Ah, the friend zone. That dreaded purgatory, depicted as the living nightmare of any romcom’s male protagonist.
Sure, the concept has been expanded to include women, who themselves can be ‘friend zoned’, but popular imagination has usually relegated the term to well-meaning guys, desperately vying for the attention of their attractive crush who will usually be dating the handsome jerk instead. It’s blockbuster formula 101. By the end of the film, the endearing nerd will have “won” the love of the beautiful female lead, who will finally realise she had been wasting her time all along, and the audience cheers as these two soulmates gleefully spend the rest of their lives together.
It may seem so innocent and harmless, but the ‘friend zone’ is a quintessentially ugly, toxic concept that has no place in our society. Behind the entire notion stands a history of self-loathing, reactionary traditionalism and misogyny which, as subtle as it is, manages to rear its head whenever the word comes up. It may be the driving force of romantic dramas and hilarious memes, but it may be time we ditch the concept for good.
Here are five reasons why:
1. It devalues the importance of friendship
Friendship is one of the most beautiful things we have, mostly because it epitomises the human values of altruistic affection and unconditional love. The world can be a frightening, terrible place, and the platonic bonds we form can be the things that help us get through the worst of our trials. C. S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves, eloquently summarised that friendship “has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gives value to survival.”
Depicting the ‘friend zone’ as some kind of horrendous affliction cruelly imposed onto a scorned lover ultimately delegitimises friendship, turning it into something secondary or “inferior” to being in a relationship. While it can obviously hurt to have your romantic advances declined, if such rejection makes you want to cut someone entirely out of your life, then clearly they deserve better friends (and you probably wouldn’t have worked out as a couple anyway).
2. Romantic rejection doesn’t equate into becoming someone’s friend
“Let’s be friends” is one of the most hollow phrases commonly used, largely because in most cases, rejecting a romantic advance does not equate to becoming friends. Perhaps the ‘acquaintance zone’ or the ‘stay-away-from-me-I’m-blocking-you-on-social-media zone’ would be more apt terms to describe the majority of these situations.
Of course there are cases when one close friend has an unrequited crush on another, and their relationship survives, or where true platonic bonds flourish out of failed romances, but the reality is that for most people the only kind of remaining relationship will be one of awkwardness and silent resentment. Once again, the implication that romantic rejection automatically leads to friendship devalues these kinds of bonds. Friendship shouldn’t be some kind of ‘compromise’ or ‘settlement’.
Let’s be honest, in many cases a non-reciprocated attraction is borne from the fact that two individuals don’t work well together, in any way. Sugar-coating the blow by saying “let’s be friends” both feeds into society’s delegitimisation of friendship and the assumption that affection is owed. A polite, but firm, “sorry, I’m not interested” will do the job.
3. Romantic love can blossom from friendship
Popular culture has perpetuated the myth that the friend zone is a kind of purgatorial limbo, mostly because it’s assumed that friendship is an eternal state and that no one would ever want to go out with their friend. Countless dating recommendation sites and lifestyle columns spout out a list of ‘warning signs’ (such as them calling you ‘bro/sis’ or ‘bestie’) that are to be looked out for as massive red flags.
Once they’ve hit you with the ‘best friend’ card, it’s all over. The reality, though, is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Countless romances have emerged from, often long-lasting, friendships, and there is no magical rule that says that friends can never become lovers. If anything, being in a relationship with someone you know and trust is often more comforting than pronouncing yourself boyfriend/girlfriend after four dinners and a few weeks of hanging out.
4. No one is owed romantic affection
Here’s the real kicker: the friend zone somehow implies that romantic affection is something you earn and are subsequently owed. Be kind and caring enough, and you’ll deserve that golden card to sex, love and all forms of affection. Without realising it, the ‘friend zone’ concept subtly contributes to elements of rape culture, by negating the validity of an individual’s right to their sexual preferences. We all know it – if romcoms didn’t end with the lovable nerd getting the girl of his dreams, the woman in question would be branded ‘heartless’ and ‘cold’.
But has anyone seen it from her perspective? What if she genuinely liked him as a friend, but felt no form of physical attraction for him? What if she found his continuous advances borderline creepy and hoped to get him out of her life? What if she simply had no interest in a relationship at all? Why should she, in any shape or form, feel the need to justify her romantic interests and possibly find herself at the end of a torrent of criticism for the fact that she does not want to go out with somebody?
If we truly want to live in a society which respects consent, then we should never stigmatise someone for being uninterested in another person.
5. It plays into the ‘nice guy’ syndrome
Closely related to the point above, the friend zone has come to embody the ‘nice guy’ syndrome, one of the most insidious constructs of the last decades. These two concepts go hand-in-hand, and the friend zone has ultimately validated the ‘nice guy’ archetype which is in itself deeply toxic.
First of all, it perpetuates the notion that women are inherently attracted to obnoxious casanovas, and that more sensitive men are less intrinsically desirable. It’s another example of the exploitation of nerd culture, which has been taken advantage of by online misogynists and pick-up artists to pit introverted men against women, who are scapegoated as the source of all of their misfortunes.
The reality is that most of the bullying and harassment of male ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’ has historically come from other guys, and this is a far greater source of their low self-esteem than the romantic rejection they may face from women. But most of all, the ‘nice guy’ syndrome feeds into the idea that showering your unrequited crush with favours automatically gives you the ‘nice guy’ card, when several of these men are often little better than the ‘jerks’ they will readily criticise.
Being kind and generous to someone just for the sake of receiving romantic affection isn’t being ‘good’. Rejection doesn’t turn you into a nice guy martyr stuck in an imaginary friend zone; rather, complaining about it on these grounds makes you an entitled person who can’t accept that someone wasn’t interested in you. The ‘nice guy’ syndrome and its best pal, the friend zone, ultimately justifies the use of insincere, conditional affection to attract women by victimising those men who practice it.
So I’m sorry, romcoms and dating apps, but it’s time we throw this whole ‘friend zone’ concept into the bin where it deserves to stay. It’s a demeaning, outdated and frankly often misogynistic idea which doesn’t belong in 2018.
Let’s just come to accept that attraction is individual, that people aren’t always meant to be together, and that friendship and romance are two different but equally beautiful forms of love, which shouldn’t be pitted against each other.