Reclaiming the Friendzone

This blog routinely concerns language, because the struggle to discover the One True Feminism is often fought through semantics. We spend a lot of time dissecting how words help or hinder our cause, as well as how they shape our ideas. Is it empowering or dehumanizing for women to refer to themselves as “bitches?” Should we self-apply terms like “fat” and “slut” in order to strip them of their power to wound us? Which is the better euphemism for our genitalia: cunt or pussy? Do we have to choose just one? Does every word we speak have to be political? These questions can seem superfluous, but when attempting to demystify something as complex as the human condition, as well as effectively communicate that we are subject to it, shorthand is necessary, and we’re pretty good at coming up with terms to succinctly describe things. It is for this reason that I’m disappointed in the fate of the term “friendzone.”

Eons ago, “friendzone” referred to an uncomfortable limbo someone you were in love with damned you to when they didn’t like you enough to date you but still desired your company in some fashion. It told you exactly where you stood in relation to the object of your love. Since MRAs, MGTOWs, Nice Guys, incels, and garden variety misogynists perverted its meaning to describe any instance of a female friend choosing not to sleep with them, it quickly became dead to the common lexicon. No one who hasn’t swallowed the red pill uses it anymore, and women have spent over a decade insisting the friendzone isn’t real. Unfortunately, it is real, and it’s not just straight men who suffer its torments. In fact, allowing straight men to control the narrative and assign gender bias to a term that should be neutral plays right into the patriarchy’s hands. We need to correct misappropriated language, not concede to it.

Obviously, if someone isn’t interested in you sexually or romantically, that’s their prerogative. They don’t owe you an explanation, apology, or opportunity to change their mind. Similarly, friendship is wonderful, and everyone should enjoy it on its own merits. Friendzoning isn’t simply declining to date someone; it’s an obfuscation of true feelings and intent, and renders the romantic hopeful a prisoner to someone else’s cowardice/insensitivity.

It’s normal to shower someone you love with gifts, affection, and praise. It’s natural to go out of your way to be kind and helpful to someone you’d like to date. An uninterested but decent person will let you know that while they appreciate your feelings, they don’t reciprocate them. That’s rejection. An ordinary part of life no one gets to escape. Being friendzoned, on the other hand, is when someone accepts the gifts, affection, praise, and helpfulness knowing the motivation behind it all, but is careful to walk the line of ambiguity to avoid discouraging you. Never saying yes, never saying no, never providing a definitive answer, they string you along by implying you’re winning them over ever so slowly. They enjoy the attention and don’t want it to end because it feeds their ego. When I say I’ve been friendzoned, this is what I’m referring to. Are we just friends? Are we on our way to being more? Am I throwing all this goodwill into a black hole? Should I back off, or do they need more evidence of my devotion? Who the fuck knows! The other party desperately wants to avoid that conversation, and I’m too emotionally wound up to make a clear-headed judgment.

And this is where you usually hear someone say, “if you’re just being nice because you want something, you’re an asshole.” In general, that’s accurate, but it’s not really applicable here. There’s a reason we go out of our way for prospective romantic partners. We’re trying to show that we’re thoughtful, loving mates who will put our beloved’s needs before our own. This is a natural instinct that’s incredibly difficult not to heed, even when we know the other person is taking advantage of us. Who among us hasn’t made an absolute fool of ourselves in the name of love? Once rejected, it’s reasonable to dial down the devotion and treat that person how you’d treat anyone else (with basic respect, politeness, and consideration), or even avoid them while you nurse your wounds and disentangle yourself from the situation. It’s called self-preservation. It’s normal. It’s healthy. What’s not healthy is lashing out and being abusive to the person who rejected you, or believing that kindness is a currency one uses to buy sex. That’s sexual entitlement, a separate issue.

In contrast to the decent person, a selfish person won’t cut you loose. A selfish person understands which buttons to push to reel you back in every time you grow discouraged, and they’re willing to push them as long as you’re willing to let them. Everyone I know has experienced this at least once. You fall helplessly in love with someone and then they toy with you. Who is honestly disputing this is a thing that happens? Have you not lived? Have you never read Shakespeare?

[For a famous example (and one that doesn’t involve any men), check out what Stephanie Allyne had to say about her burgeoning relationship with Tig Notaro in the Netflix documentary Tig. Once she realized she had unwittingly banished Notaro to the friendzone, Allyne understandably felt bad about it and endeavored to correct the situation. Decent person!]

Of course, I’m being arch. Women know perfectly well this is equal opportunity pain that plagues humankind. It isn’t just the affiliation with misogynist culture that rendered “friendzone” an unpalatable concept. We’ve had another motive for denying it: a desperate desire to validate mixed gender friendships and prevent our guy friends from suddenly ditching us because we’re sexually unavailable. Even for men who aren’t on the red pill spectrum, women are primarily interesting in a romanti-sexual context only. This is beginning to change, but progress is slow. For all the praise Millennials get for being the wokest generation alive, the depressing truth is that, socially, we have more in common with our Baby Boomer parents and Gen-X cousins than we do with Gen-Z. Every woman over the age of 25 has had to do the exhausting work of figuring out whether her male friends feel genuine platonic affection for her or are merely hanging around in the hopes of getting horizontal. We’ve all endured situations in which we believed in the integrity of a mixed gender friendship only to later feel duped and betrayed when we realized it was all a sham. It’s damaging to receive the incessant message that your mind is secondary to your body, especially from people you trust. So, women doubled down and vehemently denied that the friendzone exists in an attempt to force men to re-examine their tendency to devalue us. The two phenomena don’t really intersect, but we have long wanted a solution to the problem. As with so much feminist thought, a scorched earth approach was adopted because the stakes were high.

There is a final reason women need to reclaim the friendzone: we often feel unsafe rejecting men. In these instances it isn’t about hanging onto a slavish devotee for ego massage and material gain, but about offering ambiguity as a precaution against violence. To put it bluntly, some men freak the fuck out when a woman tells them ‘no,’ and many women have ended up dead as a result. The irony of red pill men branding the friendzone as this terrible fate that befalls them and them alone is that women often feel they have no choice but to employ it because of the dehumanization, sexual entitlement, and implicit threat of violence inherent to that worldview. Where we might be tempted to do the decent thing and simply reject someone outright, worries about retaliation can lead to tepid acceptance of the person’s advances so as not to upset them. Given that, it may seem that reclaiming the friendzone as a useful concept could be counterproductive, but again, it’s a question of who controls the narrative. Rather than allowing misogynist piss lords to misappropriate language and gaslight everyone, we should be steering these conversations toward the real reasons men have such a difficult time accepting rejection: toxic masculinity and the systemic dismissal of female agency.