Krystie Lee Yandoli: When Daniel Radcliffe came to BuzzFeed on June 20, he said something that seemed to really strike a chord with a lot of women in the room. Later this summer, Radcliffe co-stars in a rom-com, What If, in which his character falls for a girl who’s already in a relationship but they try to remain just friends. When discussing the dynamics of male and female relationships, Radcliffe said:
“Friend-zoning is a terrible thing. The idea of a friend zone is like a terrible, male… have you ever heard a girl say she’s in the friend zone? It’s a thing I think men need to be really careful about using… I definitely think the idea of friend zone is just men going, ‘This woman won’t have sex with me.’”
In response, most of the room — and likely the majority of women present — cheered in agreement. I immediately thought to myself, Finally, a dude who actually gets it.
I was especially happy that this is something Daniel Radcliffe said. So often I find that it’s women trying to defend themselves against the friend zone and make all of these same valid points, and it’s really easy to be a straight white male and be completely unaware of how problematic the friend zone is. Not to give him a huge pat on the back for simply being aware of his privilege and how it positions him in the world, but his remarks were a nice change of pace because it’s simply not as likely to hear straight white men talk so openly and intelligently about the friend zone.
Tracy Clayton: I also love it when this happens because I feel like privileged people are more likely to be heard in general, so when they speak about privilege there’s a better chance that the people who need to hear the message will actually hear it and maybe receive it.
His comments resonated with me because they were exactly right! There are covert ways of asking and intimating things that, when phrased otherwise, are just really creepy or downright offensive, like how people ask, “So, what are you?” when talking about ethnicity but don’t quite ask, “So, why aren’t you white?” This friend zone business is completely about sex and entitlement, not about friendship at all. It’s less damaging to the ego to say “she friend-zoned me” rather than “she doesn’t want me.” The focus then becomes the evilness of the woman, giving the poor rejected man something to blame other than his own undesirableness in the eyes of the woman who “friend-zoned” him. It’s: “That bitch. She friend-zoned me! I was nice to her!” rather than “That woman. I wasn’t good enough for her.”
The concept of the friend zone is dangerous for both men and women. It undermines the importance of a woman’s consent, of taking her at her word when she says “no” or “no thank you” or “I’m not interested.” It also reinforces the already dangerous idea that men are entitled to whatever they want if they ask for it the right way, that “no” is not a complete sentence when coming from a woman. It encourages manipulativeness in men, makes them believe that there is a reward for duping a woman and making her comfortable enough to take advantage of her later. It makes the struggle for decency harder for men as a whole, who are already imprisoned in the idea that “boys will be boys,” shirking them of their responsibility to be good people, which hurts everyone.
Julia Pugachevsky: Before I knew there was a term called ‘friend zone,’ I clearly remember being upset with multiple guys in high school for giving me this sort of ultimatum where I could either date them or have to face the awkwardness of not being their friend anymore, according to them, on their terms. It was this weird, dramatic thing that would happen every time a guy asked me out, where he would sulk, tell all his friends (and mine) that I was friend-zoning him, and I’d have to apologize a lot for not wanting to date him. Meanwhile, if I ever liked a guy, I would go about the whole thing by asking him out, and, out of respect for him and pride for myself, if he said no, I would immediately brush it off and act like nothing happened. That’s the only acceptable way to behave. Or don’t hang out with them, if it hurts that much.
As an adult and after having actually dated, I realize how the friend zone is just the stepping-stone to much more serious problems, mainly that men think that love is “earned” instead of felt. And it becomes this thing where a woman’s voice gets lost, where the man does what he thinks is romantic like buy flowers and pay for drinks and relentlessly pursue a woman so much so that the “no” isn’t even remotely heard. You know what’s romantic? Hearing “no,” accepting it, and moving on.
Krystie Lee Yandoli: I used to be friends with this guy who I really loved as a person and who I spent a lot of time with, both in group settings and by ourselves. I never friend-zoned him, by the stereotypical definition; we were always friends with no other romantic intentions or inclinations. Eventually people started telling me that he liked me and I needed to stop “leading him on.” Our mutual friends gave me a hard time because they said I friend-zoned this guy and didn’t “give him a fair chance” — just because he liked me, it was assumed that I had to give him a chance, completely ignoring any feelings I had about the matter. Meanwhile, I’ve also been in situations where I’ve had crushes on other people I call my friends, but as a woman, I’ve never been told that I’m in the friend zone.
That’s what probably frustrates me the most about the friend zone — the language we use automatically assumes that women should be attracted to or want to date any men they value as friends, because if they’re good enough to be friends then why aren’t they good enough to be your romantic partners? That’s problematic to me, because it also perpetuates the notion that men are entitled to women (and therefore, women’s bodies) whenever they want them.
Is it just me, or don’t you think that kind of enables rape culture? In the same way that people say things like, “Well, you were really asking for it!” when a woman is assaulted or harassed, I find that language to be common in terms of the friend zone as well when people say, “Well, of course he liked you (even though you two are just friends) because of how you treated him, etc.”
