Friday, March 22, 2013

The Friend Zone

Amanda Marcotte writes in Slate that "the friend zone is mostly a straight-male phenomenon based on the widespread sexist belief that straight men can never truly be friends with women without having an ulterior motive. "

She writes this in response to the phrase's inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary, which itself catches some sarcastic flak from her for deigning to give legitimacy to the term. Marcotte's objection is that the phrase "friend zone" implies, in her view, some kind of obligation on the part of a woman that, to quote her, "shifts the locus of responsibility from the subject to the object of the crush. It implies that, as the object is at fault for "putting" her admirer into the friend zone, it is her duty to do something to remove him from it, preferably by getting naked. "

Marcotte's reference to that "widespread sexist belief that straight men can never truly be friends with women without having an ulterior motive" is based upon "The Ladder Theory" a 1994 idea positing that men arrange the women in their lives along a single scale from "would most like to sleep with" to "would least like to sleep with" whereas women arrange the men in their lives along two scales of preference, one like the make ladder based around sexual possibilities and one that is entirely platonic.

Back in 1994, when the theory was posited, a corollary of it was that straight men could never truly be friends with women since they always had at least some sexual designs upon them.  I think that's up for debate but I'll spot Marcotte that point because it really doesn't matter. Regardless of the validity of the masculine side of the ladder theory the women's version holds no such allegedly "sexist" baggage. The feminine side of ladder theory merely states that women have two ladders -- sexual and platonic -- and that it is nearly impossible for a given person to move from one ladder to the other.

That is the essence of the friend zone; it is the state of being on the platonic ladder.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with that. As a married man I would hope that my relationship with the vast majority of the women I know is one in which I am firmly ensconced on the platonic ladder and while I could be correctly described as in those women's "friend zones" the phrase loses meaning when used in this way.

When men refer to someone being in "the friend zone" it is usually in the context of that person's (futile) attempts to escape it. What criticism there is in the phrase is not leveled at the woman who merely perceives an accommodating and dedicated friend, but at the man, who painfully over-extends himself in what outsiders know to be an ultimately doomed attempt to jump from one ladder to the next.

There are, of course, as there are in any human relationship, occasional instances of exploitation that go along with the dynamic. Men, particularly young, awkward, teenagers are prone to preposterously over-the-top displays of devotion. If these displays took the form of an expensive gift few would seriously contend that the young woman in question should accept it yet there is substantially less social stigma involved in her availing herself of the fruits of a doomed suitor's devotion if they are immaterial. A great many men take entirely defensible offence at this social norm.  This is not to say that a woman should reciprocate every infatuated guy's overtures with sex but rather that she should honestly, politely, and discretely rebuff them regardless of how convenient they might prove just as she should expensive jewelry and other gifts.  The phrase "I couldn't possibly accept that" has a place here.

Are there guys out there who can't take a hint? Of course and it doesn't hurt to be more direct with them but to paint them as misogynistic woman-haters who feel that they are entitled to sex is just as reductionist and objectifying as the 1950's female stereotypes that feminists so abhor.

As bad as the article is up to this point, however, it is in the last paragraph that Marcotte shows her true colors; here I will quote her with copious context so as to avoid any misunderstanding.
With a little practice, a lady can tell the difference between men with these social graces and men who are going to complain online about what a heartless friend-zoner you are. Red flags to look out for: inordinate amounts of time spent on Reddit, My Little Pony paraphernalia in his home or on his Facebook page, a tendency to use terms like alpha and beta male, and a paranoid belief that women in Princess Leia costumes have set out to destroy him.
I'll grant that the phrase "beta male" appears rather a lot in pick-up artist literature which is its own cesspool of reductive thought and exploitative behavior but the rest of her criteria -- from the stigmatization of male My Little Pony fans (Bronys) to the spearing of Reddit -- the number 5 ranked "news" site in the world -- smacks of the sort of elitist social bullying that defines almost everything that is wrong with the American teenage experience.

In other words, hiding behind Ms Marcotte's pithy feminist style is the same reservation of judgement displayed by the antagonists of Mean Girls, themselves hardly a paragon of feminist virtue.  Ms Marcotte may have started out writing a manifesto against internet chauvanism but she wound up bullying the nerds.

That's not any kind of feminism I've ever herd of .

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