There was a piece in The Atlantic that caught my eye yesterday about the phenomenon of Nice Guys™ – men who attribute their lack of appeal to the opposite sex to a cognitive flaw in women that makes them claim that they want a nice, respectful partner, but then go on to date jerks who treat them like shit. More broadly, this is part of the “nice guys finish last” complex of memes that defines attractive masculinity in terms of emotional indifference and machismo, against which sensitive and caring men cannot hope to prevail.
There has been, over the years, a concerted backlash against this idea, as described in the article:
The notion that self-proclaimed “nice guys” might not be as nice as they think they are isn’t new. The Nice Guy™, as the figure is oftenreferred to, has been an object of sustained feminist critique over the past decade: for his less-than-flattering depiction of the women he claims to treat so well, for his passive-aggressive approach to picking up women, and for his underlying assumption that sex is an exchange—that if you’re a “good guy,” the women you’re good to should fall in love with and have sex with you…if not out of desire, then out of pity or obligation.
The author of the article then goes on to express a modicum of sympathy for men who buy into the “Nice Guy” mythplex, because there is real pain and frustration going on, and the popular critique does nothing to address it. If you’re not familiar with the Nice Guy™ phenomenon, or the feminist critiques thereof, I suggest you read the article before continuing (and definitely before commenting). I have to confess that when I first came upon the phenomenon thus named, and the way it was described by feminists (mostly women), I was strongly off-put. But there’s a reason for that…
I used to be a Nice Guy™
I’ve always been a guy who had a lot of female friends. Ever since I was a kid, I used to hang out with girls, at least as often as I would with other boys. As I got older, my sexual interest in women began to infiltrate all of those relationships, to the point where my life was just a series of crushes, one spilling inexorably into the next. Thought it is a characteristic that would go on to be extremely helpful to me later in life, my eccentricity and interest in a wide variety of things made me a textbook dork for most of my high school career, never fitting in any one place, always bouncing between social groups.
I wasn’t, I guess for the usual reasons (whatever those are), particularly sought-after by women. Despite my great passion for the opposite sex, I found very little by way of recpirocation, at least that I knew about. That lingering awkwardness carried itself into the first romantic relationship I did have in my final year of high school, a doomed-from-the-start 3 month affair with a perfectly lovely flute player from my youth symphony. The shock of having someone interested in physical intimacy with me loomed so large in my mind that I was unable to be myself or to behave honestly. While the mutual interest faded quickly (due to a combination of my own weirdness and the fact that we weren’t a great match), the bitterness stuck with me for a few years.
After a year spent in a different doomed-to-fail relationship in my first year of undergraduate (this time I ended things, and for what at the time seemed like noble reasons), I embarked on a long journey into my own bruised psyche to try and figure out what it was about me that made me so undesirable while everyone else had girlfriends (author’s note: most of my friends at the time were single). It was an endless pattern: I’d meet someone, we’d hit it off, I’d eventually work up the courage to ask her out, and then I’d get rejected. In my feelings of dejected misery and frustration and need for self-affirmation, and because there was a whole intellectual institution created around it, I embraced the “nice guys don’t get laid” myth wholeheartedly.
And so it was that I spent a good chunk of my late teens and early 20s poring over “Pick Up Artist” literature (I have an anthology of “Interviews with Dating Gurus” CDs sitting on my bookshelf to this day) and writing knowing tracts on the reasons why it was necessary to “treat ‘em rough to get the muff” (yes, these are words I literally said out loud and in print, more than once). I practiced getting phone numbers at bars, I played at being ‘an alpha’ in social gatherings, and yes, I “negged”.
I won’t comment on my “success rate” except to say that ultimately I wasn’t any happier under the new ‘system’ than I was under the old one. Whatever problem it was in my life that I thought would be solved by (marginally) more sex and approval from women, I was clearly way off the mark. Something had to change, and it clearly wasn’t up to someone else to change it. Now far be it from me to pretend as though I was fundamentally unhappy until I became a feminist and then all of a sudden everything was great – that’s a fun story but in my case it would be total fabrication. My life is better now than it was then, but it would be a stretch to attribute that to some kind of feminist epiphany.
Bringing this back to the top for a minute, I want to try and explain why I’ve never liked the anti-Nice Guy™ argument. During this whole period of time, I still had female friends. Lots of them. Many with whom I still have a very close relationship. I didn’t view them as potential “conquests”, nor was I waiting for them to dump their asshole boyfriends and see that the right guy was waiting right under their nose the whole time. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t have some relationships like that, but it would also be unfair (I think) to describe me as someone who saw women as sex objects only.
That being said, despite my ability to view women as more than objects, I still bought into the Nice Guy™ mythology hook, line, and sinker. It made sense, in a fucked up way, that women wanted guys who would stand out from the crowd and protect them and exhibit behaviours X and Y and Z. Indeed, some of the women I knew confirmed this for me. And when my ‘tactics’ worked on someone I met at a club, it was just more proof to incorporate into my overall theory of unlocking the secrets of the mythological ‘woman’ creature. It was just about figuring out how their brains worked, so that I could get one of them to like me (somewhere out in computer-land there exists the outlines of four chapters of a book I was going to write called “Men are from Mars, Bitches be Crazy” – the products of my search).
