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The Nice Guy Trope, Explained

He’s not like the other guys. He’s a NICE guy—but wait, is he really that nice? What’s behind his sweet, romantic act? In this video, we take on the Nice Guy archetype and figure out what he represents in our world today.

TRANSCRIPT

He’s not like other guys. He’s a nice guy. If we look at the Nice Guy onscreen, we can break down the qualities that define him…

  • He’s a hopeless romantic. The nice guy can be found obsessively pining after a girl, making grand gestures or jumping way ahead in planning the future of a relationship. But much to his chagrin, he’s often pegged as friend material instead of as a true boyfriend contender.

  • This obsessive lover-boy lives in his head and frequently struggles to act on his feelings.

  • But the central irony of the nice guy is that he’s not actually that nice. He may be the polar opposite of the stereotypical male commitment-phobe, but his supposed romantic streak is really just projecting a fantasy onto the woman he likes. He talks about how girls go for the wrong type of guys, but this rhetoric is usually just an empty cover for wishing he had the ladies man’s confidence and mojo.

  • And while he isn’t intimidating or threatening on the surface, the unrequited love he’s too scared to pursue can lead to a toxic build-up of resentment or bitterness.



  • The wisdom in our culture has long been that nice guys finish last. So how did we end up with a whole subgroup of male characters who are trying really hard to be seen as Nice?

Here’s our take on the Nice Guy: what’s behind his niceness, why he’s his own worst enemy, and why— even if some of these guys are frauds, the real thing can still exist.

The Evolution of the Nice Guy

The Nice Guy himself hasn’t necessarily changed all that much over time, but in recent years there have been huge shifts in the way viewers look at him.

For most of history, the male character who relentlessly pursued his love object (regardless of whether she was sure about him) was portrayed as charming and sweet.

Lise Bouvier: “It’s a pity you don’t have as much charm as you have persistence.”

Jerry Mulligan: “But I have. You’ve only seen the aggressive side of me” …

Lise Bouvier: “Alright you win” - An American in Paris

In Fred Astaire movies like Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee, the male lead’s intense infatuation with and pursuit of a woman he doesn’t know well is presented as normal, because he’s so in love.

One of the most definitive examples of the Nice Guy trope is Duckie in 1986’s Pretty in Pink. He harbors an unrequited crush on his best friend Andie, and most of the time is an obnoxious pest, constantly badgering her for attention.

Duckie: “6:15. Duckie Dale again. Call me, OK? Andie, where are you? This is the Duck. Give me a call, OK? Uh, it’s 6:28…” - Pretty in Pink

Duckie consistently overlooks what Andie wants, instead thinking he knows what’s best. When he finds out that she’s interested in dating rich guy Blane, he tries to shame her out of her crush. So ultimately, Duckie’s kindness is contingent on a woman living her life on his terms.

But in spite of all this bad behavior, the original movie ending that writer John Hughes wanted brought Andie and Duckie together at the prom. Test audiences booed this conclusion, suggesting that our culture already had a lower tolerance for the nice guy than filmmakers may have thought.

90s and 2000s shows featured nice guy characters pining for their dream woman, but struggling to express this in a healthy way. Take Brian Krakow on My So-Called Life— when he’s jealous about Angela’s relationship with dreamboat Jordan Catalano, he starts a spiteful rumor that the two had sex.

Ross Geller on Friends and Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother begin their respective series wanting to find “the one” as soon as possible. Both men fixate on a woman they feel is perfect, developing an out-of-control infatuation even though she’s not quite on the same page. After Ross wins his “lobster” Rachel, things go sour when she starts establishing a new independent identity and career, leading him to act out in jealous, controlling ways.

Ross: “Can’t a guy send a barbershop quartet to his girlfriend’s office anymore?”

Rachel: “It was like you were marking your territory. I mean, you might as well have just come in and peed all around my desk.” - Friends 3x12

When these shows were on the air, we were still meant to sympathize with Ross and Ted, and root for them to get the girl. So in many of these cases, it’s only in looking back that some viewers start to find the nice guy’s behavior creepy. More recently, though, our culture has turned on this character type, even coining the term “nice guy syndrome” to describe the wolf in sheep’s clothing who performs niceness with ulterior motives. It follows that modern “nice guys” onscreen are viewed through a more critical, self-aware lens.

News Reporter: “Everyone says he’s a really nice guy.”

Diane: “That’s exactly the problem. Because he’s so nice, people don’t wanna think he’s capable of awful things so they let him off the hook” - Bojack Horseman 2x07

If you look back, you can find subtle critiques of the Nice Guy scattered throughout film history.

