We are living in transitionary times, you and I. The nature of love, friendship, relationships, work and sex are all changing. One of the main thrusts of this change is the goal of stopping the sexes from seeing each other as Men and Women, and instead as Persons—as Individuals, unhampered and undefined by social constructs, conventions, traditions, roles, and even Nature. Where this project will end up, no one knows for sure, but we currently have massive armies enlisted in its cause, and the war rages all around us.
One of the most heated battlegrounds right now is the male complaint of “Friend-zoning,” and the backlash against it. The Friend-zone is the mindspace where a woman you desire puts you “because you’re a nice guy and girls only like assholes.” Women do this, apparently, “because they’re evil, heartless little tarts who like playing cat-and-string with boys’ emotions.” In response to this, a Feminist Community on Reddit is pushing for a new term, “Girlfriend-zoning,” which is “when guys only see a girl as a potential girlfriend and not as a friend (or a human, really, in my opinion).” The Girlfriend-zone was created as a means of “flipping the script: identifying the Friend-zone as an entirely male creation, and putting the onus on dudes not to be entitled pricks about it when girls don’t throw themselves at them.”
Much of this discrepancy in perspectives simply lies in, what Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan called, “the complex mystery of fickle human attraction.” But I believe it also has to do with forces much larger than Men just acting like “entitled douchebags” and Women as “callous bitches”—it goes to the very heart and goals of our society, and our current attempts to redefine and reconfigure them.
The best piece I’ve seen address this is Zach Schwartz’s recent essay, Stop Complaining About Getting Friendzoned. Trying to be the type of guy who he claims girls really like, he got “real”: the Friend-zone is just an excuse, “the ineffectual tool of an ineffectual male.” But the only problem with the reality that he describes is that it is actually an ideality (ideal+reality=ideality) because the world we are currently living in does not encourage or allow for it to be. His solution to this problem is to “communicate: communicate stupidly, communicate clumsily, but communicate.” And he is absolutely right. However, our current methods—or rather lack there of—of dating and our free-for-all attitude toward sex, coupled with the increased commingling and cohabitation of the sexes and Bacchanalian indulgences in drugs and alcohol have made it increasingly hard to know what we want, let alone what others want from or with us.
Let’s take a look at this Tumblr entry by Literary Reference, Why Do Men Keep Putting Me in the Girlfriend-Zone?, which first started the Girlfriend-zone backlash:
You know how it is, right, ladies? You know a guy for a while. You hang out with him. You do fun things with him—play video games, watch movies, go hiking, go to concerts. You invite him to your parties. You listen to his problems. You do all this because you think he wants to be your friend. But then, then comes the fateful moment where you find out that all this time, he’s only seen you as a potential girlfriend. And then if you turn him down, he may never speak to you again.
She then goes on to make satirical references to Evolutionary Biology and Men’s “primal lizard brains,” concluding that maybe she should “just give up on those manipulative, game-playing, two-faced bastards once and for all.”
Her article received 1299 comments, as well as an excellent response here on TC called, Why Men Keep Putting You in the Girlfriend Zone. In it, Brian Williams (not that Brian Williams) claimed that she had her causation backward: “This is where the author of the article has it completely wrong about most men, [we don’t] start off putting them in the ‘girlfriend-zone.’ Getting to know everything about them put them there.”
So which of these many perspectives is right? Well, all of the above; and that’s the problem. Each of these opinions have bits of truth to them—we live in complicated times and are being fed very conflicting messages from the media, politicians, academics, scientists, our parents, our friends, our…you get the point: EVERYONE. Historically, we’ve always had, more or less, well-defined rules and roles for the sexes, governing how we were expected to interact with one another—it is a major facet of almost every culture that has ever existed, ever. Things were clear cut, and while I’m not necessarily endorsing any specific set of rules here, at least everyone was playing the same game: a cheater was a cheater, a spade was a spade, and it was easy to call “foul” when one was committed.
Today, though, those cultural structures have been almost completely dismantled. And if there is any sort of definitive goal that all these conflicting voices do seem to agree on, it’s that we need to be doing more to help complete the demolition.
This process first became widely enacted after the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s—the goal of which was, admittedly, pretty clear: free Men and Women from the constraints of biblical morality and its prohibitions against what we naturally want to do with each another: i.e. FUCK. However, this newly gained freedom resulted in many differing ideas of what relations could and should look like—hence the quagmire we find ourselves in today.
Let’s take a little tour of some of the different possibilities:
- The ideal romantic relationship is one between best friends.
- Let’s just have fun and hookup without feelings or consequences.
- Men and Women should be able to be friends without the expectation of sex or romance.
- Let’s be friends, but “friends with benefits.”
- Polygamy, polyamory, open relationships, etc.
That’s a lot options, requiring a lot of self-reflection and self-knowledge to navigate the conflicting, and mutually exclusive, roads of possibility that have now been opened up for us. We once had definitive practices of courtship and dating that forced us to state our intentions at the outset to our prospective partner. We now hang out: we “play video games, watch movies, go hiking, go to concerts” as ways of getting to know one another—you know, just like regular friends do. See how things can get a little confusing here?
I would estimate that in 90% of friendships between Men and Women, there is at least one disappointed party who wanted more—because that’s what Men and Women naturally want to do with each other; it’s what we’re biologically wired to want to do with each other. I’m not saying that Men and Women cannot be “just friends,” and I do have friendships with Women—very good friendships, actually—but all of them have been through many twists and turns of unrequited feelings, drunken hookups, and periods of contention and silence. It is not easy, and made even less so by a complete lack of shared expectations for how the other is approaching the situation.
Ryan complained in her Jezebel article that one of the biggest problems with the Friend-zone argument is that it does not respect a “woman’s Agency.” But in order for Agency to actually mean anything, one has to know what one wants. I’ve wanted all those different things I listed at some point in my life, and sometimes at the same time, depending on the person, the situation, the mood—the amount of alcohol I had consumed. Agency is incredibly hard to quantify because we are not strictly rational creatures—there are torrents of emotion and projection raging inside of us that can very easily trick us into committing self-destructive or hurtful behavior.
I guess what I’m ultimately trying to say is that things are not as black and white as the two camps in this battle have attempted to make it. We must remember, as Camille Paglia put it, “The flux of our sexual desire. The way our spirit is not in these rigid categories of oppressor and victim” because, in truth, every one of us has the capacity to play either role.
For further inquiry into some of the issues I brought up here, I would recommend checking out some of my past posts:
- On the problem of agency, Lose Your Illusion
- On the confusing nature of relationships today, Scene Missing: On the Ambiguity of “Relationships” Today
- On the problems of Hookup Culture, Just Because We Can, Doesn’t Mean We Should