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

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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