In 1951’s A Place in the Sun, our seemingly nice hero wants to be with Elizabeth Taylor’s rich beautiful Angela so badly that he plots to murder his poor pregnant girlfriend to get her out of the way.

In 1958’s Vertigo, the apparently harmless Scottie (played by Jimmy Stewart, subverting his own Nice Guy persona) is so fixated on the idea of a perfect, non-existent woman that he obsessively controls an actual girlfriend and inadvertently causes her death.

In 1965’s Repulsion— an exploration of female fear of men— nice guy Colin aggressively pursues Carol, even though she doesn’t engage with him. When she won’t open her apartment door to see him, Colin breaks it down— justifying this threatening, violent behavior as an expression of his romantic passion.

But when it comes to our modern skepticism of the Nice Guy, the tide started to turn with 2009’s 500 Days of Summer, which was meant to be a deconstruction of the trope. The story looks at how the idealistic Tom projects onto his dream girl Summer, ignoring all the times she tells him that she’s not looking for love.

Summer: “I just don’t want a relationship.”

Tom: “Well, you’re not the only one that gets a say in this! I do too! And I say we’re a couple, goddamn it!” - 500 Days of Summer

Director Marc Webb said, “The movie is very intentionally told from the perspective of the guy, and we wanted to identify his shortcomings. He wasn’t observing the inner life of the Summer character. He projected on her… we think of that as romantic, but really it’s just intellectual laziness.” Still, the movie’s intended message didn’t stop many viewers from seeing Summer (who herself is a deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl trope) as the villain who coldly breaks Tom’s heart. This popular misreading reveals that, at the time 500 Days came out, culture was still biased in favor of the nice guy.

That same year, Inglourious Basterds gave us Fredrick Zoller, who presents himself as a polite, smitten suitor. But the film subverts this— because this guy is a literal Nazi who snaps when Shosanna turns him down one too many times.

Shosanna: “Fredrick, you hurt me.”

Fredrick: “Well, it’s nice to know you can feel something. Even if it’s just physical pain” - Inglourious Basterds

Love, Simon’s antagonist Martin also sees himself as a nice guy, though no one else does. He cruelly blackmails Simon. But when his romantic grand gesture for his crush Abby bombs, he does out Simon after all.

Netflix’s You is the darkest subversion of the trope yet. Bookstore manager Joe creates a perfect nice guy image to win Beck— but he’s actually stalking her, tailoring his personality to what he knows about her, and killing off anyone who poses a threat to their relationship.

2020’s Promising Young Woman offers a full-on revenge fantasy, in which vigilante Cassie targets fake nice guys she knows will try to take advantage of her. Thus, the movie’s takeaway is similar to You: these men who tell themselves they’re protecting a woman from the bad people out there are really the ones she needs protection from.

Beck: “You are the bad thing. You are the thing that you should have killed” - You 1x10

Ultimately, the nice guy has evolved from the underdog romantic into the villain of our times. This shift in popular opinion is largely due to the Me Too movement and a growing awareness of the nuances of male entitlement. As Rebecca Pahle writes for Mashable, “You used to be able to shrug aside the Nice Guy’s more stalker-y tendencies—so the media they appeared in told us—because they were just so damn harmless. What can a socially awkward nerd really do? The answer, we now realize, is ‘a lot.’”

The Nice Guy in Love

The nice guy is largely defined by his romantic side. But this character’s infatuation frequently takes the woman’s desires out of the equation. Romantics like Ross, Ted, Tom and Duckie are so single-minded and sure they’ve found their soulmates that they don’t pause to consider whether their love object feels the same. So ultimately, the nice guy needs to accept that you can’t will someone into feeling what you feel.

Jack Walsh: “You can love Andie, but that doesn’t mean she’s gonna love you back. What I’m trying to say is you can’t make it happen” - Pretty in Pink

Downton Abbey offers one of the most interesting cases of this phenomenon: Daisy never feels anything remotely romantic for kind, gentle William— yet she’s pressured into marrying him to make him happy.

Nice guy stories tend to send the troubling message that a man’s relentless persistence will reward him with the woman in the end. This is reflective of a culture where “no” is often interpreted to mean “convince me.” On How I Met Your Mother, Ted’s whole guiding philosophy is that you should never back off and move on, even when it’s completely inappropriate (like when the woman you love is engaged to your friend).

Ted: “And when you love someone, you just, you you don’t stop, ever. Even when people roll their eyes or call you crazy. Even then. Especially then! You just you don’t give up!” - How I Met Your Mother 9x17

The nice guy is the kind of person who bemoans that chivalry is dead. But this passion for respecting women may not be all that it appears. The nice guy often makes romance into a moral issue, so that if a girl doesn’t like him, she must just not like being treated well.

