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In popular culture, friend zone refers to a platonic relationship wherein one person, most commonly a man, wishes to enter into a romantic or sexual relationship, while the other does not. It is generally considered to be an undesirable or dreaded situation by the lovelorn person. The concept has been criticized by feminists as being unfair and misogynistic in imposing an obligation on women to offer sex in return for kind actions by men. In a related sense of the term, friend zone can describe a "commitment mismatch", such as when two people are sexually involved, but in which one person wants a committed relationship such as being a boyfriend or girlfriend, while the other does not. According to psychologists, the man in a cross-gender friendship is more likely to be attracted to his woman friend than she is to him, and he is more likely to overestimate her interest in a romantic or sexual relationship.
There are differing explanations about what causes a person to be placed in the friend zone by another. It might result from misinterpreted signals or from a fear that a deeper relationship might jeopardize the friendship. A Chicago Tribune writer suggested there were several cases in which someone might become relegated to the friend zone: (1) person A is not sufficiently attracted to person B, (2) person A misinterprets nonverbal cues from person B signaling their interest in deepening the relationship, (3) there is sexual repulsion (but not enough to block a friendship). In a friendship between the two people, being relegated to the friend zone can happen to either person. In another instance, a woman described her male friend, someone she was comfortable with as if he was one of her girlfriends, but their relationship became problematic when he wanted their relationship to develop romantically but she did not. One man compared the friend zone to being a "third wheel" and having only a platonic relationship with a woman. Writer Jeremy Nicholson in Psychology Today suggested another problem with the friend zone, specifically that a romantic pursuer, instead of being rejected up front, uses the ploy of friendly acts as a "back door" approach into a romantic relationship.
Marshall Fine of The Huffington Post suggested that the friend zone is "like the penalty box of dating, when your only crime is not being buff and unobtainable." Dating adviser Ali Binazir described the friend zone as Justfriendistan, and wrote that it's a "territory only to be rivaled in inhospitability by the western Sahara, the Atacama, and Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell." Mastin Kipp of the Huffington Post described himself as always having girlfriends who were "girls" but were only his "friends", meaning there was no sex between them.
Feminist bloggers such as Rivu Dasgupta and Amanda Marcotte have argued that the friend zone concept is misogynistic. Dasgupta sees the friend zone as being rooted in male narcissism. The nice guy concept has been criticized as a gender trope with an underlying message that kind acts demand a sexual or romantic reward. Dasgupta and Marcotte say that the concept implies that if a woman and a man have a platonic friendship and the man becomes romantically attracted to the woman, then the woman has a duty to return his affection. A woman who does not return her "nice guy" male friend's affection is viewed negatively or seen to be at fault. What feminists object to is that acts of "serial kindness" are not done in a spirit of selfless friendship, but as favors demanding compensation, favors which impose on the woman a reciprocal obligation of sexual reward. The physical act of ‘friend-zoning’ occurs when a desired party does not return or respond affirmatively to the advances or affection of the desiring party, but continues to participate in the friendship in a platonic way. Further, some feminists are bothered that the agenda in such relationships is driven by men's needs for sex rather than women's needs for friendship. Essayist Ryan Milner argued that the friend zone concept is a nuanced and harmful aspect of patriarchal authority and male domination, and wrote how women could be seen negatively as a result:
Women who put ‘nice guys’ in the friend zone were accused of abuse, manipulation, and neglect ... Friend Zone Fiona is premised on this perceived injustice. Fiona ‘loves you ... like a brother’, ‘totally wants you ... to meet the right girl someday’, and ‘invites you over ... to fix her computer’. The image juxtaposes the first clause premise and the second clause punch line to elevate hopes, and then crush them.—Ryan Milner, 2013
Blogger Matt Eastwood prefers the term "unrequited love" instead; while the term "friend zone" implies that the person who does not return the affection, usually the woman, is at fault, the term "unrequited love" assigns the source of the conflict with the person who is unable to accept only friendship.
A 2013 article by writer Ally Fogg in The Guardian's "Comment is free" site argued that men who use the term are not necessarily misogynistic. Fogg argued that the friend zone does not exist in a literal sense, since numerous male-female friendships spark into romance, but that the friend zone does reflect a genuine emotional experience for straight men with low self-esteem and self-confidence. When such men form friendships with women, become attracted, and then experience rejection, they sometimes use the term "friend zone" to describe their experience. According to Fogg, "men, like women, are victims of our tediously stubborn gender roles" in which men are expected to "make the first move", and "most men who feel themselves to be in the friend zone are just a bit rubbish at dating, flirting and what my granny would have called wooing."
The term was popularized by a 1994 episode of the American sitcom Friends entitled "The One with the Blackout", where the character Ross Geller, who was lovesick for Rachel Green, was described by character Joey Tribbiani as being the "mayor of the friend zone". The question of whether a man can ever "escape the friend zone and begin dating one of his female friends" helped make the "geek dream couple" of Ross and Rachel storyline dramatically compelling, according to viewers.
Since then, the friend zone concept has often been a plot element in television shows and films. The 2005 film Just Friends features a main character, played by Ryan Reynolds, reunited after ten years with his friend played by Amy Smart, who informs him that she loves him "like a brother", essentially dashing any hopes of him having her as a girlfriend. Starting in May 2011, MTV has had a show entitled FriendZone. In an interview with a national publication, a producer said:
The idea for the show came out of my own experience. Unfortunately, I know the pain of telling the girl of your dreams you love them and want to take the relationship to the next level only to be told they don't feel the same. I figured if it happened to me, it might be something others could relate to as well. If it works, you have the beginnings of a great love story. If it doesn't, well, pain and humiliation make great TV, too."
she harbors a hard-core crush on her buddy Ty, who has categorized her in "the friend zone" since college.