I recently saw the movie Funny People and absolutely loved it. The more I think about it, the more I like it. It’s not a movie for everybody, though. But there were a couple of scenes that strike into one of the themes of Hit Coffee and other blogs in this neighborhood in the sphere. This post will contain no notable spoilers for anyone interested in the movie. I should add, though, that what I’m writing about is not what the movie is about, so don’t go and see the movie expecting it to be an artistic investigation of the Plight of the Nice Guy.

The two main characters are George, a successful stand-up comedian, and Ira, a young upstart who is hired on as an assistent and joke-writer. While George is something of a jerk with two strong romantic hooks – his money and celebrity. Ira is the quintessential Passive Male (a term that I will use in place of Nice Guy or Beta for the sake of accuracy and to strip it of some of the baggage of its conversational context). He’s slow to act on his romantic and sexual whims. He was overweight growing up and had an unfortunate name. He’s kind of a “keep your head down and try to get ahead in your own way” sort of guy. While George lives in a mansion, Ira lives on a fold-up bed in the apartment of his friend Mark (who is a minor celebrity himself).

There are two scenes that stand out in defining Ira’s romantic failures. The first occurs on his outing with George where the two of them bring home two girls to have sex with. While George is taking care of the first, Ira is abysmally failing with the second. She informs him flatly that nothing is going to happen and that she has a boyfriend. When George is done with the first, he then has sex with the second. The importance of the boyfriend, it turned out, was of variable importance depending on who else was sexually available to her.

The second and more important occurs when Mark brings home Daisy, a girl that Ira is known to be interested in. Mark is trying to set Ira up with him, but Ira fails to move. Not just because of passivity, but one gets the impression that even if he hadn’t been caught up in George’s whirlwind, he still wouldn’t have sealed the deal in the time frame (ten days) Mark gave him before Mark would bed her himself. About three weeks later, Ira has done nothing more than ask her to a Wilco show and Mark sleeps with her.

Ira, predictably, explodes. In The World According to William, his anger at Mark was justified. You sleep with the apple of your friend’s eye at your own peril. His anger at Daisy, though, was not. He accuses her of being a star{fornicator} and generally loose. She asks him if he would really refrain from sleeping with a super-hot girl that he just met and he basically said, “Right away? Yeah, I would!” because he genuinely prefers to move slow, get to know the girl, and so on. She is skeptical, but ultimately unapologetic. She has a right to her sex life and her own rules and is under no obligation to abide by his.

She is, of course, completely right. He had no monopoly on her sex life. Her rules were her own and she never asked him to go slow. Mark was willing. She was willing. Their choice, not Ira’s. And on and on. Yet, while she clearly won the argument, Ira’s pain and frustration was palpable and completely understandable. And it’s one of those things that strike a chord with a segment of the male population. Contrary to the claims of some, it isn’t simply about entitlement. He was doing what he was supposed to be doing, being sweet and nice and unaggressive… and he seemingly lost out in part because of it.

When growing up, we’re told that being nice is a way to win the girl. We’re told that pressuring is a bad thing. We’re told that women prefer a guy that is sweet to a guy that is sexually aggressive. So, it naturally follows, if we do what we’re supposed to do, we should get the girl. Okay, well not any girl, but we should at least have the advantage over a guy that does none of these thing. When we are respectful of the fact that someone wants to “go slow” (not in the movie, but frequently in real life) or has a boyfriend (the first girl from the movie), we suffer an indignity when a guy that ignores these things, is disrespectful of what she claims to want, suddenly gets what we wanted.

This is something that Phi, and a lot of guys, discuss constantly. It’s something I’m sure I’ve gone off on a rant about in the past. And it’s not wrong. A guy that gets frustrated with this should not simply be seen as the predatory friend who wants to slink his way into her bed. Sometimes they’re manipulative SOB’s trying to wear the underdog uniform to get some play, but sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re just guys that have done what is asked of them and have sometimes lost out again and again and not simply because they’re going after the ultra-hot girls. While my compassion and understanding of their situation is limited (it doesn’t matter how many times you get your heart broken nearly so much as it matters that you find the girl that doesn’t break your heart in the end), I’ve been there. I’ve felt it. My heart does go out.

