I keep seeing posts on Facebook and tumblr from intelligent women that I respect rebuking the term “friendzone.” That is, the abstract social place where a person (usually male) ends up when trying to date someone. Most notably the animosity is directed at men who supposedly pretend to be “Nice Guys ™” as a means of obtaining sex from the woman, and that they don’t actually care about them. Then when the friendzoning happens, they abandon the friendship, because they supposedly never actually cared to begin with. But it seems like every person who is mildly upset at being rejected is all getting lumped into one category by these blog posts.
This whole thing has brought some mild horror in my life. It has forced me to face the fact that the behavior of these so-called “nice guys” is some horrible bullshit and to also face the fact that I have definitely definitely definitely been there, more than once. Facing this fact has made me go over events in my life, retrace my steps, as it were, to see if I have wronged any friends by doing this. But it’s also made me think a lot about the backlash against the term itself, and helped me identify a few points I disagree with, or want to bring attention to. (more on that later)
First, let me do what most Nice Guys of my generation love to do, which is to talk about themselves. I am from a small town in the Midwest, one of those where everyone knows each other, where being friendly and generous and selfless is a virtue, and where everyone cares about being liked. I was raised to be nice to my family, be nice to my friends, be nice to strangers. Everyone I know from back home is the same way. However, I was also in that town’s underground punk scene. Me and my friends did not feel like we fit in, that a lot of the jocks and farm kids were stupid, and we all wanted to get out. I consumed progressive writers and thinkers, I listened to Ani Difranco, Liz Phair, and radical punk band, Propagandhi. These were my heros in early adulthood and why I identified as feminist at 16. After high school I went to college at a liberal arts school in a hippie college town and found a group of friends who taught me that gender is a construct, sex can be casual, and that we should try to do whatever we can to subvert patriarchy and oppression of women and people of color.
That being said, I was never the alpha male of any group I was in. And I would get crushes on everyone. If you had a butch haircut and armpit hair, I wanted to make you mixtapes with Alkaline Trio on them to show you how much I cared. I thought aggressive men were the worst and I never wanted to be that. I did not date much in high school or college; I was just in love with everyone from afar, would ask people out sometimes, and get turned down most times. The sexual experiences I had included brief makeouts that I was afraid and resistant to advance into a more sexual territory, even when the girl said explicitly she wanted to. This happened multiple times. I was afraid of regretting losing my virginity with someone I was not in a relationship with, but would eventually come to regret not losing it the first time someone asked me. I think my life would have been better and my development would have been different. Let’s blame a sexually repressed society on that one (I also blame myself).
Fast forward to after college. I was working at Target in a new town, and talking to strangers was hard again. I was not meeting new people that understood where I was coming from and confidence and assertiveness continued to be an issue. Just like when I had started college, I spent a lot of time being alone and it made me appreciate solitude and independence. I missed my friends like crazy, but it was all an important lesson in learning to love myself and being happy being alone. I gathered enough confidence to learn that it was not me, it was them, and moved to Chicago where I knew people would get my pop culture references and weird sense of humor.
Fast forward a few months; making friends was hard again, and romantic partners even harder. I started dating on Craigslist, (some of whom are still friends to this day) but I did not find any substantial relationships. This was the point where I went the longest I had ever gone without even kissing someone, and was starting to get depressed about it. This new girl (whose name I am withholding for her protection) started working in my office. She had yellow hair, a sunny disposition, and was really nice to me. She laughed at my jokes and would have these lilting cadences to her sighs that drew me in and made me feel like I was the only person in the room. For her birthday I left a six pack of her favorite diet soda on her desk as well as a mix CD with The Bird & The Bee on it. Basically I was doing all of the things described in every characterization of the nice-guy handbook; doing favors, trying to win affection through generosity, and just giving random attention.
I was convinced something was going to happen; I was interpreting her polite attention as green lights. She invited me to this art show in her neighborhood, where different galleries and businesses showcase local artists. It was a really great event and at the time I really enjoyed seeing a new part of Chicago. But nothing happened after that. I can’t remember if I would invite her to things and she would just say no, or what. I just know that I never explicitly asked her out, because I did not want work to be awkward. But it was already bad enough, because despite not being in a relationship with this person, and despite the fact that she clearly wasn’t interested that way, I continued to grow more and more infatuated until I was in an unhealthy way, thinking about her all the time, and depressed. A song that became my mantra was “I Don’t Want To Get Over You” by The Magnetic Fields, which still reminds me of her to this day.
Let me be clear; I am really grossed out by who I was during that time. I am sure I was not fun to be around, and probably confused her immensely with my behavior. In an effort to get her out of my system, I would try to avoid speaking to her altogether. All the nice guy things I had been doing like bringing her soda and talking about her day, that was all gone. She had never done anything actually wrong; she just didn’t want to date me, and probably could tell that I liked her and didn’t want to give me the wrong idea by hanging out with me. I was too afraid to friend her on facebook or ask for her number. Serious confidence issues here. Probably still have them.
