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Column: The friend zone is sexist

Feminists can and should be critical of “the nice guy.” Webhead: Kindness shouldn’t demand reward, especially in the friend zone

Rivu Dasgupta

Feb. 13, 2014

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

There’s a rather prominent blemish in how the social psyche views feminism, and it invariably involves the notion of an “animosity toward men.” The idea that feminists carry a misandristic, simmering hatred is indeed the popular delusion, and I’ll argue it’s one that isn’t necessarily born of fiction, however distorted it may presently be. Let me be clear: Feminism doesn’t inherently argue in opposition to the rights of men, but a majority of its criticisms have been misrepresented with such a prescription, and I’d like to remedy one of them in particular.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to impel a discourse regarding the social construction of “the friend zone” and the similarly constructed “nice guy.” Here’s your feminist fun fact of the day: “The friend zone” and “the nice guy” are intrinsically sexist toward women.

Before making the argument, we’ll have to have an operating definition of what “the friend zone” and “the nice guy” actually are. For all intents and purposes, I’ll be defining the former as “wherein a man wishes to enter a sexual or romantic relationship with a woman, wherein the woman does not wish the same; the result of which is considered socially and emotionally unfavorable for the man” and the latter as “a man who engages in acts of serial kindness to a woman as a primary means of winning her attention, affection, or emotional or physical acceptance.”

Two brief acknowledgments: Yes, the above definitions are unapologetically heteronormative, and they ignore that men can “friend-zone” women, too. I’m opting not to address either of the above for a few reasons: One, I have neither anecdotal nor empirical evidence as to how the friend-zone operates for homosocial groups, and I’m neither comfortable nor equipped to make any assumptions. Two, only certain tenets of “the friend zone” are innately sexist — the ones involving a “but I’m a nice guy” defense — and I haven’t quite heard that epithet from women enough to justify a discourse.

To begin the argument, let me present an everyday scenario: A man has romantic feelings for a woman he knows, and in an attempt to “win her over,” the man is consistently kind to her, priding himself on “not being a jerk” like her other male friends. After a consistent pattern of kindness, the man asks the woman out on a date, and is absolutely crushed with the following act of utter and dissolute villainy: “No, I’m sorry. … I’d love to still be friends, though!”

Cue his newfound loathing for women everywhere; he proceeds to vent his anguish, cursing women because “they’re exclusively attracted to men who mistreat them” or to “men who have biceps the size of large infants.” Nevertheless, he hopes she regrets her incipient decision with every fiber of his being above the waist.

This is clearly the fault of the woman, right? The boy went above and beyond the gentleman’s call of duty; he went to her apartment and made her warm soup while she was sick, he drove her home when she was drunk at a sketchy party, he helped her study for her LSAT’s until 3 in the morning, and she still didn’t like him back? Can you spell witch with a capital B?

Wrong. Genuinely, inextricably and absolutely wrong, on every level. Nothing a man did, does or could ever do inherently obligates a woman into entering a romantic or sexual relationship with him; in fact, there’s literally nothing that inherently obligates anyone to a relationship or sex. It doesn’t matter how many times they get you home safely or take care of you while you’re sick; you don’t owe them anything short of returning a similar favor, and you shouldn’t have to owe them anything for their decision to be a decent human being.

Lest we forget the irony in the whole affair; you know, the part where someone is “nice” up until the point that sex is off the table. Here’s an aphorism worth taking to heart: being kind to someone just to see their dress on the floor isn’t nice, it’s manipulative.

Unfortunately, none of the above entails an exactly popular idea. Personally, I’d say pop culture is to blame. Take romantic movies, for example. Everyone is familiar with the cliché “girl is tied to the train tracks; train is coming fast; man is trying to untie her; man saves her with almost no time to spare; man is rewarded with an on-screen kiss and an immortal love affair that tastes like sunsets and the 1920s.”

Indeed, tropes like those (apart from being inherently sexist, too) are incredibly common, and when stripped bare, there’s a message behind them that’s actually fairly disturbing; that being kind demands some sort of reward — and of course, what better reward than sex?

