“The Friend Zone” is the Problematic Concept We Need to Put to Rest

As Valentine’s Day comes and goes, the thought of what relationships mean in the 21st century is something on the minds of many.

With the emergence of dating apps and social platforms over the last decade, connectivity is more accessible than ever—at least, it is online. One would think that as the resources to meet with others become more accessible, the guidelines to friendships and dating would also adjust to become more agreeable and perceptive. In some cases, this is true. Certain data suggests that since the online dating revolution, we’ve become more efficient at dating and better at not wasting our—or any else’s—time.

Still, one negatively persistent notion that has emerged is the concept of the “friend zone.” The term was popularized by the 1994 Friends episode, “The One with the Blackout,” where Joey tells Ross that he is “the mayor of the zone” in terms of his relationship with Rachel.  Though the idea has been around since before the technology surge, it has only gained momentum since. As men and women meet more frequently, and as they become more proficient in valuing their time with others, it’s only natural that the boundaries for what constitutes commitment are set more quickly. Whether someone wants to pursue a relationship or leave things simply as friends, knowing where you stand is a more important definition of terms than ever before.

Oxford Dictionaries actually defines the friend zone as both a noun and a verb, calling it “A situation in which a friendship exists between two people, one of whom has an unreciprocated romantic or sexual interest in the other” and the act of regarding someone “solely as a friend.” Essentially, it involves the unrequited feelings of one individual toward someone who does not want more than platonic friendship.

What’s fascinating about the friend zone is that it is an inherently male-devised phenomenon and originates most prevalently from heterosexual relationships. As Glamour writes, “Think about it: Isn't it only men who believe in it/find themselves in it? For women, I'm pretty sure the friend zone is called—let me see if I have this right—being friends. It's not a zone, it's just reality. For men, however, at least for those of a certain bent, it's a villainous act by which they are ruthlessly excluded from the possibility of ever having sex with you.”

Though the friend zone abounds in references to popular culture as something benign, it is actually a much more troubling spectacle in everyday life. Not only does the friend zone involve reducing women to objects of desire, it also incorporates many of the toxic elements of “Nice Guy Syndrome.” In this circumstance, men use overstated kindness to make up for what they might lack elsewhere while attempting to form “covert contracts” with the women who have rejected them. Psychologists note that examples of Nice Guy behavior include:

  • Performing kind gestures with the sole motive of seducing a woman

  • Insisting the reason they were rejected is “women like bad boys”

  • Believing showing basic human decency and manners makes them especially “nice”

  • Complaining about the difference between what women claim to want in a man and the men they actually go for

  • When things don't go their way, complaining that they've been "friend-zoned" despite the target of their affections never being interested in the first place

To perpetuate the friend zone is to also perpetuate sexist, patriarchal social norms that strip women of their own agency. The concept eradicates women’s autonomy to set expectations for respect and be heard. Men who believe they are placed in the friend zone feel no need to acknowledge these boundaries, and therefore take no accountability for their actions. Rather than valuing women for their word, men are encouraged to place their own desires above all else, and look to women’s bodies and minds as something they are entitled to.

In order to eradicate the greater social inequities of our time, we must begin by chipping away at the damaging practices that affect daily life. Our use of language and the routine of categorizing relationships on the basis of entitlement to sex are some of the first things that must change. Instead of placing friendships into designated tracks of expectation, we must enable individual women to wield their own decision-making power and not demonize them for denying men anything other than friendship. By also correcting our peers when they defer to comments on women placing men in the friend zone, and even catching our own problematic thinking, we can begin to amend patterns of harmful behavior while also empowering women to embrace the word “no.”