If you’ve ever fallen asleep on a bus and woken up with your head on a stranger’s shoulder, congratulations — you have stumbled into a Sleep Cute.
What is a Sleep Cute, exactly? It’s similar to the “Meet Cute,” that romantic comedy trope that sets up two people in a completely organic but totally unrealistic way. (They’re both walking dogs and the leash gets tangled! She owns an independent bookstore, he’s head of the conglomerate that’s putting her out of business!). Similar, the Sleep Cute is two characters, not yet in a relationship, falling asleep together. Often, it’s one falling asleep on the other.
In fiction, these little moments are powerful methods of characterization, displaying a physical intimacy without sexual energy. In the second episode of The Office, for example, Pam falls asleep on Jim’s shoulder during a meeting. This simple, gentle scene introduced their will-they/won’t-they chemistry and proved foundational to the show’s central love story.
In another tender moment of suggestion and foreshadowing, Harry Potter’s Ron and Hermione experienced their first signs of intimacy after falling asleep together in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. One movie later, they shared their first kiss.
The act isn’t exclusive to lovers. The Sleep Cute can show a guarded person opening up or an angry character learning to forgive. Sleep is a vulnerable state, after all. To share it, we must allow our defenses to crumble at least a bit.
Interestingly, the less romantic the setting, the more powerful the Sleep Cute. In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta sleep side-by-side during the deadly tournament. Contrasting the violence around them (and juxtaposing their supposed status as enemies), the act of sleep carries even more meaning.
Platonic love may also come into play with the Sleep Cute. Consider the scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest and Bubba lean against each other in the middle of a rainy Vietnam battlefield so that neither has to sleep in the mud. Amid the fear and death, two friends use sleep as a method of camaraderie.
Why do we love it when two people fall asleep together, nestled on the crook of a shoulder? More than love, more than tenderness, perhaps we seek true connection. To rest comfortably with another is to bond; to sleep soundly is something even more.