Monday, March 26, 2012

Congratulations! You have now been friendzoned!

Ah, the friend zone! Is there a worse place for a guy (or girl) to be?

So let me explain what’s happening. A few weeks ago the phrase “friend-zoned” had its five minutes of glory on the interwebs, which caused quite a few people to weigh in on it. Incidentally, I had recently finished reading a book which had a male character rather brutally taking his friendship with a girl to the next level… by marrying her without her knowledge or consent. I ranted quite a bit in that review, but it got me thinking about the whole idea of male-female friendship and how it is portrayed in YA.

A clarification: friend-zoning someone is when a person (usually female) notices that a friend of theirs (usually male) has the hots for them, but isn’t interested in a romantic relationship. The first person proceeds to ask the second person if it is possible to remain friends – hence the name.

You’ll actually find that, on closer examination, there is quite a lot of friend-zoning going on in YA novels. Almost always, one side of the popular love triangle is friendzoned, Jacob from Twilight being the obvious example. Jacob and Bella are a pretty good example of the stereotyping that’s going on: We have a guy who is sweet, supportive and respectful, who is led around by a girl who is obviously in love with someone else, but who for some reason still gets chummy with them. You can say pretty much the same for any Twilight knock-off out there.

And, you can’t pick up a Cassandra Clare book without expecting a love triangle (sometimes, even two, if you’re lucky). In The Infernal Devices, that trope is handled well, but then again, she is writing about Victorian times – girls just didn’t have that much space to operate in for them to have a friendzone. Simon from The Mortal Instruments, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Poor Simon actually got pretty far in his advances to Clary, even got to be her boyfriend at a point, but in the end, he has to dump her because she’s in love with her brother. In a way, Simon has a lot of guts to actually walk away, but he still supports Clary in the vein hope that she would realize her feelings for him. Which is kind of painful to read, not because of the obvious train wreck that is to come, but because it is played straight.

See, the problem with the connotations of the words “friend zone” is the implication that girls doing it are cockteases. In fact, a GR friend of mine offered me this very insightful quote: “Calling a girl a “slut” is shaming her for saying yes. Calling her a “friend-zoner” is shaming her for saying no.”

Girls can’t win. It’s a fact.

If you want more proof, look no further than the king of the friend-zoned, John Green, whose books seem to feature a wide cast of quirky, loner boys and girls who are totally in love with their best friends or their manic pixie dream girls, but are always unappreciated. While Green is not discriminating about what gender the friend-zoned person belongs to, he does seem kinder to his male characters than his female ones. His Margots and Alaskas are exciting and sparkly and deeply disturbed, but they are, at their core, selfish bitches. And the discovery of their motivation doesn’t really make them more sympathetic. The same problems pop up in “The Fault in Our Stars”, a novel I find deeply problematic in its portrayals, but if I got started on that one, we’d be here the whole night.

What really bothers me is that the books I read rarely portray the person who is doing the friend-zoning in a positive light. No, correction. It doesn’t portray girls doing the friend-zoning in a positive light. The argument runs somewhere along the lines of: “If women complain there are no more nice guys, it’s because they friend-zone them.”

But here’s the thing: if someone is friends with a girl just because he (or she) wants to get into her pants, then they’re not being a nice person. They’re not even a good friend. Because sometimes people don’t want romantic relationships. And disrespecting their wishes, or not taking them seriously enough, is kind of insulting.

I mean, look at the Hunger Games. There is so much in those books that people can talk about: the satire of a consumer society and reality TV, the political commentary, the portrayal of war, the blurring of the lines between good and evil. What’s the main talking point though? Are you Team Peeta or Team Gale? (Cassandra Clare, incidentally, made a pretty hilarious statement on that bit.)

People tend to be kinder to Katniss, since there is so much shit happening in her life, but there is still discussion about her playing two boys against one another. Personally, I don’t even think love was important to the Hunger Games trilogy – yes, Katniss has feelings for Peeta and Gale, but they’re not strictly romantic. There’s a lot of stuff mixed in there – doubt, mistrust, old memories and new, life experience, grudges, ideologies… The Hunger Games, to me, is a lot more about the loss of childhood innocence and the painful act of healing, than it is about who Katniss ends up with.

Which is why I think that the portrayal of her relationship with Gale is probably the best “friendzone” I have read in books. There are good reasons for them to be friends, and good reasons why Katniss keeps him away. The books don’t try to prettify that aspect of their relationship – you do see how difficult it is for her to deal with the changes in it, how she tries to hold onto it and fails, and ultimately, her realization that there is a point of no return.

So that’s my two cents, but I’d love for the discussion to continue in comments. What examples can you think of in books, where one character is friendzoned? What did you think of it? Do you think it was a realistic portrayal or not?

Or, incidentally, would you like me to do a post on The Fault in Our Stars, or shall I let this one lie?

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