Tracy Clayton: There’s definitely a link there. Rape culture made the construction of the friend zone possible. Rape culture strips a woman of her right to consent, and it punishes her when she dares take control of her body, and the friend zone does the same thing. They’re both built on the premise that in the face of a man’s will, a woman should never say no; that no doesn’t actually mean no, it means try harder; that a man can mine her for what he wants because he has the right to. If it was understood and accepted that women are people with the right to govern themselves, neither the friend zone nor rape culture would exist.
I’ve had to ex quite a few male friends from my life because they tried to take advantage of me after I made it plain that I wasn’t interested in being anything more than friends. I was dating a guy, and while we were out one day we met another guy who was very cool, and the three of us struck up a conversation about some blogs and online projects we had going on. We exchanged information, vowing to hang out and do some brainstorming together. He and I hung out solo a time or two and I felt very accomplished because I overcame a huge anxiety by deciding to trust this person who appeared to be a really good guy. I told him, pointedly, that I was not looking for anything other than friendship. He said he understood, assured me I’d have no problems from him. I decided that I would give him the benefit of the doubt, and that if something did happen, the fault would be his for misleading me, not mine for trusting him.
Time wears on and the guy that I’m dating and I decide to chill things out. I can’t remember if I told my new friend that or not (I don’t think I did), but shortly after, he and I were out and I had quite a bit to drink. As the night went on and things got wavier, I realized that I was in a booth with this guy who twice grabbed my face and kissed me. I was too drunk to gather myself to correct him or smack him, as I wanted to do the next morning, and instead excused myself and called my best friend to come get me, which he did.
I felt horrible. I felt like the entire time we were hanging out and enjoying each other’s company, he was just biding his time, plotting and planning on how to get what he wanted. I felt like I was just a thing for him to conquer. I felt deceived, lied to, and belittled. At the same time, I felt like I was the one who had done something wrong, that I must have somehow led him on even though I was so careful not to flirt, not to wear anything too revealing around him, not to give too many casual little touches while talking or having lunch, and even though I told him pointedly that I wasn’t interested. That was the most frustrating feeling of all: feeling like I must have caused it even though I knew better.
Krystie Lee Yandoli: That is what I think connects the friend zone and rape culture together entirely: You felt like you had done something wrong, even after you explicitly said to this guy that you were only interested in a platonic friendship. It’s that blame factor that essentially shames women into having sex with a dude, or makes her feel like shit if she won’t have sex with him, but either way her agency is completely removed and not a part of the equation. Because for whatever reasons, both systemically and individually, men think they’re entitled to having sex with women that they want to have sex with. Men didn’t come up with this idea of the friend zone all on their own — they had a lot of help from our society and culture that allows them to think this is the case — and that blame and shame is what also keeps rape culture alive and well. As long as women are continuously blamed for the sexual wants and desires of men based on their appearance and/or behavior, then we’re failing both women and men.
That’s what’s especially dangerous to me about the idea of the friend zone: It assumes that all men and women are supposed to have sex and can’t be friends, but only under the condition that the man in the relationship digs the woman. What Daniel Radcliffe said is so true: You never hear a woman say, “I’m in the friend zone.” You just don’t.
People don’t think about it in the same way, and partially because of another major frustration I have with the friend zone: It completely leaves out people in the LGBT community and perpetuates ideas and stereotypes around heteronormativity when it comes to men, women, and sex. It also reinforces the notion that men and women can’t be friends because they’re assumed to be sexually attracted to each other, but when two men or two women engage in platonic friendships, you never hear people talk about being friend-zoned. You don’t see it in movies, TV shows, or even when people talk about it in real life, especially mainstream media and mainstream heteronormative culture.
Julia Pugachevsky: You bring up an excellent point, Krystie. I have plenty of gay male friends who are purely platonic friends with other gay men and somehow everyone gets along and doesn’t whine about the friend zone. So that argument of men “always wanting sex” and “not being able to control themselves” when it comes to thinking about their friends in a sexual way is completely debunked. It’s just a lousy excuse, repeatedly reinforced by our culture and social norms.
And that’s not to say that you can’t have a crush on your friend. We’re all human beings, we get crushes whether we want to or not, but waiting around and hoping your friend breaks up with their significant other is pretty fundamentally messed up. If you really care about them so much, wouldn’t you want them to be happy, even if it’s not with you?
There was a guy I had a crush on for a while, and I genuinely didn’t know he had a girlfriend (he never brought her up somehow/was super private about it) — and the moment I found out I immediately backed off. He wouldn’t know the difference, anyway, because I was always just cordial and never made it obvious that I liked him. The change is internal, in that I no longer hope he notices my lip gloss or new haircut because he has a girlfriend whom he loves, and that’s beautiful and rare. Why would I mess with that? There are other people out there, I have self-confidence, and I’m not going to cling to this one guy I don’t even really know that well and hope his love life gets ruined just so I can maybe have someone.
The thing about humans is, we all have an incredible radar for desperation. We smell it immediately, we sense it a mile away — when someone wants you because of some idea in their head or some mold they try to put you in because they need someone and not you specifically. It’s like those guys in high school who would ask out five different girls in a row and then wail about always being friend-zoned. It’s objectifying and gross and not romantic at all, because you never really see or value the person you’re so actively pursuing.