The History of Nice Guys

Dear readers,

I am suddenly in Boston, still exhausted from 23 hours in planes and airports. In two days I begin teaching at a prep school here, all the way until I return to Irvine in August. I’ve been trying to keep current through wireless, including dealing with my old laptop dying and needing an heir. I just posted an academic piece on Barthes, Hugh Kenner, Freud, and Rousseau over at The Valve, in which I tried to put modernism together with the origins of trauma theory. It’s about knots, scars, and the opera. Meanwhile, over here, I thought I’d respond to LittleLight, who asks her readers whether any of them were ever Nice Guys™, and how they recovered from it, so we can do a better job with the next generation. (This is also my way of giving a quick nod to Taking Steps, which is as thrilling now as it was when it burst onto my feeder with “the seam of skin and scales.”)

(I’m going to capitalize Nice Guys, but skip the trademark henceforth, because it’s annoying.)

The term Nice Guy shows up a lot on the feminist blogosphere, and there is a certain amount of confusion about what it means. It’s not just that new readers show up and need a primer; it’s that people occasionally take it in overly subjective directions. (In addition, the suggestions I’ve read for how Nice Guys should behave are mawkish and unreflective.) Nonetheless, I bet that it will not only survive online, but migrate offline into the vernacular. It simply describes a certain kind of awkward and contradictory Western masculinity too well. The craigslist post that LittleLight pointed to is now a broken link. When it was working, it was a nasty letter from a guy to some woman he apparently helped home when she was drunk. The guy railed at her for being indifferent to his services, for having no sexual interest in him, and for having gotten so drunk in the first place. Strangely enough, he announced that had he been a “Bad Boy,” she would have had lots of sex with him. LittleLight writes:

Were you ever, even for a brief, stupid, youthful period, a Nice Guy(tm)? How did you get over it? What do you think would work toward nipping this stuff in the bud when it comes to teaching our young men not to slip down that slope?

Arguably, my answer to this question is “yes,” although “brief” doesn’t fit. Nice Guys are guys whose approach to women is a mixture of fear, passivity, eager interest, deference, and misogyny. According to them, their whole worldview has been invalidated by a lack of girlfriends, and their basic attitude tends to go like this:

I’m a decent person. I should have a girlfriend by now; I want one very badly, and I do all the things women say they want. I’m extremely respectful and I believe in good conversation and gender equality. However, women clearly do not find respectful conversational partners sexy, which makes them hypocrites, and proves that I need to re-think the way I act around them.

I’ve wanted to write a post about this phenomenon for awhile. Like my Buffy post, it’s going to step on the toes of my upcoming sexuality posts, planned for August. C‘est la vie.

Nice Guys start out as guys with no confidence. Confidence is one of those terms, like intelligence, that gets used in mystifying ways; I mean that, aside from family and a small group of friends, Nice Guys believe that most people will find them unlikable and boring. They believe this because of how they failed on the playground and at school, and the reasons they failed are bad reasons, as is the fact that such painful “failure” is possible at all. Some Nice Guys are disabled or unattractive. Some are nerds. Some are minorities. Some are naturally shy. Some are young. Some simply went through a bad move or series of moves. At first, they got treated badly by a lot of other guys. Most Nice Guys I’ve met have a very specific relationship, not (at first) to Bad Boys, but rather to Golden Boys, the athletic and popular kids who seemed to get friends, girlfriends, and status the way you get presents at Christmas. At colleges where some of the population joins fraternities and sororities, and some does not, this crystallizes as hatred of “frat boys,” and as the phenomenon of toadying within frats.

Once Nice Guys reach puberty, a bunch of things happen at once. First of all, they discover porn, which is full of fairy tales about adventures (and “kinds of women”) that could and should somehow come true. Through this, through discussions with friends, and through the movies, they catch a glimpse of what is supposedly happening for the Golden Boys. It’s not just about sex — they want girlfriends. It’s not just an overheated wrong guess — they really are staying virgins while other guys awkwardly start rounding the bases. At a certain point, the Nice Guy suddenly decides that middle school is over, the Golden Boy image is attainable with practice and money, and they should get back in the ring and try to reverse the judgement of early childhood. Suddenly, they start talking about “alpha males” while simultaneously calling “frat boys” assholes. Part of the reason Nice Guys earned their name is that they call themselves “nice guys,” because they’re obsessed with the saying “nice guys finish last.”

Meanwhile, the Nice Guy is forming relationships with women that are something else entirely. They’re not sexual relationships, they’re friendships. The guy spends a lot of time talking to his female friends — a mixture of women he takes for granted, one of whom is guaranteed to have a crush on him, and women he secretly likes — and hears a lot about sexual relationships that aren’t working out, and about crushes, and about the rest of their lives. These friendships are astonishingly earnest; for everybody involved, a lot is painfully vulnerable, and a lot is scripted like a sweet film. His female friends share with him diary entries, favorite records, dreams and ambitions, cigarettes. The Nice Guy comes out of this experience with a lot of respect for assertive, strong women, but that doesn’t fit with his new plan to turn into a domineering id.

That’s why Nice Guys and Men’s Rights Activists show up at feminist sites; they’re still troubled by everything about those friendships that was so rewarding, despite constant sexual frustration. They also want revenge — the horns of this dilemma produces tons of contradictory thinking. The Nice Guy is being pulled in one direction by his female friends, and in another direction by the thought of waking up one morning, Gregor Samsa in reverse, transformed into James Bond or Jim Morrison.

For now, that’s where we have to leave our Nice Guy, stuck between a busy but Platonic social existence, and a bunch of fantasies that can go very wrong indeed. (Little has been said about the homosocial and homoerotic aspects of Nice Guy masculinity. It’s all there in A Separate Peace. Nice Guys have cannibalistic crushes on Golden Boys, for example, despite being usually straight.) LittleLight asked how we could keep our young men from that slippery slope. That’s putting it in a too-fatherly way; still, here are a few thoughts.

First of all, Nice Guys feel lonely, but the truth is that they’re not nearly lonely enough. They rarely spend enough time introspecting about what they really want, what they like and dislike, and what interests they care to pursue. As a result, they’re not very challenging in conversation. They’re followers, and that’s boring. They also imagine that they can only be satisfied by the kind of woman who would go out with a Golden Boy, which often means chasing after women with whom they have little in common. Being undiscerning, they become corny, humorless, and weirdly anachronistic. Nice Guys, including the jerk from LittleLight’s post, can suddenly start to wax about finding “a lady” in these fallen times.

Second, the fundamental assumption of a Nice Guy — I want a girlfriend — just isn’t true a lot of the time. Everybody values privacy and freedom, and Nice Guys value it even more because it’s mostly what they know. A lot of the panic Nice Guys feel when they do get close to a kiss or a shag has to do with the perceived threat to their own habits. If I could send them all a copy of “I No Longer Know Anything,” by Trembling Blue Stars, I would do so tonight. A very good evening to you.

Do I only think what I did
Was a stupid thing because
I did not get what I wanted
Or would it have been no matter what?
What if something had happened?
Would I still have fallen apart?
What if?
Would you have pushed her right out of my heart?
Is there something I don’t want to face?
Might it not have been seen a mistake?
What if something had happened?

Was it over anyway?
Does she cast such a shadow
Because she hasn’t been followed yet?
Would she do so
If someone walked in her footsteps?
Am I right to feel such regret?