But, so, anyway. At the time I also did feel like she had done something wrong. I felt like she had lead me on, just by being nice to me and paying attention to me. I don’t think that now, mind you. But at the time, I was like UGH WHY IS SHE DOING THIS TO ME?? I can also recall a specific gchat conversation I had about her with my friend Lillian who is a brilliant make-up and costume designer in New York. I can remember saying something to the effect of “I was really proud of myself for liking someone who seems unconventionally attractive, like she should appreciate that I did that” and Lillian totally and completely called me out for believing I was entitled to this woman just because I noticed her. That is fucked up and I still hate myself for being on my side of that conversation. But yeah, I totally perceived actions she took as making me like her so that she could use me to do things for her. I could not name what those things are at this point, because I think she probably didn’t actually do that. Gradually I got her out of my system and, as things go, she moved to a different office and it stopped even being a thing. She is married now. And I started to more aggressively pursue online-dating. Met people after that. Moved on.
Getting back to friendzoning for a moment. After that time, when I had a healthy-enough distance from it, I wrote a short story about the experience. The narrator was a pathetic, non-self-aware spineless person, who at the end of the story confesses his love for the girl based on the aforementioned co-worker, which I never did. She explains that she likes men who aren’t quite such milquetoast wetblankets, and he settles for the next woman that will have him, much like the fate of Cameron Frye in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a Nice Guy™ if ever there were one. The story was supposed to characterize him as weak, and was supposed to exorcise the demon of that time in my life.
But, so, in that story I used the term “friendzone” and described it as a non-geographical location my protagonist would often end up. (I thought I had made it up, in much the same way that my dad thought he invented stick people and the way my sister at age six recorded a version of the Everly Brothers song “Dream” into a tape recorder, and all the words were “Dreeeeam, dream dream dream dream dreeeeeeam, dream dream dream dream dreeeeeeam” at which point she declared “Here’s a song I wrote!”) And I started to use it in my own life as well, as a shorthand for being rejected or dumped. When my friend Emily said she no longer wanted to make out / stop seeing each other, I texted my friend Sean a one word message that just said: “friendzoned.” to let him know. When my friend Katie seemed like she wanted to date me and invited me to hang out, I brought Sean along to “friendzone” her / let her know it was not a date.
Yes, all of this is stupid. Yes, all of this is deeply insecure / passive-aggressive / indirect way of doing emotional work. But I guess my point is, the way that men are using friendzone now, and the way that the women I like and respect are describing it, is not really the way I was using it. Yes, I was using it to describe the basic act of rejecting someone you don’t want to date, but I never did it with all of the fucking vitriol that the Nice Guys of OKCupid use it, and their paramours. I would use it lightheartedly to my friends as a means of coping with the rejection. It was a way to not take it so fucking hard. “Oh, it’s OK, I’m in the friendzone, so I will move on.”
And I am hard-pressed to think of a friendship of mine that did not recover from it. Let me repeat that: Basically every person who rejected me, I ended up staying friends with. Because it’s just what you do. You get fucking over it. I think these men that are described on all of these blog posts, you are finding them at a deeply insecure moment of their lives, a very pained snapshot of what they are going through presently. What will probably happen, if they are not a shitty person, is they will get over the so-called “friendzoning” and you’ll probably get to a place where you can be civil and eventually friends.
So let’s redefine the rubric that we’re working with, can we? Here are some points I want to convey so that we are on a plane more based in reality than hyperbole.
-You are totally right. All of this is bullshit and you are correct in lamenting it. Because it is insecure bullshit and every aspect of it is still feeding into the patriarchy and keeping people apart and in big ways keeping sex this taboo thing that is up on a pedestal and keeping everyone down. The fact that the moderator of the Nice Guys of OKCupid blog gets fucking death threats and violent messages with references to rape tells us that there is still something severely wrong here.
-That being said: Most of the dudes who are extremely embittered about you just wanting to be their friend, are likely to feel that way only because it has already happened a whole bunch of times before. They probably already have a lot of platonic friendships and an active social support network and are specifically looking for a partner, not a friend. They are doing it wrong and they hate themselves for it or are oblivious and are lashing out. Is it their fault? Yes. Is it because they are probably unappealing as a partner? Sure. Is it OK that they are a giant whiney asshole about it? Of course not. Will they get over it? Probably. And you might even be friends afterward. Should you forgive them (from a safe distance, once they grow out of it and demonstrate a pattern of stability)? Yes, if you are trying to be a good person. If you are not trying to be a good person, then you should not expect anyone else to be a good person on your behalf.
-If a dude is especially crazy afterwards, you probably shouldn’t want his friendship anyway, and should not mourn the loss of that friendship.
-If a dude claims to be a nice guy but espouses patriarchal or misogynistic viewpoints, he is not a nice person, and is not worthy of your friendship or partnership. But not everyone who has confidence issues or is bad at finding a partner is sexist, and I want you to know that. Is the act of putting a potential girlfriend on a super high pedestal that no non-fictional human can reach part of a sexist and patriarchal culture? Definitely. But I would like for actual good people to not be lumped in with the so-called nice guys just because they are better at friending than girlfriending.