There are, however, a few caveats.

The first is selective hearing. The truth is that guys get all sort of mixed signals on how to pick up a girl. We’re told that they want us to be respectful, but we are also told to sweep them off their feet. The difference between pleasant flirtation and sexual harassment depends as much on how the advances are received as on how aggressive they are. It’s like when I was a kid and I was told that exercise was good for you and rest was good for you and since I preferred rest I rested a lot. Since our passive social personalities do not lend themselves to being sexually aggressive or socially dominant, we listen more heavily to the advice that walks us down the path that we are more comfortable and capable of taking.

We also, by virtue of the fact that we are human and are not omniscient, don’t know which girls we have a shot at and which ones we don’t. This isn’t simply a matter of the nerd going after the chearleader. There have been some plain girls that I have been attracted to that didn’t know I existed while other more attractive girls that were approaching me. It didn’t matter what Ira did with George’s groupie. He wasn’t going to get sex. He did not have the one thing that she was willing to forsake her relationship for. His passivity was, in the end, utterly irrelevant.

In a lot of cases where a guy thinks that he misplayed his cards, in actuality he had a pretty bum hand to begin with. Sometimes she’s out of his league or sometimes she’s just looking for characteristics he lacks or is wary of characteristics (and not just passivity) that he has. Sometimes she is just at a point where she is only willing to move forward with someone that is truly exceptional and she will either not care that he is uninterested in anything more than a lay or she will convince herself that she can sleep her way into a relationship.

One of the more frustrating things I saw over the years was some variation of the following story. Jill just got out of a relationship or got her heart broken by some guy that she was never in a relationship with. She starts sorta-dating Jack. They don’t have sex. They’re not an official relationship. But they may hold hands or dispassionately kiss. He wants to date her and maybe has said so, but she just says that she is not ready and wants to go slow. Then she meets Jeff and has sex with him. The exact circumstances differ. Sometimes they weren’t even sorta-dating. Sometimes they were doing more than dispassionately kissing but were not sleeping together. Sometimes she didn’t just meet Jeff but instead Jeff is the guy that broke her heart that she swore she would never talk to again.

There are numerous ways to read the above dynamic. None of them make her look good, though some make her look worse than others. Some of them can make him look bad, too, but unless he seriously starts harassing her not nearly as bad. At least, that’s the guy’s perspective. Some women will immediately leap to her defense and say that she didn’t know what she wanted until she wanted it and that he failed to deal with that and therefore any of the pain caused was completely caused by him. That’s just not true. In the most charitable interpretation, she was not being honest (either with herself or him) about what was preventing them from having sex. He was investing under false pretenses that were signalled by the girl. In the least charitable interpretation, she knew she wanted nothing to do with him but used sex as a dangling carrot for companionship and the feeling of being desired.

But it is often the case that she is not being honest with herself. She really thinks the issue is that she is just not ready yet and only discovers when she meets Jeff that this is not the case. In fact, given the degree of self-deception I’ve seen in my thirty-plus years on this earth, I think that this is as often as not going to be the case. The room for doubt is what she should have known when. A guy owes it to himself to keep the potential for self-deception in mind when he invests in a relationship. And if he broaches the subject and she swears up and down that it’s her and not him, that doesn’t relieve him of his self-obligation. If she is deceiving herself, she doesn’t know that’s not the case.

