I Hate the "Friend Zone"

Friendship isn’t second place for losers, it’s the start of a beautiful relationship.

Allan talked earlier this year about how he actually likes the “friend zone,” the alleged purgatory to which men are banished when the women in their lives simply find them interesting and fun to hang out with, rather than wanting to do the horizontal boogie with them. I think Allan and I are on the same page here in terms of being aware of the fact that people of different genders can be friends and it can be enjoyable, rewarding, and fun, but one place where I’m going to have to disagree is on what we call friendships between people of different genders.

Down with the friend zone

Because I hate the term “friend zone” with a flaming passion and I wish we could banish it to the darkest of abysses, from thence never to return. The term is gross, and the ideas embedded in it are really rather gross too, starting from the very assumption embedded in it that everyone must be heterosexual.

Writing on Nerve, Lizzie Plaugic really captured the problem with the concept of the friend zone:

...in popular culture, the term most frequently refers to something that is done to men, by women. That's the problem. "Friend Zone" implies a sort of capricious, unfair act, perpetrated by the vagina-ed set.

People can try to defend the term all they want, but it’s how I most commonly see it used, and that bothers me. It makes it sound like being friends is an act perpetrated on a dude who obviously has a right to have sex with a woman he’s interested in even if she’s not feeling it, and suggests, too, that men are incapable of forming relationships with women without wanting to have sex with them. Women are a problem to be solved, here, a mountain to be conquered rather than, you know. People.

Friendship here is positioned as failure; you lost the race and just ended up being friends. Sucks to be you, dude. There’s a significant devaluation of friendship and the kind of close, intimate connections friends can enjoy when people suggest that the only kind of meaningful relationship people can have is a sexual one. And, of course, there’s an implied assumption that friends never have sex.

The ghosts of friend zones past

I might be biased, though, because I’ve done a fair amount of stumbling around in the friend zone without being aware of it, and that probably colors my perception both of the term and how people talk about it.

When I was in college, I remember inviting a guy from my history class to my house to watch a movie, because we’d started talking about something or other after class one day and I thought he might be interested in the film, since it was thematically related. Like most college students sharing housing, I obviously brought him up to my room to spare him the sight of my terrifying roomies, and the only available seating was my bed, seeing as how I wasn’t renting a palatial suite.

About halfway through the movie, I realized that he wasn’t paying any attention to the movie at all, and seemed very interested in the arrangement of my garments. This utterly puzzled me, until I had the sudden flash of embarrassed realization that he thought I had invited him to my house to do something other than share a mutually enjoyable piece of pop culture together. I liked the boy and thought he was perfectly nice, but I just wanted to be his friend.

“Uh,” I said, trying to salvage the situation. “Not liking the movie?”

Things sort of went downhill from there and culminated in him calling me a bitch and then leaving, refusing to even let me drive him to the BART station so he could catch a train home. And in class after that, he’d make a point of sitting on the other side of the lecture hall and avoiding me at all costs.

The thing was, we did share a lot of mutual interests, and I think we could have been great friends. Except for the whole him calling me a bitch because I didn’t want to sleep with him thing.

Have you tried talking to your friends?

It wasn’t the first or last time I misinterpreted the signals sent within a relationship, and for a long time I thought it was more of an autistic thing than a social thing. Maybe I really just didn’t understand this delicate dance. But, as time went on, I learned that it was actually common among pretty much everyone I knew; many people have recounted similar tales about things they thought were friendships and the other person thought was something else, and those situations ending badly.

Which is why, I guess, people constantly argue about whether men and women can just be friends. Allan says yes, and I agree, but Allan brings up an important point too:

In my experience, it’s better not to be friends with those who keep you lying awake at night. If your instinct is telling you to stand outside their window and play Peter Gabriel to them from an upraised boom box -- cut the cord, then roll it up and burn it. With the wrong person, the “Friend Zone” can quickly become the “Obsessed Stalker Zone” and that is all sorts of bad for everyone involved.

This requires a certain amount of self-awareness, though, as well as an ability to communicate with your friends. Hey, it happens. Attraction develops, and that’s cool; but you’ve got to talk it out instead of treating this as some kind of elaborate game you need to win. And maybe someone really does just want to be friends, in which case you’ve got to ask yourself why you’d be so pissed off about that. After all, presumably you started hanging out with that person because you thought she was interesting and fun to be around, and neither of those things changes when she declares the border crossing closed -- at least for the time being.

Because this is the other thing about the “friend zone,” Plaugic points out. If you treat it as the end of a relationship you definitely don’t stand a chance at schtupping your female friends, but maybe your relationship to each other will change over time. Lots of great long-term sexual and/or romantic partnerships start out as friendships, after all -- friendships where both parties genuinely liked each other and weren’t trying to force the relationship to become something it wasn’t, but were instead willing to let it evolve naturally into whatever it was going to be. You can't go into it with that expectation in mind, but it's certainly a possibility.

It seems like life would be a hell of a lot less awkward for all of us if we could admit that yes, many people experience sexual attraction to other people, and that yes, people can have friendships with members of a gender they generally associate with sexual attraction. Lesbians can be friends with ladies! Men can be friends with women! Gay men can be friends with dudes! Queers can be friends with everyone! Hooray for friends!

Friendship isn’t second place for losers, it’s the start of a beautiful relationship. Why would you want to harsh on that by talking about being friend zoned when some super-cool person you like says she wants to hang out with you and develop a friendship, but she's just not interested in boning you right now?