On April 4, a writer for the online conservative publication The Federalist claimed that the “friend zone” is leading to dramatic population decline.
Women are too busy trying to be friends with men, Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene explained, and not busy enough “having more babies.” While Fiene offers up no evidence to support this correlation, his argument exposes a number of problematic assumptions about sexuality and gender.
The friend zone, defined by Fiene as “a prison where women place any man they deem worthy of their time but not their hearts,” first appeared in a 1994 episode of "Friends," in which Joey tells Ross he’s waited too long to make a move on Rachel. “If you don’t ask her out soon, you’re going to end up stuck in the zone forever,” Joey explains. According to Fiene, being stuck in the zone is “an inarguable drag on fertility rates.”
Aside from blaming a “demographic tsunami” on women’s desire to be friends with men, the major shortcoming of Fiene’s argument is its reliance on heterosexism, the assumption that there are only two genders and everyone is heterosexual. In other words, Fiene assumes that all men are attracted to women and vice versa. This effectively erases LGBTQIA and non-binary people from the conversation. In a 2014 BuzzFeed feature on the dangers of the friend zone, editor Krystie Lee Yandoli said these assumptions are often enforced by pop culture:
“ When two men or two women engage in platonic friendships, you never hear people talk about being friend-zoned. You don’t see it in movies, TV shows, or even when people talk about it in real life, especially mainstream media and mainstream heteronormative culture.”
While Fiene’s exclusion of other genders and sexualities is undoubtedly tied up in his concern with reversing population decline, his heterosexism represents the dangerous relationship between traditional gender roles and the friend zone. “The language we use automatically assumes that women should be attracted to or want to date any men they value as friends,” Yandoli explained. “It also perpetuates the notion that men are entitled to women.”
“I guess finding out you’ve been ‘friend zoned’ is a similar discovery to unveiling that someone you valued as a person and friend, really only wanted to get you into bed,” writes Huffington Post’s Nell Grecian.
But Fiene’s use of outdated and harmful gender stereotypes also pressures men to conform.
For example, his primary argument that men don’t want to be friends with women depends upon the assumption that “the average man” is interested in “watching movies where things explode,” “yelling at football players through the television,” and “showing affection through insults.”
Women, Fiene argues, are “not especially good” at these things; men are more interested in their “kindness, thoughtfulness, sensitivity,” and “feminine virtues.”
By portraying the average man as aggressive and unemotional opposed to thoughtful and sensitive, Feine normalizes aspects of toxic masculinity. In a 2016 study conducted by Indiana University Bloomington, researchers found conforming to stereotypically masculine norms like “power over women” and “disdain for homosexuals” negatively impacted men’s mental health. Joel Wong, a lead author of the study, told Broadly he wasn’t surprised by the results. “It supports and confirms research done in the last 60 years that people who conform to masculinity have poor mental health,” he said.
Since the friend zone first emerged, countless thinkpieces, memes, and even academic studies have considered the question of whether or not men and women can maintain platonic friendships. For Fiene, the term describes a “fertility-killing” conundrum, the only thing holding America back from “demographic glory.”
On the other hand, others argue this friend zone business, in the words of BuzzFeed’s Tracy Clayton, “ is completely about sex and entitlement."