He expects the woman to be interested in him because of his inner goodness, or because he’s so in love with her. But this idea is hypocritical— because the nice guy is usually drawn to his crush at least in part out of physical attraction… he’s not exactly looking around for an awkward girl on his level of the social hierarchy and falling for her just because of the intensity of her feelings.

Finally, this character type often builds up a fantasy of his love interest that isn’t representative of who she really is.

Jen Lindley: “Well, I guess I’m no longer the virgin queen of Dawson Leery’s hand-held fantasies” - Dawson’s Creek 1x05

You emphasizes how the nice guy lives in his head through Joe’s creepy narration. The way his internal monologue refers to Beck as “you” makes it seem as if he’s carrying on a conversation with her… except that, of course, she’s not really a part of it. So in many of these cases, as in Vertigo’s early subversion of the trope, the nice guy is in love with a phantom. And as soon as the woman shatters that illusion and asserts her individuality… it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy.

Living in His Head: The Nice Guy’s Self-Sabotage

The nice guy may feel victimized by more confident men or beautiful women. But the truth is that he is his own worst enemy.

The character frequently dims his own light through self-sabotage. In the finale of My So-Called Life, Brian writes a romantic letter to Angela for Jordan to pass off as his own, Cyrano de Bergerac-style, and she’s blown away by its heartfelt contents. Show creator Winnie Holzman said, “it wasn’t the Brian that was walking around in life who wrote that letter. He went to this really deep place inside himself, and he wrote from there. That’s what spoke to Angela.” Holzman’s words reveal how Brian has done himself a serious disservice by not showing Angela his true self before this point. Even then, he’s hiding behind Jordan, and when Angela directly confronts Brian to ask if he wrote the letter, and it’s implied that she’s developing feelings for him too, he still won’t take credit for it.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower makes a similar point in the way Charlie sells himself short by not pursuing his crush Sam.

Sam: “Then why didn’t you ever ask me out?”

Charlie: “I just didn’t think that you wanted that.”

Sam: “Well, what did you want?” - Perks of Being a Wallflower

On 13 Reasons Why, Clay never musters the courage to tell his classmate Hannah how he feels about her. The show implies that there’s a chance it could have helped Hannah to know someone cared, which gets at the point that it’s not just himself the Nice Guy hurts by withdrawing. And because he’s not able to express himself, he may be lacking in emotional intelligence or empathy for those around him.

The nice guy has a tendency to take a passive role in his own life. But by being so self-protective and risk-averse, he lets his feelings fester into self-loathing… and ensures that he doesn’t get any closer to what he really wants. So the nice guy needs to develop the courage to face the possibility that his feelings aren’t reciprocated— and in confronting this fear, discover that he can survive rejection and move on. In Pretty in Pink, once Duckie gets over his infatuation with Andie, we discover that this guy is genuinely sweet. And encouraging his friend to follow her heart makes Duckie feel good, too.

Duckie: “If you don’t go to him now, I’m never gonna take you to another prom again” - Pretty in Pink

So what does a true nice guy look like in our modern world— and how does he differ from the faux nice guy?

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’s true Nice Guy Peter Kavinsky is that total unicorn who, besides possessing the expected love interest qualities of good looks and self-assurance, is unusually romantic and thoughtful. Rather than falling in love with an idea of Lara Jean, he takes the time to listen and get to know who she really is. Peter respects his partner’s desires and boundaries. And he treats her not as the subject of his adoration but as an active participant in the relationship.

Peter: “No, you know what? If you want me to read that, then you need to give that to me” - To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

On Parks and Recreation, real Nice Guy Ben Wyatt supports his partner’s aspirations 100%, championing her instead of trying to control or limit her out of fear she’ll slip away from him.

These modern examples of true Nice Guys call back to authentic ones of the past, too. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is the quintessential Nice Man audiences love because he cares about others, has a sense of community, and makes sacrifices to help people. Tom Hanks has made a career of playing actual Nice Guys, and in movies like Splash, that coincided very naturally with getting the girl he loves.

So really, it’s always been great to be a Nice Guy, and it still is. What differentiates a real nice guy from the knock-off version is simply authenticity. The faux nice guy’s grand gestures can come off as cringeworthy and even manipulative. Or he may expect a prize for acting like a decent person. But while fake niceness abounds in our world, true kindness sets you apart like a diamond in the rough… and in the end, real nice guys finish first.

Lara Jean: “I need you to know that I like you, Peter Kavinsky. And not in a fake way” - To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before