There’s this idea that if a guy is nice to a girl, he deserves something in return. A thank you? Sure. Some… other form of appreciation? Would be more appreciated. What if a guy was nice to a girl over a much longer period of time? Then they’re friends, right? Sure. But what if the guy wants to be more than friends, but for all his niceness, the girl still won’t go out with him?
Well, then the guy’s stuck in the dreaded “friend zone”. And what is the friend zone? It’s where girls relegate guys who are just nice enough to not make it into that erogenous zone where they actually get to have sex. Or, in other words, it’s a stupid social construct that implies both that a guy can’t be nice to a girl out of sheer altruism or friendship, and that if a guy is nice to a girl, she must reciprocate by sleeping with him. And whether or not it’s the girl doing the friendzoning, somehow, the pressure is always on the girl’s romantic interests.
Let’s take a look at some examples from pop culture so you can see what I mean. Slight spoilers for The Hunger Games and Les Misérables below.
Traditionally, the friend zone is a term applied specifically to girls who only want to be friends with guys, so let’s look at that first. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the beast—if the guy is just persistent enough, sex will happen, right?—the friend zone turns into a love story in many cases, because the girl gives in to what she “should” do and gets with the guy. Katniss and Peeta from The Hunger Games are one example of a friend zone that turned into a true romance. Peeta is the one who’s always loved Katniss, even from when they were kids and she had no idea who he was. When the Hunger Games begin, she’s forced into a pretend relationship with Peeta for the sake of sponsorships that could save both their lives. Throughout the course of the books, she’s constantly told that she doesn’t deserve him and she honestly believes she’s not good enough for him.
There’s a really interesting NPR article that speculates Peeta makes a very good Movie Girlfriend for Katniss, and while I think it makes a good point, I also think Katniss and Peeta’s romance reads, on a very literal level, as a girl being forced into doing what society wants her to do for the sake of her livelihood (and, in this case, her life). Katniss never truly got a second to make up her own mind—she was always pretending to be in love with Peeta until the third book, in which she deems Gale, her other love interest, too similar to herself. When she and Peeta resettle in District 12, she finally realizes what she’d been pretending all along was actually true.
You know, you could live a thousand lifetimes and not deserve him.
—Haymitch, to Katniss, in Catching Fire
This perhaps isn’t the best example of the friend zone, because the danger and the media publicity inherent in The Hunger Games is not something found in other romcoms or, indeed, in real life, but there are still some points to be seen here. (Jacob and Bella’s relationship, from Twilight, would be a much better example, but either fortunately or unfortunately, I have not read Twilight or its sequels.) In the case of Katniss and Peeta, the pressure is on the girl to accept the guy’s advances—everyone can see that Peeta is a great guy, except perhaps for his family. People constantly wonder why Peeta likes Katniss, and they wonder why Katniss doesn’t seem to like him. Even if Katniss doesn’t personally like Peeta, their society, and specifically the soap opera plotline the Capitol gives them, is forcing her into a relationship with him.
However, in terms of gender, the trope of the friend zone can be turned around. What happens when it’s a guy who friendzones a girl? Marius and Éponine from Les Misérables are an excellent example of this sort of friend zone. Whether you know them from the original book, the Schönberg/Boublil stage adaptation, or the 2012 movie adaptation of the stage adaptation, one thing is clear: Éponine is very, very in love with Marius. In every version of the story, Marius asks her to help him find his one true love, Cosette. She does that, and she joins him at the barricade, and she dies protecting him. For her concern, she gets a chaste kiss on the forehead after she’s dead.
At least in the movie, it’s very visible that Marius thought of Éponine as a friend and did have some regard for her. In the stage adaptation, the rest of the barricade boys gather around her body and proclaim that “she did not die in vain”. In the book (and source material), however, it’s less touching. Éponine and Marius meet when she comes to beg him for money, and Marius only ever seems interested in her as a source of information. As the relevant parts of the novel are told from Marius’s point of view, Éponine’s story is framed as something to be pitied. There is never any pressure on Marius to sleep with Éponine because she’s been nice to him or because she has a crush on him. In fact, look at how author Victor Hugo described Marius’s actions after Éponine’s death in the book:
Marius kept his promise. He kissed the pale forehead, bedewed with an icy sweat. It was no act of infidelity to Cosette, but a deliberate, tender farewell to an unhappy spirit.
—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Marius’s kiss in the source material is as unromantic a kiss as can be imagined. He is neither Éponine’s friend nor her lover, and he has never felt pressured by her interest to become either one.
So if a girl friendzones a guy, she’s met with confusion or outright shaming—why won’t you sleep with that nice guy?—but if a guy friendzones a girl, he’s never met with any sort of negative reaction. In fact, in that case, it seems to also come back on the girl—it’s her fault for being into a guy who clearly has no interest in her. Somehow the friend zone is always bad for the girl, because no matter what, the story is about who she will or will not sleep with. That’s a pretty silly construction to have in our society.