(Content: screwed-up gender dynamics, heterocentric discussion of sexist concepts. Fun content: Klingons and daguerrotypes!)
(Alternate titles included The Ally Territory, The Companion Realm, and Eight Rules For Dating My Non-Age-Specific Fellow Sapient. [Edit: also, Salacious Tortoises would have been a good one.])
This is one of those subjects that makes it hard for me not to just profane for a while. I have been spending time (any amount is too much) on parts of the internet where ‘The Friend Zone’ is treated as an established and accurate concept, and now I just want to reboot the world. On the plus side, it’s also providing me with a fascinating new perspective on the way I view people.
I’ve mentioned before that one of the reasons I love the heroic villain archetype is that they are doing the right thing even while not feeling like it. They protect people they don’t particularly care about and they stand up for ideals that they think are just daydreamy nonsense. This is what I feel like most of the time, because while I’m a long-run optimist (I believe that people will eventually transcend their current widespread and colossal failures) I’m a short-run pessimist (I believe that on the road to that transcendence we will oppress, harm, and in various ways kill uncountable multitudes of people and things) and I have unreasonably high standards for folks. I tend to think of myself as being misanthropic by nature, and continually try to remind myself not to act like it. And yet the internet, in its signature style, teaches me things that were not the things I expected to learn.
And one of those things is that I’m way less misanthropic than some of the chuweros out there subscribing to supposedly mild and mainstream concepts that are actually totally awful. And the Friend Zone will here act as our exhibit A.
The definition is simple: a woman (occasionally a man) is said to have ‘friendzoned’ a man (occasionally a woman) when she spends time with him but rejects the possibility of a romantic relationship, which the man was interested in. Once it happens, there is no escape from its sorcerous boundaries, no matter how the man may entreat for a fresh trial to prove his suitability.
Or, in normal-person talk, ladies only date dudes they want to date, and callously disregard the dudes they don’t want to date who nevertheless want to date them.
I grew up in the age when home video game consoles exploded, and so was bombarded with the insistence that this new form of media would corrupt and ruin the young and completely remove their appreciation of daguerrotypes and that sort of thing. Is this the reckoning that was foretold? Do people now believe that relationships have terrain hazards? If you mistakenly equip the Hylian Shield as you’re heading up the river valley, the octorok will shove you off the ledge and you’ll land in the friend zone and have to start over?
All of the things wrong with this framework require some effort to disassemble and fully appreciate. It presents the idea that forming a relationship is, from the dude’s perspective, the task of continually avoiding ‘getting friendzoned’ until some kind of romantic connection can be made. It’s an inherently adversarial concept like something out of Klingon rituals (“Women roar. Then they hurl heavy objects. [The male] reads love poetry. He ducks a lot.“) and it repeats the same eternal stupid thing about men wanting (especially sex, but often generalised into ‘affection’) and women withholding (see previous). But beyond that, it also implies that a woman can want to friendzone a guy but not be able to until he does something to justify it. It has to presume this, because otherwise it would have to accept reality, which is: if a woman doesn’t want to date a man, then she won’t (voluntarily). There is no complicated process, there are no rules, and there is no rigid categorisation; no one is getting a forehead stamp and sorted into the Non-Dating Cabinet.
Or, in abnormal-person talk: if the friend zone existed, it would be immediate and unstoppable. You can’t dodge it, you can’t ward it off – you don’t get put in it; it simply eminent-domains the ground under your feet.
But some people apparently see a personal benefit to operating on this nonsensical framework (elsewise they wouldn’t be parroting it to each other), and as near as I can tell, it’s about the externalisation. It lets a person reclassify what they did (or have done, or are doing) that made them an unsuitable date and turn it into something that was done to them. And this is a particularly important reclassification to pull off if you are a Nice Guy.
The Internet Nice Guy, of course, is the guy who is sweet and caring and giving but women just won’t date him because they’re only interested in jerks. At least according to his webpage. In reality, it turns out that he’s a self-important self-entitled guy who thinks that not actively burning down orphanages puts him in the top 1% of humanity and just can’t understand why women don’t reward his awesomeness with Naked Fun Times. He’s already spending all of his time hanging out with them and only doing what they want and trying to make them completely dependent on him for their emotional needs – what more is he supposed to do, explicitly say that he is attracted to her? MADNESS. If he did that, he would just get friendzoned! Do you expect him to fall for such an obvious ruse?
