As I’ve been working on this project, I’ve had a nebulous fear that every time I say “healthy masculinity,” people are going to mistake it for something else , and I’ve just recently realized that something else is “nice guy.” Then, as I began working on this post, I realized that “nice guy” in turn has two separate but related implications that I want to unpack. There’s the nice guy aesthetic, and then there’s Nice Guys TM.
To me, “nice guy” provokes a very specific image. It is of a cisgender heterosexual man wearing a powder blue buttoned shirt. He might be wearing slacks or jeans, but if they are the latter then they are very clean and pressed jeans, not something worn for manual labor. He might work as an accountant or software engineer, or editor or any number of other jobs, but its definitely something that requires him to wear a tie. You would not know how to describe his hair because it is cut in a style so simple the eye slides right off of it. He’s clean shaven. He drives a car, not a motorcycle. He drinks coffee and beer, but not too much of either, and he definitely doesn’t smoke. If he’s been married for more than a year or two he has kids. If not, he plans on having them soon.
In other cultures the image of a nice guy might vary, but I suspect they all have one; a hodgepodge of fashion, career, and lifestyle choices that are guaranteed to be inoffensive. Ultimately though, it is not a proof of inner character. It’s an aesthetic. And, while it’s also perfectly fine. Some people who fit the nice guy aesthetic are secretly rather immature or even outright manipulative jerks underneath, but others are as wholesome and nice under the surface as they seem to be at first. That shouldn’t be surprising. Basic human decency doesn’t come with any particular fashion sense.
What I do have a problem with is the Nice Guy TM; the above image, but with a morose look on his face because some guy with tattoos and probably a motorcycle is getting all the girls. You most likely have heard plenty of “nice guys finish last” spiels, and I certainly hope you have heard some of the awesome smackdowns that are out there. Here are a few good ones, including one by Ginny.
Because of all those great preexisting commentaries, I don’t want to go into all the issues with the Nice Guy TM. Plenty of people have covered that already. Instead, I want to point out an unspoken assumption. There is this idea that with the correct gender expression comes a range of benefits and entitlements. This idea appears twice in the Nice Guy TM spiel. There’s the idea that because the speaker fits the nice guy aesthetic, he is entitled to girls, and then there’s the idea that the hypothetical bad boy is winning girls by virtue of his more edgy gender expression.
There are a number of ways that our culture encourages people to expect rewards or punishments based on their gender expression, and all of them are shitty. You aren’t entitled to a job or a relationship or anything else based on your hobbies, appearance and lifestyle choices. If you are doing what feels right and makes you happy, that should be reward enough; if not, try making a change.*
That’s the issue I have with many people who I have seen talk about reforming masculinity. Often they end up essentially arguing for everyone to solve the problem by putting on the Nice Guy Aesthetic, and that’s not going to work. It’s just another rigid gender role. In my last post I went into what I meant by healthy masculinity, but to recap; I mean an attitude towards masculinity that embraces a diversity of expression. It includes everyone who performs masculinity, whether men, women or non-binary, and it allows everyone to perform it in their own way, as well as validating those who don’t identify as masculine at all. I call this healthy masculinity because it is incompatible with the gatekeeper attitude that enforces and underpins toxic masculinity.
The nice guy aesthetic is compatible with healthy masculinity, it just isn’t inherently any more compatible than a tattooed motorcycle rider aesthetic, or a cowboy aesthetic, or a dapper steampunk gent aesthetic. Whinging that “nice guys finish last,” on the other hand, needs to go.
*I realize that some people do live in circumstances where their most comfortable gender expression would be highly stigmatized and might result in serious bullying or loss of a job that they need to survive. If this is you, I’m so sorry, and I hope you don’t mistake my earlier statement for judgment on your situation. There’s a difference between compromising your gender expression to survive and feeling entitled to certain things based solely on that expression.