The Nice Guy Syndrome in Mainstream Media

Three days ago, a 22-year-old guy by the name of Elliot Rodger went on a shooting rampage after posting a video claiming he wanted to avenge women for rejecting him, and for being the reason he was a virgin.  (Ironically, the majority of his victims ended up being men, as he failed to break into a sorority house he targeted.)  Since the incident, many have been describing Rodger as an extreme manifestation of the “Nice Guy Syndrome” – a popular term used to describe a condition where males think women are obligated to reciprocate any romantic interest/advance, and that they automatically victimize men when they don’t.

I consider Rodger to have been on the extreme end of the spectrum of very disturbed, warped minds.  He is exceptionally disturbed even in the context of the demographic of men who identify as “incels” – involuntary celibates who have been wronged by women who deny them sex.  I discovered the online ‘incel’ community about a year ago, and was very chilled by the comments I read on the forums.  They are seething with red-hot hatred, resentment, and misogynistic attitudes.

These are definitely extreme manifestations.  But what I find bothersome is how the ‘nice guy syndrome’ is ingrained in everyday attitudes.  Even innocent, well-meaning guy friends who haven’t had much luck with women have described their predicaments in the framework of “another nice guy who can’t get a girl.”  It is also everywhere in pop culture.

It usually goes like this: a geeky, plain guy pines after a pretty girl.  He bends over backwards for her: buying her dinner, doing her homework, paying off her bills, etc.  The girl either continues to be oblivious, actively takes advantage of the favors, or just doesn’t reciprocate interest (in other words, is ungrateful for everything said nice guy has done for her.)  Whatever it is, the guy ends up as the victim of the whole situation.

Usually, in the context of the plots, sympathy for the male character is justified.  The female characters take advantage of the guys, openly accepting the guys’ favors without ever thanking them or returning the favor, and thickly go after obviously worse guys.  In many of the plots, the girl character eventually comes around and finally realizes ‘what a good guy he is’, and agrees to go out with the “nice” guy.

We see this in The Big Bang Theory.  The show is about 4 geeky men who typically have trouble getting dates (although Sheldon is not really interested in doing so.)  Leonard is the prototypical nice guy who pines after Penny, a beautiful blonde girl who lives across the hall.  Penny and Leonard have an on-again, off-again relationship throughout the series peppered with petty arguments.  Penny – a waitress who aspires to be an actress – is very financially insecure.  However, she doesn’t have to move out of her apartment because Leonard pays for everything – her rent, her takeout food, her Wi-Fi – even when they aren’t dating.  He fixes her printer/computer, and proofreads her essay when she re-enters community college (because she really can’t do anything.)  In spite of all of this, Penny regularly treats Leonard, and the other geeky guys, with contempt, making her rather unlikeable.  However, this blogger accurately describes the situation:

“We don’t root for Leonard and Penny to get together because we think they’re a good match. We feel sorry for Leonard, we think Penny’s out of his league and we root for the underdog.”

In fact, Leonard and Penny begin dating when he is comforting Penny over a failed relationship.  It turns out she actually has a history of repeatedly dating assholes, as she prefers “macho” men with money.  She ends up crying, “I want to just date a nice guy!”.  In the season finale, Penny and Leonard do finally get together, and it is a cause for celebration because Leonard has spent the entire series chasing after this beautiful girl.

Then we have our Joseph Gordon Levitt plots.  In the ’90s romcom “10 Things I Hate About You”, his character falls for the female character, Bianca, at first sight.  He pursues her despite rumors that she is selfish and shallow, because she is very pretty.  He signs up to be her fake French tutor and everything!  When he sees her with another guy at a party, he gets very pissed off:

In Friends, Chandler gripes about girls insisting he is a good friend, and then complaining about their boyfriends to him.

Friendzoning happens so much to our favorite characters that it must be a real phenomenon, right?  But what are the implications of this recurring form of wish fulfillment – that girls will eventually come around or get theirs – in so many movies and television shows?  When the same rewards don’t actually occur in real life, many guys lash out.

A lot of people internalize the fictional moral compass. In its most extreme form, both guys and girls believe women are inherently responsible for, and deserve, all of their romantic problems, because they make the wrong decisions.  Girls are considered picky for wanting to date attractive guys, while guys are seen as deserving to date beautiful women.  Some girls feel pressured to oblige guys they really have no interest in.  Guys want to believe that their rivals are all abusive jerks, and think that women should eventually reciprocate a guy who is persistent enough, even if she didn’t initially want him.

Misogynists swear by these messages, supported and propagated by popular media, when they justify violence against women.  The “Nice Guy” trope implies that women never really have rational control over their decisions, so it is okay for guys to fill that void.  When mainstream media accepts women’s right to choose, maybe more people will, too.