A term originating in the American sitcom Friends has undertaken a new popularity in dating culture in the past few years. The ‘friend zone’ is the imagined space where a man (invariably) who does not initiate sexual contact with a female acquaintance within a certain time frame is obliged to go. The phrase has a peculiar metaphorical loading. It assumes an idea of relationships as linear processes with various inevitable stop-off points. As the acquaintance between the prospective partners charges forward, failure to decisively redirect it along sexual lines will result in it reaching a point of development where it no can no longer allow for sexuality. At the same time, the metaphor is topological, spatial. There is a specific place demarcated to hold the men who failed to act. Furthermore, whereas the poets of the twelfth-century courtly love tradition constructed their identity on the basis of an irrecoverable separation from the loved object, this iteration of the trope of unrequited love is slightly more complex. No mere separation, the friend zone is constituted by intimacy. The ‘friend-zoned’ man complains that he performs all the companionate functions of a lover, but without sexuality, in a kind of banishment-without-banishment. Friendship, in other words, is figured as a mutant version of sexual love: an impoverished parody retaining the architecture of the love-relationship but with the single reigning property removed.
The emergence of the verb ‘to friend zone’ – as in ‘I took her out three times, then she totally friend-zoned me’ – reveals another dimension of the term. It relates to what a number of feminists have pointed out is its misogyny: its tendency to be used as a corollary of the cliché that women don’t like ‘nice guys,’ and are kept most keen by the ‘assholes’ who treat them mean. This starts by figuring the woman’s ability to ‘friend-zone’ the man as a form of tyrannical arbitrary power, leaving men with the choice between retaining their ingenuous niceness, or adopting more Machiavellian strategies in order to avoid the nice guy’s dreadful fate. But the woman here is also a slave, attaching all her desire to that cruel master, the ‘asshole.’ What appears to be an elevation of the power of the woman in the first part of this formulation is obviously spurious. It is rather a violence against her, the violence of imposing responsibility, which in the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s sense of the term means the obligation to provide a response. The ‘woman who friend-zones’ is under obligation to provide a response to a male desire which, if the ‘nice guy’ himself is to be believed, has not even been articulated in the first place.
In The Politics of Friendship, Derrida considers Nietzsche’s ostensibly sexist remark that a woman as ‘a tyrant and a slave… is not yet capable of true friendship: she knows only love.’ For Nietzsche, friendship is destructively democratising, equalising. It means capitulating to the most heterogeneous disavowed recesses of oneself and of one’s friend, and (in a move Derrida points out is unexpectedly reminiscent of the more radical edges of Christianity) assenting to the enemy within your friend: the part of him or her that scandalises everything you think you stand for. In contemplating friendship as a sorry substitute for love with a woman who is thought of as both tyrant and slave, the ‘nice guy’ has failed to grasp Nietzsche’s point that such power-inflected thinking is incompatible with friendship. Whatever one can find in the ‘friend zone,’ one cannot find that. In Derrida’s words, friendship means being ‘generous enough (to) know how to give enough to the other. To attain to this infinite gift, failing which there is no friendship, one must know how to give to the enemy.’ Until he is generous enough to approach the woman not as a tyrant and slave, but in the true Nietzschean sense as an enemy, the nice guy would do well to remember Nietzsche’s other solicitation (itself a rejoinder to the charge of his sexism): ‘tell me, you men, which of you is yet capable of friendship?