(Image by Matthias Ripp used under CC license via)
Well, I finally sat down and saw The Phantom of the Opera a quarter of a century after everyone else. (If you don’t know the story, this parody sums it up pretty well.) I won’t say what I thought of all the songs songs songs because I’m bound to alienate half my readers either way, but by the second to last scene, I was hollering at the screen: “Girl, you’d better not go for that swaggering bully in the mask!” But then she ripped the mask off and he couldn’t stop crying and I was up to my eyelids in Kleenex, wailing: “If only he hadn’t killed so many people! (And talked to her instead of stalked her… ) Now he’s just another disfigured guy stuck in the Friend Zone! But his pain is reeeeeeeeal!”
This week, the word “Friend Zone” has been entered into the Oxford English Dictionary. Many of my favorite feminists are not pleased. Because the term is generally thought to be something only straight, bitter men complain about (see these Urban Dictionary definitions), many argue that it’s a misogynistic trope. Lamenting the Friend Zone sends the message, however subliminally, that spending time with a female is pointless unless you gain access to her naughty bits. Because who would want to be friends with a woman?!
Such a bleak view of women is certainly a problem among many men. In the words of John Mix Meyer, “Girls are not machines you put kindness coins into until sex falls out.” Nice for the sake of nice is respect. Nice only for the sake of getting laid is not. As I’ve said before, cross-gender friendship could use a lot more support in books, film, and mainstream society.
But I’ve also used the word “Friend Zone” before because I don’t believe it refers only to this one chauvinistic idea. Unrequited love isn’t fun for anyone. Lots of women have been stuck in the Friend Zone, too. Many people are expected by pop culture to always end up there, because society deems them asexual, and it could be helpful to examine why. Almost every adult on earth craves love and sex, and we are all trying to figure out what attracts those we deem attractive.
Men who sigh, “Girls don’t like nice guys,” need to get over their narcissism. But there are others who wonder in earnest why the Friend Zone seems so jam-packed with quiet guys who genuinely respect women. In stories of every genre, from classic literature (Madame Bovary) to modern literature (Freedom) to dime-a-dozen bodice-rippers (The Bridges of Madison County), bored heroines look past their straight-laced suitors to the tall dark stranger who’s not exactly famous for his fidelity or his feminism. Love triangles always make for good drama, but when the heroine more often than not decides that the devoted sweetheart belongs in the Friend Zone and the unpredictable bad boy belongs in bed, many scratch their heads and repeat, “Why do girls always go for jerks?” Or, as The Mr. T Experience sings, “I have some problems… but even Hitler had a girlfriend, so why can’t I?”
The answer often depends on the situation, but there are two fundamental, heteronormative traditions that prop it up:
The Macho Stereotype – Any guy who isn’t strong and independent to the point of being daring isn’t a “real man.” Obeying the rules, doting on your wife, and being mediocre is emasculating. Hence the double standard men are held to in real life: they are always expected to focus more on their success and autonomy than their emotional fulfillment. Sociologist Stephanie Coontz has pointed out that the inordinate importance of independence to male worth is why homeless men arouse so much more disgust than homeless women.
The Gentler Sex Stereotype – A nice girl can see the diamond in the rough. A man with a nasty wife is hen-pecked and pathetic, but a woman with a bad boy just might be the only one who understands him. From a conservative standpoint, it’s virtuous of a woman to be so selfless and forgiving. From a liberal standpoint, it’s the thrill of conquest that keeps her trying.
A man’s worth is defined by his success, albeit many women accept broad definitions of success. Western romances across the ages assert that special girls who search for the softer side of the bully or the bad boy will find it: Beauty and the Beast, Wuthering Heights, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Bonnie and Clyde, right up to Fifty Shades of Grey. Pop culture reiterates ad nauseam how much men love the chase, but this trope shows that scores of women do, too. For the starry-eyed heroine, it’s a challenge to stray from the disapproving masses—or her parents—and become the One Special Woman who can tame the beast and bring joy to his lonely life. The higher the risk, the greater the reward. The reward is knowing that she is deeper, different from those other girls who swoon over bland perfection. Hence even America’s most famous feminist, Lisa Simpson, has looked past loyal, bespectacled Milhouse for Nelson, the schoolyard bully from a broken home.
By far the most horrific result of this romantic tradition is the fact that too many women in real life endure abuse, or worse. Pop culture sometimes concedes this and still has the audacity to romanticize it. My high school did a production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel the same year Time magazine declared it the Best Musical of All Time. After wife-beater Billy Bigelow dies in an armed robbery, his widow tells their daughter, “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.” You see, truly devoted wives know that offering yourself up as his punching bag is a way to show your love and nurture him as he struggles with his demons. Only a selfish bitch would leave him when he needs her most.
Carousel was written in 1956, but the trope is still going strong. The final film of the Twilight series lead NPR’s Linda Holmes to observe:
When a saga popular with pre-adolescent girls peaks romantically on a night that leaves the heroine to wake up covered with bruises in the shape of her husband’s hands — and when that heroine then spends the morning explaining to her husband that she’s incredibly happy even though he injured her, and that it’s not his fault because she understands he couldn’t help it in light of the depth of his passion — that’s profoundly irresponsible.
