This is Not a Punch Line

dismissive friend zone toonIt’s been a while, guys/gals! I’ve been pretty sick lately. I’ve been on some immunosuppressants for my ulcerative colitis and they’ve been making me incredibly nauseous.

However, I saw this cartoon recently and felt compelled to blog about it (the cartoon, not my UC/nausea).

It’s sort of interesting how the use and or meaning of phrases evolve(s). There’s sort of been a resurgence of women taking back the age-old phrase of “friend zone” and flipping it on its head, more or less.

At one point, it meant that a guy, often the “nice guy” of a given group (e.g.), perhaps the “hopeless romantic” or the “safe, not-at-all dangerous” guy, never got girls because he was “too nice” or something else he’d, or someone would say about him, either that guy or those others misinterpreting his inability to get a girlfriend as something external. Usually, he felt as if maybe the girls who he wanted reciprocal affection from were “stringing him along” or “only dating jerks,” and “why can’t they see they have a great thing staring them in the face with me?” Usually it meant that they were pretty much guaranteed friend status before they even opened their mouths.

I should recognize this; I was one of those guys.

Sort of.

I lamented my woes in silence, internalizing everything. When friends would ask why I was single or when acquaintances or friends of friends would ask if I was gay, I could only shrug and say, “I dunno,” or more deflecting, “I’m just keeping my options open.” More often than not, however, I’d be asking myself what was wrong with me. I didn’t complain to the girls I was interested in or to my friends. I bottled it. Because who gives a shit, right? No one likes to hear sappy stories, especially when they think they already know how they turn out. Aside from external friend zone comments, I was just the goofy guy who never dated.

There is a new trend, however, and it sets out to make it seem as if “friend zone” is something “guys only say when they don’t have access to girls sexually.” Something guys say, rather, when they only see women as sexual objects and nothing more. This is a trend that has a lot of momentum right now and some of its biggest proponents are people who spend their lives advocating for the equal treatment of everyone.

To me, this trend is actually more harmful than it is empowering because it’s completely dismissive, oversimplified, and basically wrong, at least when used as a blanket statement. It’s really bordering on being self righteous and sanctimonious (for those who find a distinction between the two). At least it feels that way to me and — because we don’t live in a vacuum — we must assume that it feels that way to others who feel and think similarly.

This oversimplification often overlooks that “friend zone” (a terrible catchphrase in and of itself) is a common term used by both sexes. When a woman says (verbatim), “It’s crazy; he’s like perfect friend zone material,” it sort of blows the theory out of the water that it’s a term invented by men who only say it when they don’t have access to girls, sexually. I use this example because I was in a group of people where this was said about me.

Personally, for lack of anything to say back, I just played it up. I’d join in the joke and respond with something along the lines of: “That’s right! I’m basically the brother you never had!” Joking about things was always a way to diffuse the tension and frustration that I’d used to build a wall around myself.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that what men and women are looking for is simply a chance to be in a relationship. Both sexes seek companionship; it’s in our DNA. Some of us simply have/had issues attaining said companionship.

Sometimes it’s disappointing when relationships — or friendships one person wanted to be more than “just friends” — don’t meet expectations, for both sexes. The book/movie He’s Just Not That Into You more or less illustrates this. If the “friend zone” is something created by men, there sure are a lot of women in the world wanting something more in a very similar way.

Here’s a life lesson I learned early: Sometimes people just aren’t into others romantically. And it’s OK. It can be disappointing, but it’s OK. Human beings get disappointed about any number of things. It happens. It doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a legitimate feeling we experience, and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because someone thinks you’re overreacting.

This issue makes me think of feminism a lot actually. Part of feminism is validating both sides of a given coin because it gives human beings a shot at equality and happiness. Saying this issue is something only guys say when they don’t have access to girls sexually trivializes it and oversimplifies it, because up front, it’s not sex- or gender specific. I’d be willing to bet there are at least a few instances there where one of two great friends is gay, and thinks their best friend would make a fantastic partner, but the friend who is straight simply cannot reciprocate. It’s the friend zone and it’s OK. I challenge you to find someone who has “too many good friends.”

As a friend of mine pointed out, it has to be recognized that it is harder for women to turn down guys, if that’s what’s spawned the “friend zoning.”

There have always been social consequences for women who refuse potential mates. In the past, a family’s status could be made or broken on their daughters’ marriages. Our social dynamics have changed, but the level of judgment towards women who turn down dates hasn’t. That devalues friendship because it’s seen as a consolation prize for the guy and the girl gets a rep for being picky/bitchy.

This is important to remember because it shows a significant gender difference: guys like me might use being “too picky” as a legitimate and acceptable defense mechanism, while girls get labeled with it as a negative characteristic.

The other notion that really troubles me is that the issue has been reduced to being almost solely about sex and objectification. This, too, is minimizing the issue. I saved this for last because for me, sex is something that has not been a significant determining factor for decision-making in my life. By that I mean: I’ve never had a one-night stand/random hookup; I spent all of my teens not having [and most of my 20s not having much] sex; and I married the third person I ever slept with. I simply don’t have an all-consuming libido.

The “friend zone” (and n.b. I’m only using this designation only for the purposes of this essay) for me was much more about loneliness than it was about sex, and I simply have to believe it was the same for many other guys and girls who found themselves there. I think I was born old; I always wanted someone to share an emotional bond with, to feel connected to, that I could share hopes and fears and dreams with. Of course I was attracted to various women; I’m a human being. But physical attraction was never the sole driving force when I wished someone would be interested in me the way I was with them. But shit happens. Sometimes s/he is just not that into you. Sometimes people tell you that you are “perfect friend zone material.” You move on, keep your head up, keep looking.

What should not be the case is that “the friend zone” become appropriated by those men or women looking to make it a punch line, especially when it wasn’t someone’s choice if s/he was planted there. It’s so much less about “a man’s right to choose a mate” than it is about just being bummed that people sometimes just want something- someone else when it comes to courtship. Finding someone is hard enough as it is, I don’t think making people feel bad helps matters at all.

The best course of action here? Let’s remove “friend zone” from our vocabularies all together. Because really, what we’re talking about here is unrequited love. This is ultimately not something invented recently; it’s a story as old as stories. E.g. see: Middlemarch by George Eliot, Twelfth Night by Shakespeare, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. We should all just focus on trying to be happy; life’s too short for shaming.

Just my 2 cents though.

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3 thoughts on “This is Not a Punch Line

  1. That doesn’t make sense to me either for some reason. Isn’t that something you say when there is no sexual attraction at all?

    • Indeed, but the problem is that it’s being used as a way to make guys and girls feel shittier about something they already feel shitty about AND it devalues the idea of “friendship” as a consolation prize. I think it’s just better if we remove “friend zone” from our vocabularies all together.

      • I was thinking recently about the whole idea of the other woman as some kind of existentialist issue and I suppose ‘friend zone’ is another way of stating the same thing.

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