Opinion | How Netflix’s ‘You’ exemplifies the toxic ‘nice guy’

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Netflix’s drama “You,” which premiered on the streaming site in January, epitomizes the “nice guy” trope, writes Sandhya Bhaskar. Photo courtesy of IMDb

The “nice guy” is perhaps one of the most fascinating (and familiar) archetypes in modern dating. To clarify, the “nice guy” is traditionally known as a man who weaponizes “niceness” in order to manipulate his partner.

The nice guy’s niceness is almost always self-proclaimed, and their cookie-cutter proclamations about treating women with respect lack sincerity. They contour their personality into an oftentimes misogynistic and misguided view of what they believe women want.

Nice is their thing. It’s a ticket that, with enough guilt-tripping, can be cashed in to compel women to comply with their desires. But when being nice can no longer be used to achieve their goals or stroke their egos, they weaponize it.

It is this dangerous mixture of ill-intentioned “niceness,” entitlement, self-absorption and psychopathy that come together to create Joe, Penn Badgley’s character in Netflix’s new dramedy thriller series “You.”
The show’s storyline is told almost entirely from the perspective of Joe, the 20-something old manager of a quaint bookstore in New York City. Joe has all the trappings of a traditional lead rom-com love interest. He’s charming, well-read, and is the antithesis of Guinevere Beck’s (Joe’s girlfriend and ultimately victim) shallow, wealthy ex-boyfriend. The good-guy qualities that Joe has built his identity around fuels his perceived entitlement to women and their attention.

So when Beck, a literature graduate student and hopeful socialite, meanders into Joe’s bookstore and playfully flirts with him, his dangerous infatuation begins.

Almost immediately after their encounter at the bookstore, he begins stalking her. Relentlessly. He follows her to her home, hiding behind a lamppost while staring into her open windows. He wears a baseball cap and sunglasses while sitting at a crowded bar several feet away from Beck and her friends as they have dinner.
Joe is the most extreme version of the “nice guy” trope. He throws Beck an extravagant surprise birthday party, plans lavish dates, and does anything he can to help her – which allows him to feel entitled to Beck’s love. He justifies his infatuation for Beck by redefining his obsession as care.

While viewers see Joe commit straight-up murder, Joe processes his actions as a loving act of valiance. He can always reframe his violence because he believes his reasoning is well-intentioned. As Beck strays from the narrow, dream girl archetype that Joe initially pegged her as, violence ensues.

What “You” illustrates so well is why the nice guy persona can’t be successful. Women seldom fit into rigid personality profiles that can be generically categorized.

While “You” uses melodrama to hyper-exaggerate the trope, the underlying message demonstrates that niceness entangled with self-interest will rarely bring men what they think the women owe them. Being “nice” cannot be used to mask all other motives, because the toxicity will eventually seep through.