Earlier this morning I read that the term “friend zone” is set to enter the OED. It’s a term that I stumbled over only relatively recently, probably within the last few months or so, and it’s only after spending some time thinking about and reading up on it this morning that I managed to pinpoint exactly what about it bothered me.
First, the very concept friend-zoning is a-platonic. It assumes that the natural relationship state between the sexes (I’m going to assume heterosexuality here, because this seems to be where the term is typically used) is one that’s romantic and/or sexual. The “friend zone” arises when someone’s expectations of this romantic relationship have been rebuffed, and this person is “friend zoned”. Note the use of the passive here. And the fact that by and large the person in the “friend zone” is a guy.
There are a number of things going on with all of this that set my teeth on edge. The first is the implication that the person being rebuffed is being so through no fault of their own, and that the fault is the other person’s. So not only is the onus of the relationship’s status placed on the person rejecting the overtures of the rebuffed, but there’s also the implication that this rebuffing is without good cause, because if the person being rejected is good enough to be a friend…then why aren’t they good enough to be more than a friend? Obviously, this implies that a sexual relationship is the desired outcome, and anything less is an undesirable state of affairs.
Shame on you, women, for not returning the attentions afforded you as you’re expected to. And shame on you for even considering the idea of being friends!
When I started reading about all of this I’d just finished Turgenev’s masterpiece Fathers and Sons, and I couldn’t help but wonder how the idea of “friend zoning” might apply to the two key romantic relationships in the novel: that between the brazen nihilist Bazarov and Madame Odintsov, and that between mild-mannered Arkady and Odintsov’s sister Katya.
Bazarov and Odintsov skew along similar personality lines, each being well-read, outspoken and strong-willed, and from the moment of their initial meeting we see Bazarov attempting to claim his perceived rightful place as Odintsov’s suitor, while Arkady looks on with what appears to be somewhat of a schoolboy crush. Odintsov rejects both, and yet their initial responses are entirely different. Arkady seems initially to accept that what she values “in him [is] evidently the good humour and simplicity of youth — nothing more”. Bazarov, on the other hand, takes issue with her treatment of him. “What an icicle she has made of herself!” he complains, before going on to comment on her “splendid” figure. The implication is that a woman of such fine physical form is doing herself (and others) a disservice by failing to show romantic interest in Bazarov.
Turgenev seems more than aware of this, and his indictment of the two gentlemen is surprisingly scathing. When Madame Odintsov’s aunt enters the room, she cries, upon seeing Katya’s dog Fifi in the room: “That dog is here again…turn the beast out, I say! Out with it!” This remark, however, could just as readily be an oblique attack on Bazarov; particularly when the aunt goes on to ignore both Bazarov and Arkady, effectively denouncing their presence, which is clearly motivated by sexual/romantic desire. Turgenev offers further commentary on this when he notes that both men come to the conclusion that Odintsov’s aunt, “though treated, certainly, with respect…attracted no one’s serious attention”. Because the aunt is of an age where she is not seen to be someone to be sought after, she effectively becomes a non-entity.
But though Bazarov is most demonstrative in his frustration over being friend zoned by Odintsov, Arkady’s response is equally as, if not more, troubling. Having been grudgingly “got rid of” (a direct quote from the text) by Odintsov, he begins, under duress, spending time with young Katya. He’s initially utterly uninterested in any sort of engagement with the girl–until he reflects that “she plays well; nor is she bad-looking.” Here we go again. Now that Katya is deemed to have value as a romantic interest, she is therefore given value as a person, and Arkady’s goal is clear: to court her. (Aside: musing a little more on this I’m tempted to write a spin-off post about Fathers and Sons and Game Theory.)
Anyway. Turgenev’s approach to all of this is quite fascinating, and for a guy writing a hundred and fifty years ago, he has an impressive handle on just how unswayingly driven are men by the idea of sexual conquest as the only acceptable goal where a woman is involved. Bazarov, after all, gads about the book like some nineteenth century emo, renouncing all forms of order, authority, and most notably passion and romanticism. And yet, it’s his frustration over the idea of being “friend zoned” that sees his ideology begin to crumble, as the following exchange shows:
“I will venture to say that you and I have not met in vain, and that we shall always remain good friends,” says Odintsov. “Moreover, I feel certain that in time your secretiveness and reserve will disappear.”
“Do you really want to know the cause of that ‘secretiveness, and reserve’?” retorts Bazarov. “Do you really want to know ‘what is taking place within’ me?…Learn, then, that I love you with a blind, insensate passion! You have forced it from me at last!”
That’s right. It’s all the fault of the woman. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that “friend zone” is set to enter the OED. After all, it looks as though the concept’s been around for a long, long time.
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Other books by Ivan Turgenev: