I don’t know if I ever knew what a nice guy was. Not in the sense of never meeting one, but in definition, it is ambiguous. I think movies told me something, and moms at church would rave to other moms about their nice sons. Vaguely, there was a notion of opening the car door, and perhaps a dramatic gesture. I hear that term a lot, “he’s such a nice guy”, and I’m not so sure what that means anymore or it it has any meaning at all. Because we understand what a nice girl is, right? She’s friendly and approachable and not too slutty and doesn’t have too much attitude. She’s just enough to be palatable. I am not a nice girl, for example. But a nice guy… it’s applied to so many men, so often that it’s hard to fully flesh out the term.
I watched Promising Young Woman— a thriller/ dark comedy. The casting, Carey Mulligan’s performance, the female direction– it’s all superb. Emerald Fennell (famous for playing Camilla Parker-Bowels on Netflix’s The Crown) directed and cast actors famous for nice guy roles (Adam Brody, Bo Burnham, Max Greenfield) . Mulligan’s character, Cassie, is out for revenge after her best friend from medical school, Nina, was raped on film by classmates and subsequently, took her own life. Cassie seeks revenge on these nice guys throughout the film. Dialogue includes men insisting on their goodness, and all of this echoed with familiarity for me, and I assume, most women.
There have been the nice guys who just weren’t nice. I knew this guy for eight years, and we were sporactically involved. He put me down a lot. He’d neg me and call it playful banter. Last year, we hung out. I finally said, “I’d like to date you”. His response was, “I’ve thought about it, and I feel like I’d want to kill myself after 4 days”. I asked him if he respected me at all. He paused, and he never answered the question. I got up to leave, and he urged me to sit on his futon where he disclosed his personal embattlement and then went onto say that my dad probably cheated on my mom. For reference, this person has never met my parents nor has any information on their 32 year marriage. I exited agog. My cells knew this person did not respect me. He also continued to say, “you don’t have to go to law school”, after I expressed that is my plan and ambition. I don’t think he respects women, given other women’s experience with him as they disclosed to me over the years. Although my feelings for him hadn’t subsided, I understood the necessity for my love for myself to be bigger than my desire for this person. Weeks later, I described these circumstances to a mentor of mine told me that he was “scared” and a “nice guy”. My intent in this description is not to vilify this guy. It’s not the rejection. It was the insistence on undermining me, my ambition, my family– that I was a mirror for his own insecurity as well as free emotional labor available to him. He also said he didn’t believe in therapy while clearly demonstrating that he does, indeed, need counseling. In many ways, he reflected the affection I felt deserving of: none. We haven’t spoken since. I wish him health and safety, but that doesn’t mean he is a nice guy.
There are the guys called nice because they say hello and sometimes smile and sometimes bathe. I liked a guy whose interests diverged completely from my own. He was the bro-ey type who believed he was an undiscovered genius, as exemplified by novel-length text messages and three hour soliloquies where I was present but never spoke. He left me in a park the day after my birthday. That was the idea of him “taking me out”. He then completely froze me out as if I didn’t exist. Later, he was chatting up a loose friend of mine. She was unaware of the history there, and she kept on saying what a “nice guy he is”. To my understanding, he handled their entanglement very similarly. Mutual acquaintances continued to say what a lovely chap he was. I’m not saying he’s a bad guy, but him doing the bare minimum makes him a just guy. What’s wrong with the bare minimum? When the bar is set to the floor, it means normal is at the earth’s core. It means the expectation is violence and inappropriate behavior. I believe men are better than that.
And then there are the troves of men insistent on their own nice guy-ness:
I went on a date at 15 with a boy I wasn’t interested in. It was the only date I’d ever been on, and my spine remained rigidly straight from anxiety the whole time. My face darted at angles to avoid his lips. I felt obligated to go on a second date, and after that, I expressed my lack of feelings. He tried to talk me out of my own feelings, and when that didn’t work, he called me a “user” for allowing him to pay for my grilled chicken at Applebees. Later, he had a female friend spread rumors throughout my high school about various deviant sexual acts I’d done (not that it matters, but at this point, I hadn’t even kissed a boy). I spent the next two years with some social circles perpetuating the idea that I was a trollop. I tried to give him another shot when I was 23. He had me walk miles in sandals that were essentially pieces of paper on concrete. When I said I was not feeling it, in marathon texts, he explained why we are perfect for each other.
There was the dude my freshman year of college who pined for me, droned on and on about how beautiful my soul was only to call me a bitch when I didn’t reciprocate his feelings.
There was the man who I told I needed a self-care night, and he tried to talk me into a couch date. When I express my needs, it’s not the beginning of a negotiation. And of course, every woman’s favorite, the dudes who are in a one-sided conversation via-dm about how we don’t appreciate the nice guys and the good guys like them.
There are all the nice men I’ve worked with other the years who have either groped me at Christmas parties or laughed about it only to hit on me themselves later.
There are the nice male co-workers who have encouraged other men to say things like I am well-trained like a dog or just stared at my chest the entire time I’m speaking. And you could say it’s not that bad, right? But sometimes, it is.
There was the nice guy who had sex with me when alcohol strained my “no” into silence, and even when he heard it, he didn’t stop. He texted me the next day because that’s what nice guys do before disappearing until the following year when a sorority sister brought him home. I sat on a couch, hoping my top knot and glasses made me unrecognizable.
There was the nice guy who followed me into my bedroom after I asked him to sleep downstairs, and then I asked to go to sleep, and he had sex with me anyway. When he put my hands on my throat, I asked him to stop. He never did. And like the first dude, he found my number from some other source and texted me. He took me on a date where he was clearly miserable for 78 minutes. I felt him counting the minutes and seconds because I was, too. I was there to prove to myself that I wanted this, that it wasn’t coercion, that I like this humorless man whose charisma is matched only by a bowl of flavorless oatmeal.
Maybe nice guy is actually code for men who are unassumingly rude or worse. This essay isn’t a diatribe against men. Actually, I’m dating a man who is legitimately kind, and you know what? He should be. That doesn’t canonize him into a saint because he doesn’t mind my cellulite and isn’t threatened by my assertiveness. The expectation is that I reciprocate that kindness. Another guy I dated was incredibly understanding when I expressed that I didn’t want to pursue a relationship with him, and we are still in touch. But that is the rarity, not the norm. I can count those positive experiences on one hand. What I’m saying is that we use the term “nice guy” so liberally. And I know men who have felt put upon when that niceness doesn’t result in the outcome they expected — like women are a vending machine where you input nice and get sex. The only difference between these men and aggressive attackers is that they will smile and maybe buy you a drink before doing the same exact thing, and after, they will maybe talk to you once to absolve themselves of any guilt. Gotta edify the self image of a nice guy. Where I was rejected, I accepted it. I respected their decisions. When the roles reversed, I wasn’t afforded the same respect. My no was a red light they ran through, sometimes with annoying attempts to convince me, and sometimes worse. All women have felt the whiplash of a man going from practically proposing to calling her a bitch and sometimes, threatening to kill her.
Unlike Cassie in Promising Young Woman, I don’t want revenge. “Why didn’t you report it? If it were real, Marisa, why didn’t you go there?” At 18, I was terrified. At 19 and 20, I did. My supervisor, a 30-something year old woman, told me that I gave an impression that I deserved to be called a slut in professional areas. No one from HR ever followed up on those complaints. I worked for a prestigious entity where this call occurred. At 21, as my male boss texted me at 3am regularly, I couldn’t stomach another vivisection of my character so I just went along with it. The truth is that I don’t want the people who hurt me to suffer. I just didn’t want to hurt anymore, and the less I had to think about them, the more I could move away from those things.
I debated not posting this because it could make me look angry, rapid, a misandrist. I do believe in innocent until proven guilty. But I also know that my experiences are common for women, and we stand there with teeth clenched over tongue as people rave about the nice guys who are anything but. We tether our opinions heavy in our throats, and hold them for fear sharing our experience with that person will reflect poorly on us. And I would look crazy if I shared my experiences, right? I would appear bitter and unhinged to malign these men. Christine Blasey Ford, Anita Hill, and Tara Reade know this better than I do. Our last presidential election had both candidates with a record of inappropriate behavior with women. There is little accountability. I don’t disagree with the culpability women have in this, that they, like my young female supervisor, often perpetuate misogyny because they feel it will benefit them (it never does). However, that does not erase who is executing this behavior, and it’s men.
Most of the men I described are average men. They aren’t monsters by any means. Humanity is a bell curve after all. The expectation is not sainthood. Nice is intended to be a relatively mediocre bar, but it is higher than the bare minimum. My expectation is not the worship of women. Rather, I’m just over the praise of mediocre (and worse) men. I’m over the vilification women face upon any reaction to poor behavior or the desperate expectations between genders or belabored qualifications (IE: was it really rape? define inappropriate. Boys will be boys) . I don’t want the bar to be in hell anymore. I don’t just mean for partners. I mean for co-workers and strangers in public spaces. I mean that being a person is hard no matter your gender, and it is exponentially harder when one gender must both endure a sliding scare of disrespect and never tarnish their antagonist’s glowing reputation. What I mean is that not every guy is a nice guy, in the same way that not every girl is a nice girl. That some of us are just people, and praise is an easy veil for danger to hide behind.