I have to admit something: there have been many times in the past that I thought I'd been friend-zoned. There were girls I thought I had a special thing going with, thanks to the all-day text conversations, the spooning in front of films, the sheer phenomenon of them wanting to spend extended periods of time with me. But then I'd muster up the guts to ask them out and was invariably told it wouldn't work. They loved hanging out as friends and were worried that, if they said anything, I wouldn't want to hang out any more. At the time, I was indignant. How dare they! How dare a woman just want a male friend?!
It's embarrassing to recall those thoughts. Before my crash course at the Open University of #Woke I really believed in the existence of the "friend zone", a platonic purgatory you were annexed to by girls who knew you liked them, but didn't have the basic courtesy to like you back.
How did I come to define my position like this? Growing up I had long, dyed black hair and listened to Slipknot; I encountered rejection regularly. It still hurt, and sometimes I blamed the girl, but I never labelled it. According to the internet, it seems the beginnings of the phrase can – like anything fundamentally evil on this cold, dark Earth – be traced back to a 1994 episode of Friends. Specifically, "The One with the Blackout":
From Joey's quip, a millennial state of mind was spawned. "Friend zone" gradually became a verb as well as a noun. It got its own Wikipedia page; it became the basis of countless memes; it inspired an MTV programme in which contestants have to confess their love for a best friend in front of an entire camera crew in the hope they'll "escape the friend zone" and immediately go on an incredibly awkward, filmed date together
So how would you define this state of being? Google says it's "a situation in which a friendship exists between two people, one of whom has an unreciprocated romantic or sexual interest in the other". So unrequited love or lust, essentially. Only the reality is it's become much more nuanced (and gendered) than that.
Geoffrey, 26, defines the friend zone as an "accurate way of describing one of the harsh, unfortunate truths that often comes when you have a deluded moment and think you have a chance with someone". Wesley, a 26-year-old musician, says it's "a name for something that most males would give to [the situation when they have tried to seduce a woman], but their endeavours to fuck or date drew a blank. I think using the term friend zone is an admission of failure – like, your mates will take the piss and say you've been 'friend-zoned'."
And for women? Emily, 24, says the friend zone is "a bullshit way for men to justify their feelings of entitlement towards women. It's an assumption that if you're nice to a woman, they're somehow obligated to return the interest in some way." Vanessa, a 28-year-old singer, suggests the term has "definite undertones of aggression and resentment. It is often used to mean 'she has wronged me' or 'he has unfairly rejected me'. It implies perceived victimhood and injustice."
The difference in attitudes is stark. As I understand it, from talking to people I know, men see the term as being associated with defeat and disillusionment, like it's a competition or game they have been cheated or tricked in. Women see it as related to entitlement, antagonism and animosity – unsurprising, considering they're the "prizes" in this perceived competition.
When asked for some of their experiences, the guys' often mirrored those I'd had in the past. Some kind of lingering feeling towards a female friend builds up to an apex and an admission is blurted out and then it gets all weird.
Kevin, however, says he knew his female friend had a boyfriend, but kept hanging out "because she was really good looking and I had no self esteem". One night he decided it was time he "laid his cards on the table" and told her how he felt. She said she was flattered, says Kevin, but that she didn't have the same feelings. "She still invited me back to hers. We slept in the same bed, but nothing happened," he says. "Whenever I think back to this, I scream at my younger self: 'Go home and have some self respect!'"
These kind of mostly placid experiences weren't shared by the women I spoke to. Their stories usually involve a man being good friends with them, until one day he confesses his attraction, seemingly out of the blue. When rejected, the situation gets messy: the friend gets angry with the woman for apparently leading them on, or at the very least says he is unable to see her any more. The guy continues to act like a baby and the friendship is abruptly cut short.
Of course, this isn't to say that any man who's had his romantic advances rebuffed will have thrown a hissy fit about it. Many men are perfectly capable of empathy and processing basic emotional and physical cues, and will understand that just because they like someone, it doesn't necessarily mean they'll be liked back. However, it's clear that some men also aren't capable of that – or at least that they need hindsight to help them realise that relationships are not purely transactional. It says something pretty damning about straight men that so many of us, even unconsciously, appear to believe that you put in the nice behaviour and the friendship, and then at the end of all that you get your allocated bit of sex.
I say "straight men" because all the people I spoke to suggested the friend zone is a purely heterosexual male-female occurrence. Emily, for example, who's bi, says she's found herself in friend zone situations with "dude friends" but never her "queer women friends". Similarly, 25-year-old Todd, who's gay, says: "I don't think I've ever been what you'd consider friend-zoned. Nearly all the gay friends I have are guys I've previously dated, so I guess it's like the reverse of the friend zone? I've been date-zoned and got friends out of it."
Everyone I spoke to agreed that hetero male-female friendships can happily stay platonic, too, by the way. Straight single people of different genders can, it turns out, spend time with one another without either fucking or one person feeling personally attacked because there's no fucking going on.
"It's possible to have a completely platonic relationship, but I do think most friendships are sparked by a base level attraction, and that at some point this desire to fuck is filtered out, leaving only a platonic relationship standing," says Kevin.
Laura, a 26-year-old PA, agrees, saying: "I think most male-female friendships start through fancying, or at least being confused into thinking you fancy them because you're a girl and he's a guy and you really like hanging out, so you must fancy him, right?"
So what does that tell us about love and sex and men and women? That – depending on age or maturity or your feelings about men's rights activism – some men believe a woman is slighting them by not being into it when they suddenly announce they want to start kissing and doing hand stuff instead of just hanging out with each other.
The phrase "friend zone" has become an acceptable way to target that blame, which is clearly not a positive thing. A culture that blames women when men don't get their way is not what we should be going for in this, the good year of our Lord, 2016.
But, you know, takeaway: if you like someone but they don't like you back, just don't freak out and say you can't see them any more. It's a really quick way to make a new regret.
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