-If a dude wants to date you, but doesn’t know how to ask, and so is instead building a friendship with you as you get to know each other, it is probably not the case that he is only after sex. If he is actually hurt by it, it probably is the case that he put some amount of emotional investment into the hope that it will work out between the two of you, and is upset and disappointed that he failed and has to find someone else. I don’t think it’s as simple as him “trying to put kindness coins into you trying to get sex to fall out.” This is an analogy that seems to be repeated verbatim in every blog post on this topic, and it was really funny the first time I read it, but now it just sounds unfair and not accurately characterizing the situation, or is lumping in a bunch of different problems into one problem. But it’s just reductive and unoriginal, made worse by the fact that everyone who blogs about this topic just seems to be cutting and pasting that single line from each other, that one metaphor, so that they all have snarky snappy writing. And they also add fedoras to them. Like that is somehow an automatic indicator of a spineless friendzoney vaguely rapey guy, that all of the nice guys are also kind of rapey (but they are not, you guys!). Do pathetic white males who are still benefiting from a system where they will continue to succeed in every other way deserve much defending? No. But at least identify what the actual problem is and call out the correct people on that problem. Or if you’re going to write a blog post about this topic, don’t use someone else’s zinger. Just write a different zinger. Another common thing in these posts is the blogger informing the reader that the friend zone “isn’t real” / “isn’t a real thing/place.” I submit that no one actually believes that it is a real thing or place, and that we all stop talking to each other like we are stupid and not all equals.
OK but so, this is not supposed to be me telling feminist bloggers how to feminist blog. Blog how you’re gonna blog. This is supposed to be addressing the issue of the sad friend-male. If this piece describes you, listen to me:
-Get over it. Get the fuck over it. Fucking get over it. She doesn’t like you. The last five didn’t. You’re doing something wrong. Accept it, be 100% OK with it, and find someone else. In the words of Dan Savage, every relationship you will ever have will fail. Every single relationship fails. Every one of them fails. They will all fail. Until one doesn’t. So fucking get ready for it, and fucking get over it.
-Are you seriously not going to be friends with someone just because they didn’t want to reciprocate your weird, shy, nervous, insecure and vaguely passive-aggressive advances? Did you think it was going to work out? See above. It wasn’t going to work out. It is not the most significant thing that you both like the same cancelled sit-com. Do you understand that the flipside of this is that now that person can’t trust you? And that it’s possible she already had a bunch of other guys do this same shit to her? And now she feels like dudes don’t actually want to be her friend, they just want to fuck her? And you helped perpetuate that? Do you really want to be that dude? Are you really not going to be emotionally supportive to her NOW after you did all that work of becoming her friend? Be her fucking friend, don’t be a fucking asshole. If you want to be a nice guy, be a fucking nice guy. Or better yet, don’t be a nice guy, be a good. person.
-If being yourself isn’t working, then you are not actually being yourself. If you are not being up front about what you actually want and what your actual desires are, you are being dishonest and you are not being yourself. If you have a lot of anger due to being friendzoned, do some therapy, and some jogging. Don’t be crass, just don’t be dishonest. Be tactful. Be tasteful. Be respectful. But don’t be dishonest.
-Stop trying to date people. This goes for both sexes. Stop perpetuating the mistaken perception that your identity and your existence is predicated upon or validated by who you are dating or how successful your dating life is. It doesn’t fucking matter. What your parents think doesn’t matter. What your friends think doesn’t matter. What movies think doesn’t matter. You don’t need a partner. You are fine on your own. And if you’re not fine on your own, why the fuck aren’t you fine on your own? Get fine on your own. Figure out what is missing (don’t say a girlfriend or boyfriend) and fix that part. Work on yourself. Love yourself. Do good. Be a good person. Be a good person unconditionally. Be selfless. Be selfish. Love yourself. Love your friends. Be happy without a partner. If something good comes along, be open to it. If nothing ever comes, be prepared to be happy without. Go without.
The tail-end of the personal aspect of this piece is this: I upped my online-dating game, went on a series of awkward and unsuccsesful internet dates, eventually met a nice girl at a thing I volunteer for. I did all the same friendy things I had been doing my whole life. I put her on a giant pedestal. Eventually it came out that we liked each other. So my normal tactic totally 100% worked. We dated for a year. We would have long conversations about tradition and why neither of us made the first move. We would have fights about social interactions. We would fight in public. We were both different from who we were when we were politely courting each other. We changed into different people. We broke up. Now I don’t idealize that quirky romantic comedy. It is a fantasy. It is John Hughes. It is John Cusack. It is not real life. I idealize independence, solitude, loving myself and being a good person. Right now I am at a point where I would much rather be alone than be in some shitty failing relationship. I am not on the lookout for that. My position is, I am getting what I need from my friendships, and the random occasional one-off hookups that sometimes happen. I crave being alone but am open for the thing that will make me change my mind. Anything less than that, I am not interested. And you shouldn’t be either. Hold out for the really really good one, and love your solitude in the meantime. Hold on to your friendships. You will need them. And when I get a crush on a co-worker or a friend, I brace myself for the possibility that it’s going to fail. Because so does everything. Get the fuck over it.