One of the things I like most about being gay is the ability to watch "straight culture" from a safe distance, like an ever-so-slightly smug (and very well dressed) spy. When searching for the loudest, most exaggerated and chaotic displays of heterosexuality, there's only one place to start: Love Island. Each year I find myself studying the reality show like a nature documentary, watching carefully for new quirks, norms and hetero-isms as the cast of oiled up influencers-in-the-making search for love in the Majorcan sun.
So far, the men have three types: blonde, brunette and "personality." The women are often talking about wanting all their "boxes ticked," which feels clinical even for such an obviously fake environment. There have been more "friendship couples" in the villa than ever in this year's series too. Some have ended up that way by design, while others just haven't found that romantic spark yet. (I can't think why!)
In the Excel spreadsheet of life, it's like being moved from one column to another.
All this talk of friendship has brought another famous term: the "friendzone." The friendzone is the shift where a person becomes more of a friend than a romantic or sexual interest. "Friendzoning" someone, or being friendzoned, is the process of putting someone there, or ending up there yourself. In the Excel spreadsheet of life, it's like being moved from one column to another (and there's very rarely an "undo" button).
Love Island is a dating show, where the pretence is forming a romantic connection and winning a cash prize. But in the real world, where the friendzone comes from, I can't help but find it slightly restrictive as a concept.
Friendship is not a consolation prize.
My main issue with friend-zoning is that it creates a hierarchy, where friendship becomes the consolation prize if neither romance or sex are on the cards. Think about it: We've all heard, "I think we're better off as friends!" awkwardly uttered on shows when there's no so-called spark. While this is well-intentioned, most of the time the person probably doesn't even want a friendship, they just don't want to come across like a heartless monster on TV.
There's nothing wrong with pursuing a romantic or sexual relationship if that's what you're looking for. But these types of relationships being put on such a pedestal is frustrating to me, because friendships can be equally meaningful. Ryan Campinho Valadas, a queer-identifying Integrative Therapist at Self Space, tells Cosmopolitan UK that this has roots in heterosexual norms that center on procreation and marriage. "Esther Perel, a famous psychotherapist and relationship expert, has written extensively about the changing value of marriage and romantic relationships in society," he says. "To have a family and procreate, that is what societies have been built upon for centuries. We still very much live under the influence and the impact of those norms."
It's true that, as a gay man who practically lip-synced my way out of the womb, I've always known that I wasn't going to settle down with a woman by the age of 30, procreate with her, and throw a gender reveal party. But perhaps I'd look at relationships differently if I had grown up feeling that expectation? Ryan thinks dynamics like this, which we start perceiving from childhood, play into what we expect from connections in adulthood. "When it comes to relationships, we often have values that we never question and we follow quite blindly, but they aren't necessarily what we actually believe in," he says. "It's just that we don't have much practice questioning them, or exploring what those values mean, or where they come from."
The unnecessary (binary) barrier between friendship and romance
Another problem I have with the "friend zone" is that it creates unnecessary barriers between friendship, sex, and romance. It leans into the idea that you've got to pick one or the other, and that once someone is considered a friend there's no possibility for other elements in the relationship to develop.
Romance and friendship don't necessarily follow—or invalidate—each other.
This might well be true on a case-by-case basis, depending on the people concerned and their desires and boundaries, but it feels like a restrictive mantra to subscribe to. Again, to me there's a feeling that this is rooted in heteronormativity, because in my experience there tends to be more fluidity between sex, relationships, and friendships in queer circles, where one doesn't necessarily follow—or invalidate—the other.
Ryan thinks that if a person has grown up thinking they should be searching for a special or instant romantic spark, they might become dismissive of people who don't fulfill that expectation instantly. "Often what happens, though, is that people discover they later develop romantic feelings towards friends, after getting to know them on a deeper level," he says.
Friendships actually lead to relationships.
This is perhaps the silliest thing about the friend zone: Friendships actually lead to relationships. I'm not just talking about Monica and Chandler or When Harry Met Sally, either, because there's real-world evidence to back this up: A 2021 study by the University of Victoria in Canada found that 65 percent of heterosexual couples started off as friends. For LGBTQ+ couples, this number was even higher, with 85 percent reporting that they had been friends for an average of 22 months before starting a relationship. So if a relationship is truly the most sought-after end goal here, perhaps more people should try getting into the dreaded friendzone first, then going from there.
To me, being queer sometimes feels liberating because it can be easier to choose which norms I want to subscribe to or reject. As Ryan puts it, there's a "freedom" that comes from being on "the margins" (even if there's plenty of societal conventions that many queer people end up following). Each year on Love Island I'm reminded of how many of these unwritten rules there seem to be. And as I watch the Islanders attempting to find romance, I find myself thinking of the start of my own relationship, and the ridiculous number of "zones" it must have occupied over the years and the "boxes" that probably weren't ticked at the beginning.
Perhaps the rise of terms like the friendzone are a sign of people feeling more able to articulate what they want out of relationships and set their own boundaries. I support that, but I do worry that leaning into ideas which restrict us, and allow us to easily put people in boxes, are another sign of a culture of over-consumption and entitlement influencing the value we ascribe to human connections. In an era when we can so easily filter, swipe, and even block people out of our lives, I think it's time to embrace the fluidity—and even the messiness—that can happen in the spaces between zones.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.
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