At this point, I may sound like I’m constructing strawmen and chastising them for their dealings with strawwomen, but it’s honestly not that difficult to find examples. A friend linked to another blog’s post on friendzone concepts, and lo, but the second comment from the top was a guy explaining that Some Women really do manipulate guys and use the dudes’ “honest mating attentions” for personal profit which they have no intent to compensate the dude for. Check it out. That’s a direct quote: “honest mating attentions”. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.
So: do I have a low opinion of my species as a whole? Often. Am I insufficiently sympathetic to others’ pains? Probably. But am I as much a misanthrope as that guy? No. Because that guy believes that women are heartless selfish manipulators and men are conniving fools who are trying to trade for sex but are being hornswoggled by the evil women’s superior treachery. That is what some quality misanthropy looks like.
Now, as a socially-awkward person myself (and note that when I talk about Nice Guys, I refer to a group I was previously part of) I do like rules, and I think the desire for rules is part of what makes Nice Guy philosophies and frameworks like ‘the friend zone’ so attractive to dudes: it purports to take a complex system and reduce it to a simple series of laws, interactions, and consequences. Never let it be said that I am unwilling to provide good rules to replace bad ones. Here are some actual rules that serve well:
- If a person does not want to date another person, then they won’t. Attempting any strategy that might subvert rule 1 makes you a bad person. (Trying to actually be a person they would want to date is a somewhat more complicated grey area; even if New You can be sustained, it’s still generally a better plan to try with someone else.)
- Person A, if treating Person B like a friend when Person B has only ever acted like a friend, is not doing anything wrong.
- Acting like a friend purely for the purpose of getting something from your supposed friend makes you a bad person. (This was true when it was the jerks in school ingeniously absorbing the kid whose family had a pool, and it remains true now.)
- If a friendship is all one-way, then it’s not a friendship, it’s indentured service. Ditch ‘em.
But there’s a second aspect to this friendzone concept – its inescapability – that needs to be dealt with separately. The premise is, again, that once a person has been identified as a friend rather than as a Potential Naked Fun Times Compatriot, the process can never be reversed, and it is impossible to go from being close friends to romantic partners. Or, more importantly, dudes will claim that women will use their existing friendship as an excuse not to start dating. So, keep in mind:
- If a person says they don’t want to date another person, the most probable answer is that they don’t want to date them, never have, and never will.
- It is possible that a person legitimately believes that, regardless of their possible attraction to you, the potential failure of a romantic relationship is too great to risk the consequences for the friendship.
- Ask yourself if you can, if nothing else, imagine a friendship with [member of whatever gender(s) you're attracted to] that you valued so much, in its platonic form, that you would hesitate or turn them down if they propositioned you. If the answer is ‘no’, then chances are good we’ve just identified why your friend didn’t want to date you from the beginning.*
- No one needs an excuse in order to not date someone. Therefore, if you have had what you believe to be An Excuse deployed on you: it was for the sake of sparing your feelings and the other person simply doesn’t want to explain that, while you’re fun to hang out with, they might rather make out with a galapagos tortoise.
I have had a lot of female friends. I have been attracted to some of them. I have broached the subject of dating sometimes. I have sometimes been turned down; I have even had things which I suspect were Excuses deployed on me. What is the correct response here?
Move on with your life.
Which is bleedin’ difficult sometimes, I know. Great Jaddeth Below, I know. When I refer to myself as a ‘former Nice Guy’, I see parallels with ‘recovering alcoholic’ - with destructive behaviours, we might never stop wanting to backslide, we might have to work constantly to be better than ourselves. I may never stop wanting to be Romantic Comedy Guy. But resisting that is the definition of winning. (And sadly there are no cookies for basic decency.)
I used to dislike stories that made it explicitly clear that Our Heroes could never really win – that they would just right this injustice, push back evil this time, and then some day it would come back, and they would fight it again, or someone else would have to do it, forever. But I get it now.
*Gracious, I almost let a post go by without a footnote. Well, it occurred to me on rereading this rule that the ‘you’ here might just be a polysomething person of the sort who doesn’t feel any particular need to maintain hard lines between platonic and sexual relationships, and that may be just fine on its own; I’m not saying you’re a horrible person. But I hardly need to tell someone who has a robust set of sociosexual ethics that the turning-you-down person may not be comfortable getting into that, so I think the rule stands on its own, both in its judgey and non-judgey forms.