There's Something Wrong With the Word "Wingman"

Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother

The scene is familiar: Two guys approach two girls at a bar. The four engage in fluid conversation. Then one man slyly makes a move, guiding one of the women away to leave the other couple to their own devices. 

It's a classic instance featuring a wingman: a guy whose job is to serve as social lubricant for a friend who wants to "score" with a girl.

There's no one definition of wingmanning, but the term undoubtedly encompasses a spectrum of activity aimed to facilitate sexual or romantic "success" for guys. As friends, wingmen are about as loyal and reliable as you can find. Yet as men trying to interact in the world with women, the codified term of "wingman" is problematic because it perpetuates a gamified approach to romance, turning approaching a woman into a strategic pursuit. Hooking up with a woman shouldn't have to be described as a military operation.


When flirting turns too strategic: At its most fundamental, wingmanning is just a nice way of being there for a friend. "It's a friend trying to facilitate entry into a conversation with a romantic interest in a social situation," Kelly, a 20-something, told Mic.

That joint approach may actually be preferred to alternatives. "Solo agents tend to come off creepier. That feels more predatory to me than a dude with a group of friends," Kelly added.

The problem with certain forms of wingmanning, and the term itself, is when the simple act is part of a more manipulative strategy. Some wingmen go far beyond being a "good friend," using deception to increase their friend's chances. "Wingmanning is fine as long as you're not deceiving anyone," Dave, another twenty-something, told Mic. "That's the line."

That line, however, is crossed by those men we might describe as "jerks." Careers, educations, salaries and identities are malleable details a loyal wingman, one 2012 University of Alberta study found. (As one explanation of the findings put it, "The wingman is primed to step in with strategic identity support.") Knowing where to stand so as to best shield women from potential distractions, other suitors or helpful friends, is another, less savory wingman tactic.

If this all sounds overwhelming, potential wingmen can peruse the countless pages of literature designed to direct them. These sites offer tips as if bedding a woman, like beating a video game, only required the proper combination of moves.

Bad news for everyone in the bar: All courtship has some underlying element of strategy, and both genders engage in what MIT researchers Joshua Ackerman and Douglas Kenrick call "cooperative courtship" in their 2009 study on group dynamics, "Cooperative Courtship: Helping Friends Raise and Raze Relationship Barriers." 

But it's the attitude that makes the difference. The strategic, mission-oriented and ultimately gendered approach to wingmanning reduces women to passive objects, fundamentally denying them their own agency. As Michael Kimmel, the director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, told Mic previously, it's a problem rooted in the fact that some boys "grow up learning that sex is adversarial — he chases, she is pursued; he gets, she gives."

There are, of course, wingmen who help their friends out without mistreating their "targets." But by naming the strategy with the word "wingman", the pursuit feels even more tactical, the behavior more dishonest and the evaluation of the interaction increasingly binary. Has the target been acquired? Was the operation a success?

In a society where male predatory behavior is too often the norm, and women like Kelly live knowing that "if I walk outside for more than fifteen minutes, it's more likely than not I get catcalled," as she told Mic, it's worthwhile to acknowledge where we can do better. 

One way is by inspecting the terms we use to refer to our sexual pursuits. According to a recent study, the way men speak about women actually affects their treatment of women as well. If dropping a word can lead to fixing an action, abandoning the word "wingman" should be an easy choice.