Strategies aside, though, perhaps the most important aspect of the above dynamic is that, in the end, he never really had a chance with her. Not necessarily that she was “too good” for him, but her interest in him was (despite what she may have thought or hoped at the time) never a sufficient foundation for a sexual relationship. His mistake was not being a nice guy and not being a jerk. If he’d thrown himself at her, he would likely have been just as humiliated. The only upshot would have been that it would have happened sooner rather than later and he would have saved himself some time and effort. But he wouldn’t have gotten the girl. Not for very long, anyway. His niceness wasn’t the problem. He was the problem. Or she was. Or he and she together were. That’s not to say that there is nothing he could have done to change the situation. Sometimes there isn’t, but sometimes there is. But it requires something a lot less vague than “don’t be so nice” or “be a jerk” or even “be more aggressive.”

On that last one, excessive passivity is a problem. If you play a good doormat, people will see you as a doormat. If you never ask a girl out, you’re almost never going to go out with a girl. If you never make the move for sex, you’re rarely going to get sex. Unfortunately, a lot of passive people read things like this and think, in a self-congratulatory sort of way, that the problem is that they’re too nice. Or that if they were less nice that they would have more success. At that point, it depends on what you consider “nice”. But most guys that can’t get laid being nice and passive also have problems if they decide to become jerks. I know a lot of romantically lonely jerks. At this point in my life, far more lonely jerks than nice guys.

Instead, I think it’s one of those things where you see where you are on the introversion/extroversion and active/passive scales and try, not to be extroverted or aggressive, but to simply become less introverted and less passive. I personally did sporadically well on the first front and poorly on the second except when it mattered most with the woman that I would later marry. And even then, I came really close to blowing it with my passivity.

In the end, passivity is not a virtue. Guys that have been lead to believe otherwise (often by equating passivity with respectfulness or chastity) have been done a disservice. And I can definitely understand the frustration as this settles in. I just don’t want that frustration to fuel other non-productive ideas.


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17 Responses to The Plight of Passivity

  1. Peter says:

    This is one of the most depressing things I’ve read in quite some time, having for years been the doormat who lost many opportunities due to being too passive. I really wish I hadn’t read it.

  2. Transplanted Lawyer says:

    On a related note… Best line: “If you can’t do better than a man with a family of rats living in his torso, there’s no hope for you with any woman.”

  3. Ferdinand Bardamu says:

    “On that last one, excessive passivity is a problem…At this point in my life, far more lonely jerks than nice guys.”

    That’s the money passage, Trumwill. The thing here is that a lot of those “nice guys” were nice solely out of a desire for sex. These men are prone to becoming jerks out of spite, and no one finds spite attractive. New wrapper, same core.

    As an aside, here’s a link to my post on “Funny People”.

  4. web says:

    I wasn’t looking at Funny People that hard for a “message” when I saw it, but I can see where you got that.

    Then again, people are given so many mixed signals about sex/relationships growing up (especially if they’re not the type that have members of the opposite sex simply throwing themselves at them) that it’s a wonder we procreate at all.

  5. ? says:

    Great piece, I’m glad you wrote it, but, yeah, I agree with Peter: it depressed the crap out of me.

    Since our passive social personalities do not lend themselves to being sexually aggressive or socially dominant, we listen more heavily to the advice that walks us down the path that we are more comfortable and capable of taking . . . . In a lot of cases where a guy thinks that he misplayed his cards, in actuality he had a pretty bum hand to begin with.

    I sometimes wonder if, were I able to travel back to chat with my 16 y.o. self and pass on my accumulated wisdom (such as it is), I would have even listened. But on top of that, whether I could have even made effective use of that wisdom. It may be that the only life I could have made work for me was the one I actually lived, that in this respect I have “maximized my utility”.

  6. Peter says:

    I sometimes wonder if, were I able to travel back to chat with my 16 y.o. self and pass on my accumulated wisdom (such as it is), I would have even listened.

    No such doubts on my part … I know that my 16 y.o. self would not have listened. I actually got bits of advice here and there about how I should deal with girls, you probably did too, but I never followed them. Always one excuse or the other.

