The Dark Side of the Friend Zone

Girls and boys learn about the dreaded “friend zone” from a very young age. While this may seem unproblematic at the surface level, this is one of the many ways that girls and boys start internalizing hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity. Hegemonic masculinity is a set of ideas about what a “real man” should be like (Shields, 2017). Traits associated with a traditionally masculine man uphold the notion that men are naturally dominant to women, and within the context of the friend zone, involve the following beliefs: 1) men actively chase women and 2) being the “nice guy” will prevent them from getting the woman they want. Emphasized femininity, on the other hand, is a set of ideas about what a woman should be like, and within the context of the friend zone, involves the following beliefs: 1) women passively choose men and 2) women should feel guilty for rejecting men and should establish their boundaries in subtle, indirect ways (Shields, 2017). All of this sets the stage for male entitlement and promotes rape culture. Thus, the friend zone reinforces hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity as well as the behaviors associated with them that promote rape culture.

Dance Moms Meme

When it is perceived that the female is in control of who she decides to friend zone or not to friend zone, the balance of power may seem to be in her favor; nevertheless, within the wider frame of context, patriarchal notions of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity are still at play.  Young girls internalize these ideologies, and “become familiar with the language and manners of the oppressor, even sometimes adopting them for some illusion of protection” (Lorde, 1980, pg.1). This is seen in the image above, where a young girl uses the term “friend zone” without knowing that it is part of a broader system designed to oppress her.

Friends Meme

In popular media, guys who are “friend zoned” are almost always emotional, empathetic, weak, and conventionally unattractive. These are all traits that do not align with notions of hegemonic masculinity. Even worse is that they are often coached by guys who are the complete opposite to be more aggressive. This further emasculates men who are already at a disadvantage and fuels negative sentiments that can later lead to sexual assault.

The Friend Zone Movie Poster

One of the beliefs about the friend zone is that being in a friendship for a long time with an attractive woman is pointless and undesirable. This belief is often one-sided, with the woman valuing the friendship for what it is much more than the man. It is also grounded in the idea that men can’t help but pursue their sexual desires, while women are both the prize and the obstacle. This perception contributes to rape culture because it can fuel negative sentiments toward women as gatekeepers.

Friend Zone Movie Poster

As seen in the examples above and in many other forms of popular media, the friend zone trope is often used in a comedic context. However, this trivializes the problematic implications of the friend zone. In this movie ad, caution tape is used as a boundary between the two friends; this not only sends the message that the boundary can be crossed, but it also objectifies the woman, making her the area that cannot be “trespassed.” The phrase “no matter how close” in this ad is also problematic, as it implies that romantic closeness should come with a certain level of platonic closeness. This is also sexually objectifying. These ideas are grounded in hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity and contributes to rape culture by promoting male entitlement.

Fastrack Ad

The idea of the friend zone is not only used by writers in movies and TV shows, but also by companies to promote their products as a means to avoid or escape the friend zone. This ad capitalizes on the time-sensitive nature of the friend zone. As was implicated in the Friends example, it is often said that men must communicate their romantic intentions quickly to avoid being put into the friend zone. However, once in the friend zone, the man must wait patiently for the woman to fall for him. This is also grounded in hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity and is the idea being used in this ad. The hope (and what usually results) is that women eventually do change their mind. This promotes rape culture by supporting male entitlement and the idea that women will change their mind so long as they are given enough time or pressured enough.

Single Barrel Rum Ad

Another factor that influences whether a man is put into the friend zone is having traits that do not align with hegemonic masculinity. From this, the idea follows that men who do have traits that align with hegemonic masculinity are not put into the friend zone. The man depicted in this image exemplifies just that, as he is manly and strong, posed in a firm stance with a determined, tough-guy look in his eye. Interestingly, this ad also speaks to societal views of the passive woman. The woman depicted is thin, presumably able-bodied, being wooed and charmed by the man. She is playing the role of the submissive, in an off balanced stance, only depicted in relation to the male taking charge of the image.  Another idea embedded in this ad is a more subtle one but begins to point towards the more dangerous implications of the friend zone, which is that it is something that should be dealt with, often in deceptive ways.

Bloomingdale’s Ad

All of the former examples have built up to these final two ads, which were both taken down after facing public backlash for outright promoting rape culture. The notion that the friend zone is an undesirable place that you become stuck in advocates for taking actions outside of the females knowledge or consent in order to attain her as an object of sexual desire that the male in this case feels entitled to.  It is almost as if a friend zoned male feels as if a female choosing to consider him as a friend is some kind of injustice or obstacle that the male must overcome, as opposed to simply accepting friendship in place of a sexual relationship. It is clear that up to this point the male friend has played the nice guy as he is the woman’s best friend, but clearly he has ulterior motives which he is willing to fulfill in a dangerous way.

Virgin Mobile Ad

The sheer determination and dedication that goes into the male plight of escaping the friend zone in the media speaks to the hyper-sexualization of women within our society, when it is normalized and even made fun of, that men go to these lengths in order to avoid capping off at a mere friendship with a woman.  While this phenomenon represents the over-sexualization of female bodies within our society, it simultaneously portrays the way in which a man’s perspective or “worldview has been normalized to the point of being considered the one true, accurate, and all-inclusive reflection of reality” (Jones, 2020).  In these instances of media portrayals of the friend zone, the female is almost always devoid of agency or perspective and is instead objectified as something to be conquered and won over. This promotes rape culture because it normalizes the use of coercion to fulfill sexual desires.

Instances of a male being friend zoned to his dismay by a female he is romantically interested in within popular media help to promote and further normalize the societal ideals of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity that then in essence help to further develop the rape culture that plagues our society.  As young men and women internalize these ideologies propagated back and forth between society and the media, a dangerous standard is set for interactions between the sexes.  The notion of being friend zoned is far less widespread in non heteronormative relationship interactions, and this speaks to the relevance of male/female interactions within the patriarchy and the assumed roles that each play within the context of romantic interest.  As has been evident among the various media advertisements and images previously displayed, the concept of the friend zone effectively assumes the female in the role of the submissive and the male in the active, dominant role.  This relieves the female of any individual agency or perspective within the context of the friend zone, other than being pursued as a prize to be won through the intention of a sexual relationship.  The fact that the role of a female within this context is simply to be won over or convinced to participate in the sexual desire initiated by the male speaks to the over-sexualization and objectification of women’s and even young girls’ bodies within our society. 

Lorde, A. (1980, April ). Age, race, class, and sex: women redefining difference [PDF].  Crossing Press. https://utexas.instructure.com/courses/1281087/files/54149447/download?wrap=1

Jones, N. (2020). Returning our heads inside the fight to dismantle the (white) Gods of hollywood.  The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood.  California: Beacon Press. (Reprinted from The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood, by N. Jones, 2020, Beacon Press).

Shields, G., & Heinzelman, S. (2017). A place where every decent guy will find himself eventually: delineating the friend zone as a site of sexual violence. Texas ScholarWorks. Retrieved from https://search.lib.utexas.edu/permalink/01UTAU_INST/be14ds/alma991047337309706011.

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