We’ve all had feelings of some sort which weren’t shared by the person on the other end. The crush on the cute classmate who never even knew we were there. The infatuation with a music, TV, or sports star we were never actually going to meet. Falling truly and deeply in love with someone who just didn’t feel the same way. We have all had experiences with unshared romantic interests, for some of us those have been our only experiences. It feels awful, sometimes to an intensely painful degree. The impulse to glibly shrug aside the sting of it, to get the last laugh on the situation, is understandable but the Friendzone concept doesn’t make light of the situation or satirize it. It reduces it, and all involved, to an object of mockery and ridicule.
Feelings of attraction can be difficult to unpack. Physical attraction mingles with emotional attraction and intellectual connection. Is the draw we are feeling simply a case of physical attraction or is there more to it? Are we merely growing closer and more bonded with a friend or are other types of feelings starting to develop? Where are the lines, how do we tell the difference between those things? And how do we do navigate a friendship after an ask for more has been rejected? These are all incredibly difficult and potentially painful questions to figure out which the idea of the Friendzone not only doesn’t leave room for but, through mocking and hazing, tries to make laughable. They aren’t, and depicting them as such can be immensely harmful.
If you are, blessedly, unfamiliar with the Friendzone concept it is a catch-phrase term for the aftermath of confessing an attraction the other person doesn’t share, treating friendship as a ‘zone’ one is relegated to after being rejected. Not every attraction will be mutual. It happens. And rejection stinks no matter how kindly or gently it is handled. The trouble with the Friendzone gimmick is that it reduces our attractions and desires to a form of game, trivializes the pain of personal rejection, and mocks the complexity of ‘what comes next’ after the answer is ‘No’.
It depicts sex as the only motivation
The standard quip added in reference to someone being ‘put in the Friendzone’ is that they are ‘never gonna get any’, implying sex is the sole motivation for wanting something beyond friendship. Sexual attraction definitely plays an important part in romantic interest but it is hardly the only factor. For some it can be top of the list, for others it can be absent from the list altogether. The Friendzone viewpoint is quick to dismiss all the other countless layers of connection making sex seem the only target and treating it like a prize to be won rather than a connection to be earned and nurtured.
It reduces friendship to a consolation prize
Bonds of friendship are vitally important to our mental and emotional health. To have people we care about and connect with who support us and welcome us is crucial and life sustaining and something far too many of us have far too little of. Yes the desire for a more intense and intimate connection can be extremely powerful and the pain of rejection thus immensely painful but the Friendzone paradigm makes the bonds of friendship seem vastly inferior to sexual access. It treats friendship as some kind of penalty box one is sent to after ‘losing the prize’, setting up the image of anyone continuing with the friendship after being rejected as clinging on in a doomed state of pining. Because, of course, the only reason someone would stick around after being denied sex would either be to wait it out and try again or desperately settling for whatever scraps of attention they can get.
It trivializes how difficult it is to hear ‘No’
The Friendzone gag trivializes how difficult it is to ask, how difficult it is to say ‘No’ to someone, but worst of all it trivializes the most difficult and painful part of it all, hearing the ‘No’. Rejection is an awful feeling regardless of the context but there is no rejection which cuts more deeply than when it happens in the romantic context. There is no form of rejection more personal, it is purely and completely personal. They aren’t saying ‘No’ to your work experience during a job interview, your suggestion on a joint project, or an offer to help them clean their garage. What is being put forward is you so what they are saying ‘No’ to is you. The Friendzone concept treats that as if it were nothing more than a fumbled football play offering no acknowledgment of the emotionally devastating experience it can be.
It dismisses the difficulty of what happens next
Working up the courage to ask is difficult. Having to say ‘No’ is difficult. Hearing ‘No’ is painful and difficult. And all of it is increased exponentially when it happens within an existing friendship. As our lives change, as we change, our feelings for the people in our lives can certainly change. A connection of friendship can start to take on different tones and feelings. The fear of risking a treasured friendship frequently leads to people suppressing developed romantic feelings both because of the potential loss of the friendship if the romantic relationship doesn’t work out but also because of the potential awkwardness and difficulty of continuing forward after a rejection. We don’t want to lose the friend we care about but are we then dooming ourselves, or the other person, to a pining existence? An incredibly complicated, difficult, and emotionally messy challenge which the ‘penalty box’ depiction fails to even remotely do justice.
It’s only commonly used in reference to men
Attractions can from in any and all directions and unrequited mismatches can occur in countless different combination and permutations. But the Friendzone term is almost universally only used in reference to men. At a first squinting glance it might seem to empower women, placing the choices and control of access in their hands but the tone is always one of ‘the poor guy’ having ‘failed to score’. It places women, or more specifically sexual access to them, in the role of objects to be ‘won’ and places men on a team whose sole mission is trying to score that win reducing something deeply personal and powerfully emotional to the level of a juvenile game.
It enables ‘pretend blindness’
In a case of ‘the joke becoming the truth’ one of the standard tropes of the Friendzone model is a conversation something along the lines of -
“Why can’t I meet a guy who’s more like you?”
“Well…I’m like me…”
“Oh, ha ha. You’re so funny. That’s why we’re always going to be best friends!”
There are countless memes out there mocking people’s texts of this exchange with some sort of call for a moment of silence for the poor ‘Friendzoned’ soul. That actual conversation can be incredibly difficult to have, from both sides. Treating it as a cultural joke not only sets up the cop-out of deflecting the question with seemingly innocent ignorance but also implies that once such a deflection has been used there is no further room for discussion. Those kinds of feelings are powerful and important and need to be properly dealt with not shrugged aside with a giggle. Not to mention the Friendzone model also insinuates a scenario of it being okay to lead someone around by their latent unrequited feelings, or to be lead around by them. That isn’t cute or funny it is cruelty, period.
It smacks of entitlement
One of the subtly toxic dangers of the Friendzone paradigm is that is carries with it a latent tone and attitude of entitlement. By reducing the scenario to a ‘failed to score’ mentality it mutates the painful truth of rejection into a preemptive denial which is something very different. Acknowledging it as a rejection is painful but it is the truth of what happened. You offered yourself to another person and they didn’t want you in that manner, they said ‘No’. Regard that situation as a denial instead and now the other person is blocking you from something you want. They are reduced from a desired partner to a wanted object, they are cast as an obstacle or enemy, and most dangerously the ‘denied what you want’ attitude implies that because you wanted something you were entitled to have it and the other person isn’t playing their proper part. Something we have been seeing far too much of for far too long when it comes to how women are viewed and treated in this regard.
Unrequited feelings are difficult, awkward, painful, and unfortunately they happen. We can’t choose or control who we fall for, or don’t. We can’t make someone feel something they don’t. We can’t make ourselves feel something we don’t. Nor can we make ourselves not feel something we do. Instead of coining catch-phrases and reducing one of the most powerful and intimate of human connections to the level of a game we need to do right by our feelings, right by ourselves, and right by the other person by struggling through that difficult conversation. Rather than tease, haze, and objectify we need to empower ourselves and others to be honest about what we feel. Including the times we hurt, otherwise we have no hope of truly moving on from it.