  7. john says:

    “don’t go and see the movie expecting it to be an artistic investigation of the Plight of the Nice Guy”

    Actually, that’s pretty much how I saw it. In the end, Sandler only overcame his bitterness and isolation by trying to be more nice. Bana saved his family by being more nice. Rogen finally started to get ahead by sticking to his guns, or perhaps by going from being a “nice guy” to being truly nice. Schwartzman didn’t seem to be getting ahead. I don’t remember if anything came of Hill, but he was the truly nice guy from the start.

    As a man who did have women frequently throwing themselves at him through high school and college, I have to say that most of my conquests were the result of drunkenness to the point that it disabled my “nice” tendencies. Frankly, I don’t think notches on a bedpost are anything to be proud of but I have to admit that I was influenced by the social pressure to accumulate them. Alcohol disabled my intellectual “what is the point of all this?” reasoning and enabled my natural “let’s get it on” proclivity.

    I’m not saying this out of pride or narcissism. I just think that one point which has been left out of the debate is that men and women are still being socially conditioned for monogamy, but broader cultural influences mixed with a desensitizing cocktail of drugs and alcohol tend to overwhelm this conditioning. Which leads to a bunch of very confused and conflicted twenty-year-olds.

  8. stone says:

    Passivity? Sounds like the problem was that Ira was POOR. A fold-up bed in his friend’s apartment — blecch! The other guys were wealthy and successful. You’d have a better argument if they were similarly situated. But it’s not fair to blame a poor guy’s personality for him losing out to a rich guy.

    And Peter: You lost out because you were obese, remember? Also probably kinda poor, being a liberal arts grad in media. Don’t blame lack of aggression or “game,” for cripes sake.

  9. trumwill says:

    In the case of George’s groupie, his passivity is was, as I said, irrelevant. In the case of Daisy, it was actually more of a factor than money was (he had a well-paying job with George by that point), though the biggest factor was his lack of celebrity.

    Anyway, the point of bringing up the movie was not that he lost the girl because he was passive but that his conscientiousness and respectfulness, which theoretically should have helped him, factored in negatively if at all.

    not completely irrelevant, but it was a secondary cause at best. The primary reason actually wasn’t money (at the time of the explosion he had a good job and was making pretty good money)

    Errr, Sheila, I didn’t blame his passivity. In the case of George’s groupie, I actually referred to his passivity as relevant. The main issue wasn’t passivity or money, it was celebrity and showbiz success.

  10. Kirk says:

    One thing that isn’t touched on here (or maybe I just missed it), is that maybe the passive guys missed out on something that wasn’t worth having in the first place. Anonymous sex isn’t for everyone. For some people, an evening playing RPG’s is better. (And you can’t get herpes from rolling a d20.)

    As for Judd Apatow, I’ve never understood his allure. Am I the only one who hated Knocked Up?

    On a side note, “Diablo Cody” has a new movie coming out. I’m sure Stone is thrilled.

  11. web says:

    Kirk,

    you’re not the only one who generally doesn’t enjoy Judd Apatow’s movies. I’m right there with you.

    As for the other part… Will’s spot-on about the fact that the primary reason (it seems) that any of the girls being discussed had sex with anyone was, in fact, celeb allure. Not a happy commentary but a rather relevant one.

  12. stone says:

    Another relevant factor is these three guys’ appearances. Are they supposed to be equally handsome? The situations you describe, it sounds like Ira is probably the least attractive. If they’re comedians, though, they’re probably all funny-looking.

    I can’t think of a single situation where a guy lost out with me for being too passive. I’m not passive. I can think of times I thought the guy’s problem was passivity, made things easy on him, and it turned out he was just a wimp with standards higher than both of us.

    There were probably some times a guy *thought* he lost out for not moving fast enough. He was wrong. I just didn’t like him that way. He misinterpreted my friendliness. And the more “aggressive” guy I hooked up with, I was really just looking for anyone to help get me away from the unwanted other dude.

  13. trumwill says:

    Appearance-wise, you have Adam Sandler (George), skinny Seth Rogan (Ira), and Jason Schwartzman (Mark). So Mark is probably the most attractive of the three (in an emo sort of way) and that likely played a factor. George is approaching mid-life. Ira is kind of goofy looking, though in a plain-sort-of way.

