The feminist Michael Kimmel is well known for his thesis that American society is dealing with the phenomenon of “Angry White Men.” As Kimmel describes it, white men are angry because of “aggrieved entitlement” – white males, according to Kimmel, believe they deserve a loving wife, a good and secure job, freedom and happiness. It is interesting that Kimmel calls this “entitlement” because Kimmel acknowledges these “Angry White Men” believe themselves to have lived the right way, stayed out of trouble, worked hard and been socially contributive.
This phenomenon arises again in discussions of the trope “But I’m A Nice Guy” (henceforth BIANG). Men whom are romantically unsuccessful despite being polite, understanding and benevolent towards women will sometimes ask this question and then get mocked for it, and accused of harboring a sentiment of entitlement to women’s bodies. Some websites (like “The Nice Guys Of OK Cupid,” which is arguably responsible for raising the trope’s visibility in recent years) will then proceed to dissect said person’s social media profile in order to “prove” that said “Nice Guy” was not “really” nice at all. They’re just entitled and think they deserve sex for being a decent human being (yet they’re not a decent human being because they think they deserve sex for acting in such a way), apparently.
Yet amongst several movements grouped (perhaps unfairly) together as the “manosphere,” a similar argument is made about a common lament being heard in the media (often from middle-class white career women who write for ‘women’s interest’ sections). This common lament is “Where Have All The Good Men Gone?” (henceforth WHATGMG). In brief, the women who write this lament typically say they wish to have a family, but none of the men around them seem appealing as potential fathers. Those men may not be attractive enough, may not be reliable enough, may not earn enough money, may not have the right temperament or personality. As said before those making this lament are typically middle-to-upper-class career women in their 30s. Kay Hymowitz article in The Wall Street Journal (which is behind a paywall and as such you’ll have to settle for a discussion of Ms. Hymowitz’ thesis in The Sydney Morning Herald here: http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/ask-sam/where-have-all-the-good-men-gone-20110325-1c9mf.html) is a classic of the genre. Various strains of the manosphere have pointed out that WHATGMG is premised on expectations about how men should be and act for the sake of women; is this not a case of entitlement? Are not laments about WHATGMG “aggrieved entitlement”?
In this article I will be analyzing and comparing BIANG and WHATGMG. I will further make the argument that BIANG cannot be fairly described as “entitlement,” and whilst there may be a case that WHATGMG isn’t always fairly described as “entitlement” either, it is substantially more likely that WHATGMG is fairly thought of as an “entitled” attitude relative to BIANG. This is not to say that women who are simply picky or romantically unsuccessful are entitled; plenty of these women are not. Entitlement is merely one possible cause of unrealistic (and thus easily-thwarted) expectations. In addition, many expectations are tacit and socially reinforced, and many people live their lives without deeply probing social norms in the first place. However, I will argue that whilst BIANG does not meet the standard of entitlement, WHATGMG often does.
WHAT COUNTS AS ENTITLEMENT
Merriam-Webster defines “entitlement” of the interpersonal, psychological kind (as opposed to the legal or political kind) as the “belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/entitlement). To be entitled to something is to deserve it, to be owed it.
I would further specify that an important aspect to how “entitlement” is used in an interpersonal, psychological (and universally pejorative) fashion is that it imposes a positive obligation on other people. For example, every individual is in fact entitled to have their right to remain free from other people’s violence respected. This, however, is a negative obligation (it merely says other people must refrain from acting toward oneself in a specific way) rather than a positive obligation (it does not require others actively do something for oneself).
This overlaps with the distinction Isiah Berlin made between negative liberties/negative rights and positive liberties/positive rights; the former are prohibitions on violent/fraudulent/coercive interference by others in one’s own life. The latter constitute the ability to have the state interfere with others’ lives if necessary in order to provide you with something which you may lack. This is why positive rights are often called “entitlements” – if you lack something, you are permitted to use force (by proxy via the state) to get that thing.
There is also the matter of common decency and civility. Common decency and civility arguably approach the level of a positive obligation one has toward others, at least by default. However, we could argue that common decency and civility are both treated as mutual obligations; where one party repeatedly refuses to grant it, said party has lost the entitlement to receiving it. This seems to imply that entitlement (in its pejorative sense) requires a lack of reciprocity.