Oh, and here’s the funny part: people shouldn’t have to be rewarded for a simple act of benevolence, but they almost always are; that something just happens to be friendship instead of sex. Indeed, this is the part of “the friend zone” and “the nice guy” that’s legitimately infuriating; the idea that a woman’s friendship is nothing more than a consolation prize.

In fact, her friendship is actually presented as having negative value; being on the receiving end of a woman’s amity actually makes you worse off than you were before, as illustrated by the numerous times men accost women and indict them for relegating them to the insufficiencies of their friendship.

The idea in its complete, perverse sublimity is “a woman is only worth being kind to if she’s going to sleep with you” — and fortunately, that’s not exactly a popular idea, but it’s doled out in a (marginally) lesser dose in just about every romantic comedy out there.

With all that being said, I genuinely understand and appreciate how difficult unrequited romantic feelings are on an emotional level, and it’s natural to have an aversive reaction. I’ll argue it’s a symptom of systemic issues in our contemporary society; rampant hyper-sexualization puts sex on an airbrushed pedestal and friendship in a tourniquet, and the patriarchal socialization of men and women holds both genders mercilessly accountable for their sex appeal.

Let me make a few things clear, then: The friend zone, on its own, isn’t inherently sexist. For one reason or another, people may or may not be attracted to you, and that’s OK. Similarly, being kind to someone to whom you’re attracted is perfectly valid, if not encouraged; the single caveat being that the kindness be genuine and well-intentioned, and that it isn’t conditional with romantic intimacy.

Finally, I’d like to come back to my original point — the notion that feminist stereotypes are often born from popular misconceptions. Prior to reading this column (or after, based on my ability), if I presented you with the argument “feminists can and should be critical of ‘the nice guy,’” you may very well have had a natural suspicion that feminism does indeed dabble in misandry. However, that’s clearly not the case, as there’s a lot more going on with the issue than meets the eye.

It’s certainly interesting how stereotypes are often ingrained with an iota of truth, whether they be relics of decades past, semblances of misinformation or vacuous shells of fact. With ample critical analysis, it’s rather simple to come to more enlightened and pleasant conclusions, and I’d encourage anyone to look into the origin of any stereotype and evaluate it for its contemporary relevance, depth and value.

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Article comments

March 3, 2014 at 7:07 a.m.

sol: A majority of "nice guys" are not feeling some sort of entitlement to sex. Any frustration or embitterment usually stems from frustration of personal traits or insecurities that inhibit them from actually becoming dating material. Yes, sometimes they blame the girl, but just like women who become frustrated with guys they can't get, it doesn't mean they felt entitled - they're just embittered and hurt. It's a defense mechanism. My personal take has been that they often lack the assertiveness or confidence to face rejection by actually taking chances and making a move, showing real interest. Instead they drag their feet, insecurely becoming "yes-men" who never disagree, always over-compliment and favor her in hopes of the unrealistic expectations (not obligation) of her suddenly falling in love with them for their brown-nosing. They don't realize no one wants a timid guy(or girl) who never challenges, takes initiative or even disagrees with you. That' boring and unromantic. Thanks to that, they get friendzoned. The Friendzone is the platonic friendship you find yourself trapped in as a result of failing to show confidence or take initiative, with little options to rectify. The exception is when a crush blossoms in an already existent friendship - the apprehension there is the risk of ruining or changing the friendship. In either case the only real way to deal with it at that point is to actually sit down and talk to her about it. TL;DR While friendzones can be the embittering result of ignored advances or unexpected crushes mid-friendship, it's more often a person's own lack of resolve to blame. Not some self-entitlement to sex for being extra nice. As for the misconceptions of feminism - from what I've noticed, that stems much from faux-feminists who employ it as an excuse for man-hating, spite or simply getting their way. It's not real feminism.

May 29, 2014 at 6 p.m.

