Spoilers follow for Love, Simon; Anna and the Apocalypse; and Ralph Breaks the Internet.
“You really piss me off, you know? Because you know they shit all over everybody, including you. I can’t believe you’d be this stupid. He’s going to use your ass and throw you away! God, I would have died for you. You can’t do this and respect yourself. You just can’t.”
In the character of Duckie from Pretty in Pink, screenwriter John Hughes gave us the siren call of the Nice Guy. The Nice Guy is Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s Snape from Harry Potter.
Typically a bit of a social outcast, he seems sweet enough—he may even be your best friend—until it clicks that you’re romantically interested in someone who’s not him. Then the facade crumbles, revealing an insecure, entitled jerk who simply can’t fathom that the woman he’s into may have feelings towards him that stop at the platonic.
He’s been so nice, after all.
The toxic masculinity inherent in the “Nice Guy” has begun to be challenged.
What’s particularly telling, and particularly troubling, about media examples of Nice Guys from years past is that their creators don’t seem to recognize the character type as the troubling, misogynist trope that it is.
The original ending of Pretty in Pink had Andie (Molly Ringwald) end up with Duckie (John Cryer) instead of rich-boy Blane (Andrew McCarthy). Director Howard Deutch only changed the ending after girls literally booed the pair ending up together at a test screening. (The ideal Pretty in Pink ending has Andie ditching both men in favor of hanging out with Annie Potts, but that’s neither here nor there.) Snape’s unrequited love of Harry’s mother Lily is seen within the Harry Potter series as tragic and romantic, rather than obsessive. And sweet ’n’ lovable Xander can slut-shame Buffy as much as he wants without anyone ever calling him out on it.
But the times, they are a’changing. In 2018, the Nice Guy? He wasn’t so nice.
In movies like Love, Simon; Anna and the Apocalypse; and even Ralph Breaks the Internet, the toxic masculinity inherent in the “Nice Guy” concept has begun to be challenged.
In Love, Simon, there’s a subplot involving a teenager named Martin (Logan Miller) who’s obsessed with magic and new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp) in equal measure. He’s a Duckie for the 21st century, someone whose borderline-stalking attitude towards the object of his attention is counterbalanced by a social outcast status and quirky demeanor that renders him, if not entirely likable, at least more pathetic than actively intimidating.
Or at least it would, if Love, Simon didn’t fully acknowledge the toxicity of Martin’s behavior. When he discovers Simon’s (Nick Robinson) homosexuality and uses that knowledge to blackmail him into getting close to Abby, the film recognizes it for the horrible act that it is. A grand gesture at a football game leads to him being gently rejected by Abby, which in turn causes Martin to out Simon to the whole school as a means of distracting his classmates away from his own humiliation.
What can a socially awkward nerd really do? The answer, we now realize, is “a lot.”
Martin is not a wholly unsympathetic character by the end of the film. But his clear regret at his past behavior is depicted less as a brushing-aside of what he’s done than an indication that, with a little bit of hard work and self-examination, he can stop being such a massive tool.
In the end, Martin doesn’t get the girl.
Of course, 2018 wasn’t the first year that people realized Nice Guys are actually entitled nightmares. The villain in the criminally underrated 2010 animated film Megamind is a card-carrying Nice Guy who thinks becoming a superhero will get his crush to like him and flips straight into supervillain mode when he realizes that’s not the case.
The starkest case of the Nice Guy-as-Villain can be found in Nacho Vigalondo’s 2016 film Colossal, which is masterful in its gradual unveiling of just how much aw-shucks hometown boy Oscar (Jason Sudekis) resents main character Gloria (Anne Hathaway) for her success and her lack of interest in him.
The defense of the Nice Guy goes something like this: They’re not all assholes! Some of them are just socially awkward dorks! That’s the case in director John McPhail’s zombie Christmas musical Anna and the Apocalypse.
Lead character Anna (Ella Hunt) is pined after by John (Malcolm Cumming), her best friend who’s clearly been into her for years but is too shy to say anything about it. Then the zombie apocalypse happens. You know where this is going: A brief respite from the chaos. A confession of love. Ella and John facing the undead hordes as a newly minuted couple.
Nah. Anna’s subversion of theNice Guy trope is much more low-key than what we get in Love, Simon or Colossal, but at the same time it’s more authentic-feeling, zombies be damned.
It goes by quickly. Anna makes it clear, without putting it in so many words, that she knows how John feels about her, and that she loves him, too—as a friend. He’s clearly sad, but he doesn’t berate her or attempt to argue her into giving him a shot. The subject is closed. John couldhave been written as a Nice Guy. Instead, he’s just… a nice guy.
Another coulda-been Nice Guy who turns out to be actually nice is Wreck-It Ralph, who skirts close to the platonic version of this trope in Ralph Breaks the Internet. The romantic element isn’t there, but the other building blocks are.
Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) wants to move from her quiet arcade game to the more exciting Slaughter Race, located in the scary world of the internet. Her best friend Ralph (John C. Reilly) gets possessive, trying to convince Vanellope that Slaughter Race is awful before eventually going behind her back to infect the game so she won’t want to live there. It’s the Nice Guy, Friendship Version.
Ralph’s jealousy manifests as a King Kong-style monster determined to keep Vanellope with him, her own feelings be damned. Confronted by the worst version of himself, Ralph realizes that his behavior was motivated not by anything Vanellope did, but by his own insecurities. In the end, he accepts that Vanellope has the right to make decisions about her own life, and the pair of them are happier for it.
In Love, Simon and Colossal, the Nice Guy is laid bare as the monster—literally, in Colossal’s case—that he is. In Anna and the Apocalypse, he’s shown as he should be, responding to unrequited affection in a healthy and mature fashion. And in Ralph Breaks the Internet, we see a man actively work through his Nice Guy tendencies, realize the toxic emotional well they spring from, and come out the other side a happier human being (well, collection of pixels) capable of forming much healthier relationships.
So what happened? It’s easy to point to the increased presence of women at the table. Nice Guys exist in real life, after all, as the supposed feminist allies who whine about being “friendzoned.” It makes sense that women would be more sensitive to the ways in which the fictional Nice Guy veers dangerously close to the real-life creeper. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, the book upon which Love, Simon is based, was written by Becky Albertalli. Pamela Ribon co-wrote Ralph Breaks the Internet.
But both those movies were directed by men. Male writer/directors are behind both Colossal and Anna and the Apocalypse. And it’s not like women are immune from perpetuating the Nice Guy trope. (Hi, J.K. Rowling.)
Where you can find a more direct cause for this widespread reexamination of the insidious nature of the Nice Guy is in the changing realities of male nerd culture.
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.” Filtered through Reddit and 4chan, a group that used to be perceived as scrappy underdogs gave birth to GamerGate and the alt-right.
In 1986, Duckie called Andie stupid and told her she was unworthy of respect for daring date to a man who wasn’t him. Thirty years later, he’d have gone straight to r/incels to whine about “sex redistribution,” “chads,” and “soy boys.”
The Nice Guy was never nice. The movies are just now starting to catch up.