywood version of it. I think a lot of people fall into friends-with-benefits situations but don’t call it that. That’s probably more common than some version of, “These are the rules. No feelings involved.”

Cerón: I think the movies are less about this idea of casual sex, and more about using it as a conduit for a very traditional rom-com trope: It’s the fake dating scenario (though I guess kinda, sorta without the dating?). You, the viewer, know that these characters will end up together, but the characters don’t and the fun is to watch them figure it out. Whether it’s “just sex” or not isn’t really for anyone but the people engaging in the act to decide. But the films intentionally blur these lines to get to their final conclusion.

It’s also interesting that they both revolve around a broader idea that every interaction we have with people in our lives is a relationship in one way or another — it’s just whether we decide to call one or more of these capital-R Relationships, and to what extent. Both couples are CLEARLY growing emotionally closer as the films go on, and outsiders would very easily (and understandably) think they’re dating. It’s no fun to root for them otherwise!

Looking back at these romcoms, as well as the decade itself, what do you think now about the aughts? Where was the culture compared to where it is today in terms of intimacy?

Danielle: I’d say the aughts were about rebellion. I mean, we were wearing jeans to show our thongs for no reason. It was the era of shock and sex appeal, and these two movies are a nod to that rebellion: Who needs love? We can just hook up! Now, our culture of intimacy is shifting in all kinds of ways. People are exploring non-monogamy, foregoing marriage altogether or finding all types of new ways to be intimate that weren’t highlighted before. The early aughts were trying to push the envelope within the same heteronormative box, and now we’ve completely blown up the box. 

Thompson: Even since 2011, our culture is a little more sex-positive and starting to expand its idea of what a relationship can be (polyamory, for example). Online dating is also now an almost inevitable part of the dating landscape, and there are a lot more options for meeting people that way than there used to be. 

Biakolo: It’s hard to say where we are in terms of intimacy. I’m not the same person I was. I have a way more laissez-faire attitude to what people are doing, and I tend to mind the business that pays me as I get older. As a culture though, I think so many people are starved of intimacy — and not just on a romantic level, but on a friendship level, too. There’s a lot of transactional posturing in relationships across the board, and there’s a fear of looking like a “beg” or being vulnerable in terms of how people relate to each other romantically, friendship-wise or even in connecting with perfect strangers. 

Fundamentally, the thing I’ve learned is that you have to first do a self-check on what kind of relationships you want to have — and have the courage and vulnerability to pursue them — and then be committed to that pursuit, whatever it is. Then you have to be aware of boundaries, because you won’t always get what you give, and you might also not want to give as much as you’re getting. Not to mention, there’s a lot of shame and guilt in being honest about the things you desire romantically and sexually. 

But after living in a lot of places, I can tell you this: No matter how strange you think you are, there’s someone who wants what you want and who likes what you like. As a culture, though, I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that. People lie to themselves about what they really want — whether it’s romantic relationships, friends with benefits, sexual desires or even just a desire to connect with people on a friendship level about completely platonic things. And if you lie to yourself, it’s not hard to lie to others. I feel sorry for all of us that we live in a culture of coldness, but unfortunately, being bold and brave is the only way. You’ll probably get your heart broken by lovers and friends at some point if you try, but you will if you don’t try, too. So what do you have to lose?

Steph: There are always multiple conversations about intimacy happening in that there’s always that “no one’s intimate enough anymore” sort of narrative. Right now, it’s like, “Gen Z is not having sex.” But they’re having sex. If anything, they just seem a little younger. I don’t know if naive is the right word. Because with social media and their entire lives being on social media, I don’t know that naive… I guess maybe it’s just distance. They seem like they interact less in person. I feel like now there’s so much stuff you can do at home by yourself and still be having fun. It just means that there’s a lot less getting drunk in people’s basements with a bunch of kids together.