And so when I see the critique of the Nice Guy™ expressed as a predator, skulking in the shadows and waiting for the slightest dropping of the guard before he pounces (and if rebuffed, going postal and lashing out at all womankind), I have mixed feelings. I recognize some of myself, but find other parts totally foreign to my experience. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen - I have no difficulty whatsoever believing that men behave that way – but it’s not a necessary component of the criticism of the Nice Guy™ phenomenon.
The way I see it, the key to understanding what is wrong with the Nice Guy™ approach comes down to a single word: entitlement. The Nice Guy™ isn’t necessarily a bad person*, he’s a guy with a really fucked up view of what he is supposed to get from the world. Specifically, the Nice Guy™ is supposed to be rewarded for being a decent person – listening to others, being pleasant, imagining that he would never cheat – with ‘a woman’. The role that this woman plays in his life varies from Guy to Guy – my ‘woman’ was supposed to validate me and assuage my nagging self-esteem issues (I must be all right – I have a WOMAN!). Whatever it is, the Nice Guy™ sticks with what he thinks is a winning strategy – putting out a sign that says “Nice Guy Yard Sale” and expecting the customers to flock to him.
Of course when that doesn’t happen, the response from the Nice Guy™ also varies from Guy to Guy. In some cases it’s anger. In my case, I suppose buffered a bit by the women in my life who did approve of me (albeit platonically), it was momentary dejection and fevered self-recrimination, followed by endless vows that this time I would stop seeking the approval of women (that’d show ‘em!). These would be followed by abundant rationalizations, which would last until I was distracted by a new crush, and the cycle would begin anew. Maybe this is behaviour that is unique to me – I don’t think it is.
A few things happened to shift me out of this pattern. First, I moved to a new city and my life quickly filled with things to do. I was working, I was writing, I was meeting new people, I was playing music – things were hectic and I was happy. Second, I started reading feminist blogs, which helped me put words to a lot of the problems I had fitting into the gender role that I assumed I needed to play to be “successful”. Third, I figured out that the key to my happiness and contentment had little or nothing to do with whether or not I was romantically involved with someone – I had to learn to be happy on my own.
Part of this, I’m sure, was just part of a regular growing up process. However, more than a little of it was the result of me directly confronting some of the things I had come to believe in my younger days. I was able to put aside the monolithic ‘a woman’ and recognize that the problems I’d had in previous relationships weren’t because of “women”, they were because I had been involved with people who weren’t a good fit for me. There were tons of guys I didn’t fit with well, but I didn’t notice because I wasn’t trying to date them! And there wasn’t a “female behaviour” that I had once complained about for which I couldn’t find a perfect “male behaviour” analogue – I knew of guys who played mind games, I knew of guys who were superficial, I knew of guys who said they wanted X but kept ending up with Y – suddenly my complaints about “women” looked really stupid. The fault wasn’t “women” – the fault was people.
So let me, in closing, spare a few words of sympathy and explanation for the Nice Guy™. As the author of the Atlantic piece notes, there are a lot of forces that conspire to make us fundamentally unhappy. Among the biggest of those is the ever-present insistence that we are supposed to be “with someone”, and that failure to partner up exposes us as being unworthy of love. Affection and companionship thereby become less valuable than the status and reassurance that comes from “having someone”. We obsess over what “the opposite sex” wants, and often don’t have time left over to figure out what it is that we want, until we perhaps are ’successful’ in getting linked to someone else, after which point we realize that person isn’t capable of fixing what’s broken inside us. So we fall out of love and look for the next affiliation, having learned little.
In the face of that, the rage and frustration and seething hatred evinced by the Nice Guy™ makes quite a bit of sense. The feelings of entitlement, the threats to self-esteem, the abundance of available (and externalizable) stereotyping about “women”, all collide to form a world in which “women” are a solvable puzzle, but a fundamentally irrational one that makes inconsistent claims about how it can be deciphered. In the absence of a contrary message, or contrary evidence, this resentment builds into an epic mythology in which the protagonist is the victim of a conspiracy to deprive him of the affirmation he so desperately needs.
It’s very much an open question what will happen to me over the rest of my life. I am, after all, not yet 30 years old and these ‘revelations’ have come rather late in life. To be sure, I thought I had it ‘figured out’ at 23 too, so who knows what the next long-winded navel gaze will contain. What I do know is that until we are able to talk about and confront the assumptions and beliefs that underlie the Nice Guy™ phenomenon, naming and shaming are not a sufficient method to resolving it. At least it didn’t work that way for me.
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*A commenter on Reddit points out how problematic this phrasing is. A “bad person” is defined by their behaviour and the impact it has, and my behaviour was indeed harmful. It’s not accurate to say I wasn’t “a bad person”; perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I wasn’t intentionally malicious, but failed to recognize the malicious consequences of my actions.