Register Monday | December 9 | 2019

The Nice Guy Is the New Asshole (In My Life and In the Movies)

I’m over the Asshole. And who isn’t, really? Assholes just aren’t in right now. If you watch movies, you can see the trend. Gone are the days of the James Dean look-alikes, with their leather jackets, cigarette breath and emotional detachment. Gone are the days when it was cool to act like a jerk and play mind games. The Asshole had his day, and it was glorious. Now it’s time for the Nice Guy to take centre stage.

Some Assholes may be true misers of joy, but it’s likely that most are just playing a part. The acting metaphor is particularly apt because playing is what the Asshole does best: To him, it’s all just a game of tag. Catch me if you can, only you never can. Playing hard to get is the basic function of the unattainable man because he believes it makes him desirable. And by hardening his outside and hiding any softness inside, he makes sure no one else plays him. That just wouldn’t do.

As you can see, I am nonplussed with the Asshole.

I am not the only one. It just isn’t cool to be cold these days—even Tony Soprano has a soft side and a lady therapist to help him work through his issues. Seeing this weaker side of Tony is, I think, what makes him the unlikely but compelling sex symbol that he has become. That and the machismo, of course.

Audiences really identify with leading men plucked from the bumbling-Hugh-Grant genealogy—apologetic and loving gentlemen-actors.


It’s in the movies, too. The summer blockbusters churned out by Hollywood show leading men who are sensitive and have weaknesses. Most of Spider-Man 2 focused on the inner struggle of a wide-eyed Tobey Maguire. It was a tough time for Tobes: His girl was moving on, his rent was due, he couldn’t deliver pizzas for money. Sure, there were also speeding A-trains and a wicked antagonist with eight arms, but the story had pull because of the pathos and the spidey love. Audiences really identify with leading men plucked from the bumbling-Hugh-Grant genealogy—apologetic and loving gentlemen-actors. In the film Wimbledon, Paul Bettany plays a hot but sweet tennis player whose game dramatically improves because of the love of a lady. In both films, coincidentally, the romantic interest is Kirsten Dunst. So clearly the sensitive guy isn’t doing too shabbily.

Of course, life is not like the movies, but it’s clear that not only are male actors wearing their hearts on their sleeves, but they are being shown as more attractive for doing so. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, it’s not the jerk (played by Hugh Grant, giving his good-guy shtick a break) who wins the lovely, plump Bridget, it’s the geeky Mark Darcy. It seems that, finally, the nice guy doesn’t have to finish last—and unlike in the eighties, when the babe always ended up with the meathead, the twenty-first-century women I know are fed up with Assholes and are finally pickin’ d’em good apples.

There was a time, I admit, when I saw the Asshole as a catch. Like Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give, I thought it was somehow a coup if you could win over a cantankerous sod. Or maybe it’s because I have a dad from northern England and I’m used to the gruff male who has to cough out words like “I love you” and “sorry,” when he can manage them at all. Whatever the reason, there was a period of time when I was drawn to the Asshole. It wasn’t that I wanted to date a bona fide jerk, but a guy who was aloof and distant was a challenge. He would be charming as well, of course (Assholes learn this survival skill early). My thoughts were: If I could get him to like me, and if I could just bring out that loving part of him, then it would be all the more rewarding. Right?

The Nice Guy is not an overly apologetic, knee-quivering fool. The Nice Guy is a gentleman; he believes in respect and decency and knows that offering to walk a girl home isn’t offending her feminist values. In fact, she might even invite him up.


Wrong. Even though Carrie ends up with Mr. Big at the end of Sex and the City—and even though it’s romantic that she does—we all know that no once-a-week columnist could possibly own so many Manolo Blahniks, and no Asshole as practiced as Big is going to make good in the end. As fun as it is to be the spectator, it’s not actually so nice to be swept off your feet when you’ve been let down so many times before.

My own case was a sad state of affairs, but luckily I got smart and realized a couple of things. First, it’s never your job to bring out the best in someone—he should bring his best to you and you to him. Second, dating the Asshole is really quite boring. You never know when he’ll call (if he’ll call) or if he really likes you (if you even like him). The problem with the emotionally distant Asshole is that you are so focused on figuring out what the hell he’s thinking, you forget to ask yourself what the hell you’re doing putting up with him in the first place.

So you don’t. You start to think about all your wonderful friends—people whom you love dearly and completely sans bullshit—and you start to question why you would expect any less from someone you sleep naked with. Enter the Nice Guy.

The Nice Guy is not an overly apologetic, knee-quivering fool. The Nice Guy is a gentleman; he believes in respect and decency and knows that offering to walk a girl home isn’t offending her feminist values. In fact, she might even invite him up.

Emma Appleby (Poppy Wilkinson) is a fabulous force on the Montreal scene. Read more recent columns by Emma Appleby.