Thursday, May 23, 2013

Random Rant: The Friend Zone, One More Perspective in the Context of Gender Differences

I know this subject has been beaten to death by every post-modern man hoping to open someone's eyes to how strange people who complain about being "friend zoned" should seem, so I tend to ignore it in the course of my various ramblings. However, while I was perusing facebook a few days ago I saw that several of my friends had shared a blog post about the friend zone from a woman's perspective and it got me thinking.

See only a couple years ago I was the sort of guy who would complain about being "put in the friend zone" by women, and I did so, often. I would come to stop making those complaints shortly after I had turned eighteen, but I never thought about why that was, or why I had been making those complaints in the first place. The blog post linked above brought those questions to the forefront of my mind, and I'll put the potential answers I found here, just in case I ever get "friend zoned" again and need a rude awakening. I will say I don't speak for everyone in my gender with this rant, just for myself and my experiences.

I'm only able to sit up on a high horse judging men who complain about the friend zone because I've already done my time in that mindset. I don't remember the first time I thought of friendship between a man and a woman as a function of a relationship some time in the future, but I do remember one of the first times I was introduced to gender differences. Because that's the answer I found while thinking back on my experiences with cross-gender friendships, it's all about how our culture perceives gender differences.

I was a happy-go-lucky seven year old at my friends birthday party, who for the sake of not having to use pronouns for this entire example I'll call Aya. Aya and I had been friends since we were two, we'd spent years running through the woods around her house, playing games like hide and seek, tag, and those role-playing games kids play. Both boys and girls had been invited to the party, and everything was going great for me, until I went to see the birthday girl.

I found her in the basement with some of her friends, playing an elaborate game of house. There was even a cardboard facade representing the front of the house, with doors and windows and everything. I had played house tons of times at that age, and proceeded to walk through the door to join in the fun, only to be rebuffed by one of her friends. "No boys allowed." was the only explanation I received. It was only then that I realized all the people I could see through the cardboard windows were girls.

Being a seven year old child I was perplexed by this turn of events, and made something of a scene until Aya came to the door to give me the same reply. After that my memories get a bit foggy, but I do recall being driven home in tears, sad and frustrated by what had up until that point been a non-issue between Aya and I.

This was one of the first times I was introduced to gender differences, but it wouldn't be the last, and over the years those differences would become more pronounced. My classmates and I would stop being "children" and start becoming "boys" and "girls". The older I grew the more differences I noticed between male and female classmates. They dressed differently, engaged in different activities, played with different toys, talked with different dialects, they were different. From all through elementary school boys and girls in my school started interacting less and less. Cliques would form not just between people with separate interests, but separate genders as well. After second grade almost every birthday party I went to and every birthday party I had consisted entirely of boys. This would continue into middle school, at which point the genders would suddenly crash back together. I can't say for certain whether the sudden intermingling of genders at that time, as twelve year old me couldn't have cared less about psychology and sociology if he'd tried, but I can theorize as to why relationships began to form soon after between the two genders.

See, at a young age, human beings don't know or care about the feelings of the people around them, or where they fit into our grand social web. They don't have the tools required to perceive the culture that surrounds them, or empathize fully with other people until around the age of ten. After that point though, culture starts making itself known, and these days it has a lot of ways to do so. The world is full of media these days, from music to the news, movies to games, books to the internet, all within the reach of a child that age, and most of it broadcasting the same messages. One of those messages is: women and men aren't friends. I know, huge generalization, so allow me to be more specific.

 When I was a kid I did lots of normative things kids my age tend to do, and a few things not so normative. I went to see movies, I watched sitcoms, I read fantasy novels appropriate for my reading level, and all these stimuli told me one thing: women and men aren't friends, or if they are it's only an intermediary step that leads to future romantic encounters. Think about it, how often in upbeat movies do you see the movie end without a new couple having formed between a differently gendered dyad? How many sitcoms have their protagonists stay "just friends" with the opposite gender from the first to last episode? How many fantasy series see the protagonist never in a relationship?  In fact, many of these forms of media seem to encourage coupling between friends, citing the benefits of having known them for some time already. And in the case of sitcoms, dramas, and other such television programs where romance is prevalent, these couplings are viewed as the protagonists "one shot." If they succeed, the relationship goes well (or crumbles only to start up again later if they get more seasons), and if they fail things are horrendously awkward and the friendship they once had is in danger of being lost forever.

My point being, these forms of media teach children social scripts for how relationships between men and women should  work. And the people most easily influenced by these social scripts are children in their teens (ages 11-19). In a perfect world, people would apply these scripts to reality, find them lacking, and try to learn a more pragmatic set of romantic scripts, but this world is far from perfect.

After all, sometimes that scenario does play out in reality, and potentially those who see it do so would think that their failure to make a successful relationship happen is failure on their part, not on that of the script they used. Also, while culture may have the most sway on teens, once people advance out of that age bracket culture doesn't suddenly stop influencing them. It influences all of us, no matter our age, whether we want it to or not. Through these traps people may continue on with this mistaken belief for years, leading to a generation of 20-somethings complaining to their friends about how they were friend zoned by a woman they're romantically attracted to.

I didn't say all that to excuse the behavior of men (and women, I focused primarily on men as that's where my experience lies, but I'm betting this happens to women too) who complain of being friend zoned. Personally I think such a narrow relationship paradigm puts strain on gender relations that could be one of the causes of some of the worst gender relations available to us. I'm saying that culture and the media at large isn't helping to make friend-zoning any less viable of a belief structure. Much like people in the 1950's many people who complain of the friend zone today are victims of their times, and if we as a country are very lucky, maybe sixty years from now our grandchildren will look back on romantic interactions like those and wonder how such lunacy could have ever been possible.

My question for this one is simple: What is your opinion about the concept of the friend zone? And what past experiences, both personal and cultural, might have lead you to think that way? Think about it future me, you'll have more experience than I do.

PS: I realize at the end of this rant that I could do a whole other rant on how historical gender politics affect how the friend zone presents itself in modern society and why it does so, maybe some other time. The possibility of their being other reasons didn't slip my mind.

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