– Joey Tribbiani, Friends
“The great irony is that the friend zone really doesn’t exist. The notion that once people make friends, they will never progress to a romantic relationship, is quickly debunked by a glance at the real world.”
– Ally Fogg
“Friendzoning is bullshit because girls are not machines that you put Kindness Coins into until sex falls out.”
One of the best things to happen on the internet in the last few months was the Tumblr page Nice Guys of OkCupid. The site, which was taken down in January, lampooned self-described “nice guys” from dating site OkCupid, guys who would lament their “niceness” and the fact that girls only want to date “assholes,” rail against the cosmic injustice that sex is meted out to those least worthy of it, and conclude, through the insight and perspective that their “niceness” had given them, that women are shallow bitches and sluts.
The juxtaposition made for hilarious, revealing and, in the more aggressive posts (“all i want you to do is bleed like i have”), disturbing reading. Perhaps the most striking thing about the page, though, was the sheer uniformity these Nice Guys exhibited. The same tone of passive-aggressive indignation. The same terminology (they are the “nice guy” whom girls “friendzone” in order to date the “asshole”). The same hackneyed, sexist stereotypes. The fedoras. Oh, the fedoras. As one online commenter put it, “where are they learning this stuff?”
Most of all, though, I liked the page’s creator. She was witty, smart, and incisive,
in that stream-of-consciousness, punctuation-is-overrated kind of way. I wanted to meet her. She would like me. I’m a nice guy.
However, as much as I wanted to agree with her, one thing about the page didn’t sit right. “The ‘friendzone’ is a term used, particularly by ‘nice guys,’ to refer to women who don’t want to have sex with them,” she wrote. “It’s based on their idea that every relationship with women has its ultimate goal as having sex with them ... they can’t see being a friend as a good thing, so they refer to it as being ‘friendzoned’ in a negative sense. They treat the whole time they spent with the woman as a waste. Needless to say, the whole theory is sexist, misogynist and dehumanises women. Anybody who uses the term seriously is an idiot.”
Up to that point I had used the term “friend zone” without a trace of irony. I had always assumed the friend zone to be a legitimate description of an experience many, if not most, if not all men (and probably some women too) go through at some point in their lives. But now I had it on good authority that I was a sexist idiot. I was bad and I should feel bad. Was there truth to this? Was the friend zone an irredeemably stupid, sexist concept, or was there more to it?
The first thing to note about the friend zone is that, broadly speaking, it doesn’t exist. Women don’t rigidly divide their male acquaintances into platonic friends and potential lovers, and friendships can and do progress to romantic relationships. Although hardly up-to-date or scientific, a 2001 survey of more than 1,450 members of the Match.com dating site showed that 62% had at some point developed a sexual or romantic relationship with a friend. Furthermore, 71% hoped that when they did fall in love, their partner will have started out as a friend, while only 9% hoped to fall for a stranger.
However, unrequited love or lust for a friend does commonly happen, and to a significant extent it’s a gendered phenomenon. A study published last year in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that men were far more likely than women to be attracted to a friend of the opposite sex. So far, so predictable. But the study also found that women tended to significantly underestimate their male friends’ attraction to them, while men tended to overestimate their female friends’ attraction. This means that men are more likely to be led on, and women are more likely to miss the fact that their puppy-eyed friend wants more. Hence, the friend zone.
Many feminist commentators, including blogger Foz Meadows, have interpreted such findings as indicative of lingering ideas of male sexual entitlement. Basically, men end up in the friend zone and bitch about it not because of innate differences between the sexes (at least not entirely) but because society teaches men to expect and pursue sex. Men are more likely to be attracted to their friends because male desire is considered natural whereas female desire is portrayed as obscene.
(This is precisely the kind of confrontational statement that instantly raises non-feminist hackles. But plenty of evidence is available. Look to almost any Hollywood film in which a woman assertively pursues an uninterested man: as Meadows points out, such women are typically portrayed as “pitiable, stalkerish, desperate, crazy bitches.” Or consider my friend, who told me he’d be put off if a girl appeared too keen on him – a sentiment with which many men would readily sympathise.)
The Nice Guys of OkCupid are merely the embodiment of this attitude in its most pathetic and passive-aggressive form. Unfortunately for them, they also turn out to be its most visible and easily-mocked proponents. Because of his ineptness, the Nice Guy is trapped in the vending-machine approach to seduction – putting kindness coins in until sex falls out – which of course gets him nowhere. His resentment of the friend zone thus unsated by any occasional romp in the sack, the Nice Guy flees to the internet to bare his bitter soul. But as NGOKC neatly demonstrates, nothing on the internet is ever really hidden.
“It is a minefield ethically,” Dr Chris Brickell says of NGOKC. An associate professor and the co-ordinator of Otago University’s Gender Studies programme, Chris is a leading expert on masculinities and male identity. “For one thing, they are semi-private dating sites, so I think there is an ethical issue with having those profiles then posted on a public page like this.”
One of the main criticisms of NGOKC was the victimisation of the men it featured. As romantically unsuccessful beta males, many of whom were clearly hurting inside, seeking sex on the internet was already a basic indignity. The humiliation of being featured on a public blog could only make things worse, perhaps pushing some over the edge. While Chris had found NGOKC amusing, he also warned me against making simplistic judgements on the men it featured.
“To be blunt, a lot of the guys on that site didn’t fit the ideal of attractive masculinity,” Chris continued. “So there’s a cultural ideal that works against them too.” Many were also the victims of socially constructed gender roles, expected to make the first move but lacking the tools – confidence, charm, success – with which to do so.
Talking it through with Chris, I started to gain some sympathy for the friendzoned fuckwits. Many, we agreed at the time, were just a bit slow and lacking in self-reflection.
Chris believes the language of rejection is partially to blame. “There can be an ambiguity when someone uses the ‘I just want to be friends’ line, because it’s often used to mean ‘I don’t even want to be friends at all.’”
This ambiguity can obscure the Nice Guy’s failings by presenting the friend zone as a consolation rather than a criticism. Someone can end up in the friend zone because of a mere absence of attraction, a lack of proactiveness on their part, or a deeper personal failing that turns people off. Rejection is cushioned when the first is invoked, when the man’s failure to escape the friend zone reflects not on him but on the woman who “just doesn’t see him that way.” If men are less likely to be told outright that they’re too passive, clingy, or obnoxious than that a woman simply isn’t into them, they won’t fully understand why they’re serial sexual rejects, and thus they can start seeing women as shallow, stupid, and malicious.
“If people have had a lot of rejection, that kind of lashing out may not be good, but it’s maybe understandable,” Chris said. “So yes, I can empathise with feeling you always get stuck in the friend zone.”
I remember the night I first watched The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. During the film, everyone’s favourite Slovenian pop-philosopher Slavoj Žižek mentions “radical anti-feminists,” who apparently believe that women are mere constructs of the male psyche. Worse than that, they are constructs of all the bad parts of the male psyche: “Women exist because male desire got impure,” Žižek snufflingly explains. “If man cleanses his desire, gets rid of dirty material, dirty fantasies, woman ceases to exist.”
At the time I laughed out loud at the bizarreness and extremity of these “radical anti-feminists.” For one thing, if these people were right, then they seemingly offered the strongest disincentive to self-improvement imaginable: purify yourself and all the women disappear. But Žižek had stirred in me a morbid curiosity. I tried to track down these persons, but to no avail – if such radical anti-feminists existed, they were well hidden indeed.