Yes, we’re all having a good yuk over the unhinged quality of it all. And yes, it’s a movie with a monster baby… But romanticizing an intimate relationship that leaves bruises and scars is a particularly terrible idea in a film aimed at girls. Talking about this is tiresome, but then so is putting it in the movie.
But attraction to the forbidden is not always dangerous. Sometimes the bad boy is just misunderstood. There is a powerful romantic tradition of fine ladies risking wealth and status for true love. (See Aladdin, Titanic, Robin Hood, Moulin Rouge, Lady and the Tramp, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Pirates of Penzance, The Pirates of the Caribbean.) There are also classic tales of heroines opening the gates to social progress by debunking their families’ horrid prejudices when they fall for men outside their race/nationality/religion/species. (See Pocahontas, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, The Little Mermaid.) The heroines of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Angst essen Seelen auf stare down the racial tensions of the era in which the films were released. Meanwhile, Cyrano DeBergerac and the Phantom of the Opera both find out—albeit too late—that their beloveds would have looked past their disfigurement and loved them back.
Since then, we’ve seen heroines end up with men with disabling injuries (often from war), while a handful go for guys who are congenitally disabled or disfigured. As noted recently, Peter Dinklage’s romantic roles are possibly, finally breaking dwarf men out of the Friend Zone. Great art obsesses over the blurry border between right and wrong, friend and lover, beauty and banality. These compassionate heroines who try to understand the “bad” boys and the rejects help us deepen our perceptions of attractiveness.
It’s worth noting that the Phantom and Cyrano compensate for the supposed repulsiveness of their disfigurement with the sexiness of their genius. They are supercrips. Granted Gothic tales love to examine the complexity of blinding light draped in darkness. I like a study of conflicting traits as much as the next starving liberal arts grad. But it’s a ludicrously ableist tradition that only gives disabled superheroes a shot at intimacy, restricting ordinary disabled men like Quasimodo or the Seven Dwarfs to the Friend Zone. And it’s an absurdly lookist tradition that restricts almost all of our disfigured and disabled women there.
Can you name a famous heroine who’s disfigured or physically disabled? (Can you name a famous actress who’s visibly disabled, for that matter? I might be able to, but I’d have to check Wikipedia to be sure.) In the old days, disabled and disfigured girls might arouse sympathy (see Helen Keller), but the women were hags. Period. If women who were merely not conventionally attractive ever dared to step out of the Friend Zone and into the dating game, they were annoying. Really annoying. And they were swatted away like flies.
Nowadays, love stories try to speak to women’s insecurities about their looks with quirky retellings of the Ugly Duckling or Cinderella. The heroine perceives herself as unattractive, moaning, “Is it because of my [thighs/eyes/nose]?!” (Rather than cursing, “That shallow jerk stuck me in the Friend Zone!”) But we eventually see that she truly is a knock-out and it’s just a matter of finding the right man who will wipe the soot off her face, pay for a makeover, or simply remove her glasses. Children’s films are getting a little better: Shrek and The Princess and the Frog feature heroines who are green-skinned for part of the courtship, though their Otherness is not quite as realistic as the Phantom’s or Quasimodo’s. We’ve yet to see a heroine angrily unveil a severe facial deformity and hear her strapping lover say, “I think it’s intriguing. And I wanna knock boots with you. So. Bad.”
And why not? Francis Bacon said, “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.” I’ve overheard countless guys say, “Chicks dig scars.” Which is true. Lots of chicks got scars, too.
The popularity of a story is by no means an empirical examination of our values. Most people I know are so much deeper than pop culture gives us credit for. And there is a lot more to many of these stories than the tropes I just reduced them to. But it would be daft to pretend that they have nothing to do with our collective psyche. Every one of us treasures those romantic moments we experienced that were “just like in a movie.” Our most popular books and films simultaneously reflect and influence what we tend to think is hot. And when it comes to opening our minds, fiction is often the best messenger. We look to entertainment for escape and to art for enlightenment. The most powerful stories provide both.
When I attended a lecture at the Network of Disabled Women in Berlin two weeks ago, there was a debate as to whether reality TV shows and documentaries help or harm perceptions of disabled women. Good documentaries smash stereotypes by providing facts and figures, but the over-representation of disabled women in such reports combined with their invisibility in love stories, detective stories, and silly sitcoms suggests that they exist solely as objects of study. They are there to satisfy our curiosity, but we’re rarely asked to root for them the way we root for Rapunzel or Bridget Jones. We never follow them on a journey dripping with passion. We should.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s newborn definition of “Friend Zone” reads: “a situation in which a platonic relationship exists between two people, one of whom has an undeclared romantic or sexual interest in the other.” It doesn’t say it’s exclusively a problem for men. And good for them. To me, the term will always evoke the potentially destructive idea that certain “types” of people don’t ever need or deserve intimacy. And we’ve got to keep questioning it. Children, animals, and self-proclaimed asexuals automatically belong in the Friend Zone, along with your clients, patients, and students. The disabled, the disfigured, the elderly, the ordinary, and the unsuccessful do not automatically belong there. I’m counting on all of us, the storytellers and the lovers, to recognize the word so that we can recognize the problem.