The “friend zone” myth reinforces that men and women can’t be friends, reeks of entitlement, and impedes the natural development of relationships.
The “friend zone” is stupid, throw rocks at it.
This is my perpetual gut reaction to these two words and their compound variant, whether the concept is coming from someone I know (“She totally friendzoned me!”), floating around in a Twitter cloud (“She put me in the Friendzone, I put her in the Endzone”), or at the crux of a “self-help” resource.
Go ahead, Google “how to stay out of the friend zone” and peruse a few of the 63 million results. TheArtofCharm.com advises men to “escalate the situation” by showing sexual interest, but also to “don’t always be available”—in other words, to play games. Glamour magazine, in an article written for both sexes, cautions against “wait[ing] too long,” for fear that the “chemistry or attraction [will devolve] into a comfortable, platonic friendship.” The overwhelming majority of these articles are directed toward men, though if I were male, I’d probably hesitate to take advice from “GetInHerPants.com” and SoSuave.com’s “Don Juan Discussion Forum.”
Our cultural understanding of the “friend zone” is unfair punishment usually administered by Some Unfeeling Bitch. The unfortunate souls who have been cast into this zone must escape at all costs, as though they’re Andy Dufresne crawling through half a mile of shit to break out of Shawshank. But there is something that must be said, and it’s not what the compilers of these 63 million webpages and their ardent followers want to hear.
The “friend zone” is not real.
Just to be clear, I am not talking about the shady behavior that can and does happen when one friend uses another, for whatever reasons. Lying to get into someone’s pants and swiftly pulling a, “What? You thought I was interested?” or deliberately stringing someone along for free drinks/transportation/season tickets is cruel and manipulative, and certainly not the hallmark of a true friend.
What I’m talking about is the special kind of bullshit that masquerades as sympathy for the “Nice Guy” who expects sexual or romantic favors just for doing things like hanging out, listening, not getting inappropriately handsy—all of the things that people who care about one another are supposed to do anyway. Perpetuating the myth of the “friend zone”—a myth many of us accept without question—is harmful to everyone involved in respectful opposite-sex relationships.
1. It reeks of entitlement and blame.
Most of the responders to the “friend zone” questions I posed on Facebook were men, and most of these men cited entitlement as the heart of the issue. “The friendzone is all about being disappointed that someone is (only) a friend, and disappointment in having (only) a friend is understandable, but also entitled,” a former college classmate noted. “Friends are great! Having them isn’t substandard.” Unrequited love stings like hell, and we have every right to feel hurt. But if we truly value someone’s company, we should want to connect with them regardless of how, not send them packing for being unable to magically generate romantic feelings out of thin air.
The very nature of entitlement is that it ignores another person’s autonomous desires and replaces them with our own. Despite what these Web articles insist, there is no clear-cut formula for “forcing” attraction—it just happens—and so when we bemoan the failure of such formulas if the date or sex doesn’t happen, we disregard the other person’s feelings and subsequent choices. Would you want to be friends with, let alone date, someone who doesn’t acknowledge your humanity?
2. It reinforces the idea that men and women can’t be friends.
A few years ago, I became extremely close with a friend who, according to the rest of our group, had a crush on me. I didn’t initially reciprocate his feelings, but began to warm up to the idea after spending countless hours comfortably alone with him. As our relationship grew deeper and more physically affectionate, he pushed for sex. I pushed for a relationship.
Once I discovered that he and I weren’t on the same page, my primary concern was preserving our friendship and going back to the way things were before. The result? He plainly stated that he saw no reason to have me in his life unless we were sexually involved. “I told you before,” he said dismissively, “I can’t be ‘just friends’ with a woman.”
David Mariotte explains that when men believe they are entitled to something more than the “friend zone,” “[the woman] receives the blame…even though the real blame should go to a culture that teaches men they cannot be friends with women.” Look no further than Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s infamous conversation in When Harry Met Sally for this, and never mind the fact that men and women are occupying far more spaces together post-1989 than they were in the Victorian Era.
Believing that men and women belong in separate social spheres is a tremendous insult to both genders. If you firmly feel that members of the opposite sex can’t be platonic friends, you should probably check your respect issues. Period.
3. It impedes the natural development of relationships.
So much of “how to escape the friend zone” advice urges its audience to act immediately, as if the potential of every relationship is fully realized within the first five minutes of meeting someone. The Glamour article is an exercise in ultimatums: “If you like someone, give them the option of dating you, or don’t spend any time with them at all.”
Relationships aren’t transactions. They are complex and constantly evolving. I’ve developed unexpected feelings over time for people I initially had no romantic interest in, and kicked myself later for not giving genuinely well-meaning guys a chance. And though I believe that these instances are the exception and not the rule, they do happen. It’s up to us to let them happen (or not happen) without pressure or games, and if both parties communicate respect, the friendship can very well survive whatever twists and turns have come to pass.
As long as the recipients of our unrequited feelings still care about us and want us around for healthy reasons, the “friend zone” is hardly Buffalo Bill’s pit in Silence of the Lambs or the sad little Monopoly jail in the corner of the board. No one I know, least of all myself, would want to turn down additional compassion and support from someone who offers it.
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications living in central Maryland. She writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, education, and the media. Find her on Twitter.