Later, while researching this article, I stumbled across an editorial on Rhizome by Tom McCormack. After a somewhat dry and overwrought analysis of the ethics of NGOKC, McCormack linked the language of the Nice Guy to Men’s Rights Activism (MRA). MRA is a loose collection of reactionary masculinist movements, extreme variants of which flourished online in the early 2000s, particularly on Reddit (no surprises there). One of its flagship websites is called the-niceguy.com (subtitled “Why American Women (Mostly) Suck”). The more I learned about these rabidly misogynistic loonies, the more excited I got. It had been obvious all along. If the radical anti-feminists were out there, where better to find them than in the bowels of the internet? Was my quest at an end?
As I read through archives of the-niceguy.com and some of its charming peers (including, but not limited to, americanwomenreallysuck.com), there was nothing to match the literal gender solipsism Žižek had mentioned. Maybe such ideas were too crazy even for the internet. More likely I was just looking in the wrong place. Even so, there were eerie resemblances.
The authors of these sites prize obedience above all other female virtues. Many have a predilection for Asian women, who, it is claimed, are more obedient than Western women. Whether it’s reasonable for women to obey men is never really considered; male desires go totally unexamined while female desires are seen as absurd and perverse. In the land of MRA, women are not literal constructs of the male psyche; even so, the idea that women have an independent existence, have lives of their own, seems foreign.
The sites’ male authors desired something that only women could give them, and this dependence was clearly a source of great resentment. However, they were not ascetic types: they sought not to “cleanse” their desires – and thus make women “disappear” in a figurative sense – but to satisfy these desires with a minimum of fuss and mess. A woman’s status was therefore grudgingly accepted, but only as a labour-saving device and a warm vessel for the occasional ejaculation. Women who deviated from this image would provoke fury – and would receive such labels as “bitch,” “slut,” or (my personal favourite) “Ameriskank” – precisely because they reminded the MRA writers of their own weakness and reliance.
(A salient and frankly hilarious example of the MRA movement’s lack of self-awareness comes from americanwomenreallysuck.com. The site’s 50-year-old author, twincactus, after a series of gleeful posts about his acquisition of a 21-year-old Dominican bride (so compliant! so much better than the American versions!), discovered an awkward truth. “So two days after I got married, I found out my wife may have been cheating on me,” he wrote. Whoops!
“This still doesn’t change my opinion of American women or foreign women,” twincactus avowed. “You just need to be a little careful when choosing.” So careful, in fact, that “a few days” later he had found a new soul mate online. “I found the real love of my life,” he trumpeted. Unfortunately, he continued, “I am having some trouble convincing her to move here to the States with me ... I’ll keep you posted on how this goes.”
This was twincactus’s last post. The site hasn’t been updated in over 16 months.)
As I emerged from this benighted nether world, feeling a bit grimy, the connection to NGOKC’s Nice Guy seemed clearer. The same terminology and the same aggrieved, self-righteous tone permeated both; while the Nice Guy’s views weren’t as extreme as those on the MRA pages, I had now seen the Nice Guy’s emotional reservoir in its pure, unadulterated form, and it wasn’t pretty.
I couldn’t help but lose much of my newly-acquired sympathy for the Nice Guy, and my sympathy for the idea of the friend zone. There is of course the basic flaw in the Nice Guy’s protestations: he’s not nice at all, duh. However, the hidden moral standard in his whingeing is even more telling. Men who complain that their “niceness” is getting them nowhere imply that sexual success ought to attach to moral worthiness, that a woman should distribute vag not according to her own wishes but by abstract criteria of justice. This is essentially a reinvention of outdated chivalric ideas; it asserts a degree of ownership by men over women’s choices, and involves a gross double standard – nobody expects the converse.
In many respects, the friend zone is an inherently flawed concept. If there’s one area of life in which freedom and ownership of one’s body should reign supreme, it’s sex. And as libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick pointed out, “liberty upsets patterns” – freedom of choice creates random, inequitable outcomes, and that’s the price we pay. You can’t rage against the injustice of constantly being friendzoned and respect women’s sexual choices, and you can’t use the language of the friend zone to blame others and avoid self-reflection. Men in the friend zone might be victims, but they’re also idiots.