As such I will be defining “entitlement” as follows:
“Someone can be described as believing themselves to be ‘entitled’ to X if they believe that they deserve X and they believe that if they do not have X this imposes an obligation upon other people to act to provide them with X and these other people who provide them with X are not deserving of anything in return for doing so.”
There are thus three tests. We shall refer to these as Deservingness, Positive Obligation and Non-Reciprocity.
BUT I’M A NICE GUY: A SUMMARY
The lament of BIANG follows a predictable formula. The lamenter is typically a man whom has been raised to be kind, polite, chivalrous and courteous to women, and repeatedly told by certain ex-girlfriends and sometimes mothers that he’s a nice guy and as such of course there’s a woman out there who’s perfect for him; he just needs to be himself and keep trying.
Eventually, this man realizes that following the advice he was given (be himself, keep trying, be patient) doesn’t produce the desired result. “But I’m a nice guy” he says.
This man has followed what he was explicitly told by more than one woman. Typically this man is not very physically attractive and may have a condition such as Asperger’s syndrome, or merely perhaps too much gullibility, an overly literal temperament, or perhaps an extremely unrealistic and idealized view of women. As such, what this man thinks is that the “but you’re a nice guy and you’ll find a woman that’s perfect for you eventually” talk actually means what it says.
The unfortunate fact is that because many women prefer to be diplomatic over being honest (and women do in fact benefit from the positive prejudices which being honest would dispel), the “but you’re a nice guy” talk doesn’t mean what it actually says. What it means is “I don’t find you sexually attractive, in spite of the fact you’re a kind and polite person, and as such I don’t want to have a romantic relationship with you.”
This leaves men in a state of disillusionment and disappointment; didn’t they act precisely how they were told to act in order to be attractive?
Does the BIANG attitude amount to entitlement? I don’t think it does. Entitlement is not an attitude of confusion. To an extent, BIANG counts as believing one has “earned” sex; our societally popular dating script is entirely about the man proving himself worthy of the woman’s attention after all, and when a man is told that in order to prove himself worthy he must follow a particular course of action, it is not surprising that a man who has followed that course of action would feel that they had “earned” women’s attention. I will regard the “Deservingness” condition as satisfied by BIANG.
Some will make a distinction between believing one deserves something based upon having earned it, and believing one deserves something irrespective of one’s actions. This is where the second condition – Positive Obligation – kicks in. If someone has acted in order to earn something, they have not imposed a positive obligation on anyone else; they have personally done the actions necessary to grant them that which they believe they have earned, or more simply, they have fulfilled obligations that were placed upon them. You can be entitled to something and not have earned it (for example, inherited property) after all. Look at how “Nice Guys” react when they’re accused of feeling like women actually owe them sex; they are confused by this accusation and deny it because they are not alleging women have a positive obligation to provide them with sex but rather that they have fulfilled the conditions required to have earned sex. They have done what they were told women wanted; they lived up to their part in the exchange.
And this is where the Non-Reciprocity condition comes in; the “Nice Guy” is under the impression he has provided something and thus the other person is meant to reciprocate. According to the “Nice Guy,” he has not imposed a positive obligation on the woman with nothing in return for her; rather, he provided her with what she claimed to desire and thus it is her who isn’t reciprocating his gift. As such, neither the Positive Obligation nor Non-Reciprocity conditions are satisfied.
The confusion and bewilderment of “Nice Guys” is not entitlement. It can be angry, but often it is more about a lack of understanding (not to mention that they often don’t understand the criticisms often levelled at them, or how anyone could possibly interpret their lament as negatively as the feminist-sphere often does). It is disillusionment. The “Nice Guy” was, for better or worse, misled into believing that being benevolent, understanding and friendly towards women was what women wanted from him in return for their romantic affections. The Nice Guy’s logic did not begin with the presumption that women owed him sex in return for nothing; it began with the proposition that women wanted certain behaviors from him in exchange for sex. He certainly believes he deserves sex (in the same way people who earn their paycheck believe they deserve that money), but he does not impose a positive obligation upon others (rather he acts under the impression that others offered him a reciprocal obligation) nor does he believe others don’t deserve anything in exchange for granting him sex (rather he believes that he has already granted others what they said they wanted).
If our society were more direct and honest, particularly with those vulnerable to not “getting” the subtle and tacit, BIANG would not happen.