    I can’t speak for your situation, of course, but passivity costs guys the girl all the time. This happens most frequently when the guy not only fails to “make his move” but fails to, you know, talk to the girl. Other than maybe to borrow a pencil. Then she goes out with a guy with the guts to talk to her. Soooo typical. 🙂

    There are other cases where a guy simply doesn’t strike when the iron is hot and some other guy does. The girl is left with the choice of going out with the guy that asked or waiting for the guy that seems like he might be interested and hasn’t.

    It’s frequently the case that the guy who thinks he lost out due to passivity only thought he did. As is the case with Jack and Jill in this post. With some guys, this is the case far more frequently than not.

  14. Peter says:

    And Peter: You lost out because you were obese, remember? Also probably kinda poor, being a liberal arts grad in media. Don’t blame lack of aggression or “game,” for cripes sake.

    I was chunky, no doubt about that, by at 5-10, 250#s I wasn’t really obese. Yes, in BMI terms that height and weight combo would be in the obese category, but I didn’t look that fat – for one thing, I never wore pants any larger than a 40-inch waist. But I’m sure it made my (non)romantic life substantially more difficult than it would have otherwise. Indirectly too; I was far too out-of-shape to participate in any sports in high school or college, and perhaps if I had participated it might have helped me in terms of being more socially adept.

    As for money, I earned a decent living after getting out of school and lived fairly frugally, so it wasn’t an issue.

  15. trumwill says:

    5’10″/250lb is what I was in about the 7th grade. It’s not spectacularly heavy, but unless someone has a particular hook to compensate for it, it would shoulder a lot of the blame for romantic failures. However, someone at that weight and height could be successful despite that if they had something else going for them.

  16. Roxanne Maxwell says:

    The story was depressing but true. Girls do want a nice guy, but during the process of getting to know someone better there is a time when a girl will either give signals as to weather or not she is interested in a guy beyond just friendship etc. Girls want an assertive and confident man. Any women who says she doesn’t is being less than honest. He doesn’t necessarily have to be the best looking or have alot of money. I am a serial dater (I’m young, what can I say. LOL)so my opinion my not count as much. Just my 2 cents.

  17. rob says:

    The worst part of passivity is the lack of reality testing. In quasimonogamy, where men and women both expect men to be faithful and invest in their kids, men need to be the pursuers, so passiviity hurts men more. Prolly being assertive in dating hurts women, maybe stone could do a post on that.

    Passive guys flirt with fewer people, ask out fewer people, and so take a long time to get beyond ‘does that mean she like me?’ Without the reality checking, our opinions of women tend to be grounded in the clouds. Check out any of the “Game” blogs for bitter audiences. They’re opinions of women are based on tiny sample sizes and are more connected to paranoia and fantasy than real people.

    So take anything I say with a blood pressure freindly salt substitute.

    For women, a passive guy pining for her must be pretty indistinguishable from any other guy who doesn’t notice her at all. If someone were interested in me, she’d probably have to throw herself at me. I mean throw, like ‘hey look, I’m naked.’ to get me to beleive it’s worthwhile to pursue her. But doing that to a nonpassive guy who isn’t interested in her would have different results.

    If she wanted a relationship, she’s out of luck and hurt with normal guy. He’d likely sleep with her, maybe for a while, and then move on. If that’s what she wanted fine with me, dudes have flings cuz chicks have flings. With passive guy she’d maybe get a good relationship. The only only way she can tell is by being “slutty” which can hurt reputation and feelings.

    Not to mention, serious passivity is a problem. For some people, it isn’t confined to romance, and can interfere with lots of life.

    Also, passivity is consistent of a bunch of mental and physical illnesses. Getting involved with someone with schizophrenia or major depression is a bad deal. Passivity looks like the prodromal phase of some infections: a sickly partner is a bad idea too.

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