Anon: This is a strawman. Of course the woman does not owe the man a date (which, it must be pointed out, is not nearly the same as committing to a relationship or engaging in sexual intercourse). But it doesn't follow from there that she's entirely faultless if she turns him down. Consider this analogy: suppose I get a box of chocolates for Christmas. My younger sister asks me nicely if she can have one. Am I obligated to share? No. I have every right to eat all of them myself. After all, they're my chocolates. But I think you could reasonably say that refusing to share would be indecent, greedy, a jerk move, or even cruel (in spite of the fact that it's not unjust). Likewise, if a nice guy asks out a woman who is not out of his league, is not seeing anybody, is not gay, and is clearly not a complete stranger, it is not unreasonable to say that rejecting him would be a jerk move (even though she is entirely within her rights to do so). One problem with this analogy is that a date is not a gift like a box of chocolates (rather, it should be something that makes both the man and the woman happier). But there's countless cases where the woman is not interested in the man the first (or the tenth) time he asks her out, but warms up to him after actually going out on a date. The reality is that we do not possess complete information about any other person, our wants change, and we do not always know what we want as well as we think we do (which, in turn, constrains rational decision making - see here for some interesting examples: ). But this doesn't undermine the point that you can act like a jerk without violating someone's rights. And it's a two-way street too. For every guy upset that he's in the friendzone, there is a woman upset that "all men are jerks" (even though there are plenty of men who aren't jerks that she could be with if she'd actually give them a chance).

July 16, 2014 at 1:41 a.m.

Stephanie: Anon, I can see your point, but at the same time, there is a danger to that reasoning. If a woman dates a 'nice guy' and then turns him down, he often feels he's been led on, and can become clingy(er), angry, and possibly abusive. If a woman is disinterested in a man, it's easier and more merciful to just cut the situation off before it starts. I say this from the perspective of a woman who's repeatedly ignored her own feelings and intuition, because dating articles and pop culture pumped me full of messages that I should 'give him a chance, and then you'll warm up to him'. As it turned out, my first instinct was always correct, and I could have saved myself some time and frustration, and the men involved a lot of pain, if I'd just listened to my feelings sooner and ended it when I wanted to.

Jan. 15, 2015 at 8:13 p.m.

Allie: "If a nice guy asks out a woman who is not out of his league, is not seeing anybody, is not gay, and is clearly not a complete stranger, it is not unreasonable to say that rejecting him would be a jerk move (even though she is entirely within her rights to do so)." What a despicable statement. No one is required to reciprocate your interest, and she is not a "jerk" for not doing so. If someone is not interested, he or she simply is not. It's not jerky, it simply is. There are a million reasons why the person might not be interested. You can't assume that just because YOU decided someone is within your league, and she's not seeing anyone, she will be interested in you. You might not be her cup of tea at all, physically, personality-wise, etc. She may simply not be interested in dating at the particular time. So ridiculous that anyone would have a hard time understanding that.

June 1, 2015 at 9:01 a.m.

Juan Weasel: I had also perceived those negative ideas surrounding the whole friendzone concept and I was actually troubled by it. After thinking about it for a while, this is what I came up with and I'd like to state: Sexist ideas attached to friendzone might be originated in people who's never been in the friendzone, outsiders telling wrong opinions. Or perhaps, people who think they've been in the frendzone but they were not actual friends to the girl. You should be a real friend to considered yourself in the friendzone. If not, just consider yourself a falsefriend-zoned. I don't believe a real friend thinks the girl is obligued to give sex back to him in exchange of good actions. Now, about the nice guy concept, I think it should be stressed with more emphasis that your critics go to the stereotype, and not the confused actual fellow because I don't think anybody could be faking his personality for long in order to get something in exchange. And as you had combined the concepts of friendzone and nice guy, I should make note that friendzone tend to last in time and the nice guy would not be able to fake it for so long. In real friendzone, the friendzoned guy is going through a hard internal conflict. Eventually, he will know that distance is the best for him. But he doesn't want to let his female-friend down. Somehow, he's managed to be the closest person in the world to her, and he knows that she needs him, he also knows that he is suffering, that he desperately needs distance, but he will go along with it to not let her down. Therefore, friendzone tends to last in time. You can't be pretending to be the nice guy expecting sex in exchange, at least not for long... I've been in the friendzone for six years, I don't hold any grudges to her. I love her and wish the best for her. It's a story from 13 years ago, and even today, I feel guilty for having gone away even if I know that it was the best for both of us.

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