“Sex/Life” and the exhausting, male entitlement of the “nice guy” trope – Salon

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There’s something about men who identify themselves and are identified by others as “nice guys” — as if that in itself is a defining personality — that’s always set off my fight or flight instinct. I wasn’t sure why until one day, the discourse around “incels,” incel culture, and all the men on the internet who believe they’re entitled to women’s bodies as payment for being “nice guys,” made it click. 

The onscreen trope and societal archetype of the “nice guy” is so frustrating because of the common plot points and social expectations that go hand-in-hand with this particular character. In Netflix’s latest comedy-drama “Sex/Life,” which follows the lives of justifiably dissatisfied housewife Billie (Sarah Shahi) and her perfect, “nice guy” husband Cooper (Mike Vogel), Cooper is the quintessential “nice guy.”

As Billie becomes addicted to fantasizing and journaling about her steamy, passionate and turbulent relationship with her ex, Brad (Adam Demos), Cooper becomes privy to her thoughts when he reads these words. As a result, he becomes increasingly insecure about their marriage, and his inability to live up to the wild sex and crazy chemistry Billie and Brad once shared — and still share, to this day.

Cooper exemplifies pretty much everything wrong with the trope of the “nice guy” — starting with the reality that most “nice guys” aren’t actually all that nice at all. Instead, they’re pretty much just perceived as “nice guys” because they thrive off of the laughably low standards society assigns to men to be considered “nice,” which women are socialized to accept. The bar is so low, and the minimum so bare, that Cooper is repeatedly called the “perfect husband” throughout “Sex/Life” for the grand act of . . . *checks notes* . . .  being a man with a pulse, and wanting to marry and have kids.

There is also plenty of evidence that speaks to the contrary of Cooper’s much-exaggerated niceness, starting with the whole premise of the show. All of the chaos that somehow winds up culminating in a violent fight at a sex party is set in motion by Cooper’s very violating act of reading Billie’s diary, invading her privacy and violating a crucial boundary.

The laundry list of his misdeeds is long, including his treatment of Billie like an entirely different person (“I don’t even know who you are!”) when he learns about her wild sexual past and her present-day fantasies — not to mention neglecting her wants and needs for months after the birth of their second child, only to judge her for having sexual desires. Cooper later pressures Billie to have sex in front of strangers at said sex party, and when she insists she isn’t comfortable with this exhibitionism, he engages in a sexual act with another woman, right in front of her. This is all somehow justified by Billie’s rejection of him. So let’s get this straight; he shames his wife for her sexual past, but when he violates her boundaries of sexual comfort . . .  she’s still at fault? That doesn’t sound that “nice.”

Arguably one of the biggest red flags is Cooper’s career in finance, which leads him and those around him to see Cooper as a Messiah-like figure for investing in a biotech company, through which his firm could make millions. (“Now I’m not saying we’re curing cancer, except we kind of are,” he says at one point). In a particularly cringe flashback of Cooper pitching his venture capital firm to a group of undergraduates, he tells them, “Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk — their dream wasn’t to make money, their dream was to change the future for the better. Money’s just what they got for being right.” 

Ford’s famous factory line and approach to the modern workplace are used as the capitalist model for exploiting and dehumanizing workers to this day (in addition to his known antisemitism). Meanwhile, Musk endangered his factory workers throughout the pandemic while increasing his own net worth by $143 billion, but sure, Coop.

Billie seems to embody women everywhere who are socialized to see mediocre but non-abusive men as saviors, because previous male partners or male figures, as well as patriarchy in general, have set the bar so low. Right before Cooper, Billie dated Brad, who is somehow even worse than Cooper. The last of Billie and Brad’s many breakups is notably caused by her miscarriage. Pregnancy loss can be devastating and traumatic for those who experience it, but citing his unresolved father issues, Brad manages to make the miscarriage all about himself, cheats on Billie days later, then throws her out of their shared apartment shortly after. 

Arguably the key difference between Brad and Cooper is that one of them pretends to be the “nice guy,” and that, of course, is Cooper. Even after the sex party fiasco that ends with Cooper beating his ex-best friend, requiring his friend to get stitches, the following day, Cooper’s boss expresses sympathy for him and blames Billie for “changing” him into something he’s not. Billie even thinks this too, apologizing to Cooper, as if he isn’t the one who violated her boundaries, cheated on her, and subsequently sent a man to the hospital. 

In other words, just as Cooper embodies the quintessential television “nice guy,” he also presents the quintessential problem with so-called “nice guys” — “nice guys” often view their niceness as transactional, a means to an end that entitles them to whatever they want from women. Fictional “nice guys” like Cooper are often treated as sympathetic when they don’t get everything they want from women solely for being nice, while the women who don’t give them what they want are demonized.

“Nice guys” aren’t the same beast as incels, but the fictional trope of the “nice guy” similarly extends from a culture of deep male entitlement. And male entitlement can be more dangerous than annoying fictional characters — it can and does lead to thousands of women around the world being killed each year for telling their abusive partner “no.” It can lead to bizarre cultural sympathy for mass shooters and killers, when we’re told these men probably wouldn’t have killed a bunch of people if only a woman had just endangered herself and dated or paid attention to him.

Sure, “Sex/Life” has its redeeming qualities, and it presents an intriguing take on the age-old patriarchal question of whether women and mothers can “have it all.” Yet, enjoying it requires you to somehow get past its toxic men, which is pretty difficult. The steamy new Netflix series is curiously all about the “female gaze,” brimming with oral sex scenes, a male full-frontal nudity shot, and an overall celebration of badass women, while still tolerating and even sympathizing with trash men. Of course, tolerating and sympathizing with trash men is arguably an extension of the female gaze, too, offering bleak commentary on how patriarchy and a lifetime of sexist disrespect condition many women to see only the best in the absolute worst men.

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