WHERE HAVE ALL THE GOOD MEN GONE?: A SUMMARY
WHATGMG is a lament typically made by career-focused women in their thirties and up. They are typically economically stable if not outright successful, often meaningfully intelligent, and after spending their youth studying, working, and perhaps engaging in a few casual flings during their small amount of spare time, have turned their attention to their plans to start a family. And yet they have trouble finding men who are both interested in starting a family and who meet their criteria of “eligibility.” In short, the men these women see around themselves are considered unworthy of their hand in marriage.
Unlike BIANG, those who lament WHATGMG are typically not greeted with the wide-scale mockery of large numbers of the opposite sex. Instead, their lament is treated sympathetically and seen as evidence of a crisis; some feminists argue that those who lament WHATGMG are victims of patriarchy and an alleged male fear of strong and independent women. Kay Hymowitz’ article (discussed in the previously cited Sydney Morning Herald article) put the blame on men preferring an “extended adolescence” over “growing up” and committing to a woman. The article in The Sydney Morning Herald raised a question rarely heard in such discussions; “are women simply being too picky?” Picky is one thing, but entitlement is another. It is not entitlement to have high standards, but when the chorus of complaining reaches a certain level across wide varieties of media it makes it pretty clear that a very large number of women simply expect there will be an ample supply of enticing men.
Do WHATGMG women see themselves as deserving of an “eligible” man? Perhaps, but only in a passive sense. Most emphatically they do not see themselves as having to earn such a man or of actually earning such a man. After all, traditional dating culture makes “earning” the man’s job; the woman is the judge of the man’s worthiness, and a man must prove himself able to live up to her standards. WHATGMG laments very rarely raise the possibility that women may have to adjust their expectations; the vast majority of these laments put the blame on men (for either being intimidated or immature). Yet again the traditional notion of the man as winning the woman’s affection is reinforced; the burden of agency is entirely placed upon the man, whereas the woman just has to make an assessment. It is fair to suggest that perhaps women have just been raised to expect a large supply of enticing men, and they are disappointed and disillusioned rather than truly seeing themselves as being owed such a man, but this doesn’t explain why WHATGMG pieces so frequently place blame on men and demand men change so as to be more appealing to women. As such, I will regard the “Deservingness” condition as satisfied.
WHATGMG laments frequently display an attitude which fulfills the Positive Obligation condition as well. Traditional manhood, after all, is defined in terms of agency (“men do, women are” after all) and as such there is a near-inevitable way in which wanting “better men” is a demand for men to act in a specific way. When one reads a WHATGMG article, the specific demands are rarely left to the imagination; again citing from the previously-linked-to article…
“You can blame the lack on good men on the cougars….Yeah. They’re ruining it for the rest of the women,” agreed another woman. “They pounce on the younger men, give the guys what they want and let them act like boys…”
The implications here are simple. Allegedly, “cougars” are letting men do what men want. This is a bad thing that allegedly ruins things for the rest of the women because said cougars “let them act like boys.” Because men should not act how they wish to… that makes them ‘boys’ and thus immature. Men should act how (non-cougar) women want men to act! This is by definition the imposition of a positive obligation.
As cited in the article, Kay Hymowitz has written that “most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance… It doesn’t bring out the best in men.” Unstated is the idea that it is men who must change and act; they must “grow up” and refashion themselves as fully responsible and self-reliant adults. The comedian Julie Klausner, author of the book I Don’t Care About Your Band, continues with this demand for maturity when she says “a guy’s idea of a perfect night is a hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends… They are more like the kids we babysat than the dads who drove us home.” This in particular is the imposition of a positive obligation, not merely to be an equal partner but to be a new father figure for a woman who’s apparently an adult herself! Ms. Klausner’s employment of cultural touchstones like video games, college friends and (in another quote) Star Wars also makes clear she expects men to give up hobbies she subjectively perceives as “immature” for her sake. Not only is the Positive Obligation condition filled, it is filled quite superlatively.
And now we move on to the Non-Reciprocity condition. Do WHATGMG laments implicitly believe that men who “man up” to provide a woman with a “good man” deserve something in return for doing so?
This is a mixed issue; WHATGMG of course implies that as long as a man does what the woman wants, the man receives that woman’s romantic attentions. But on the other hand the point of the “non-reciprocity” condition is the idea that other people must provide that-which-is-desired full stop. Other people don’t deserve anything in return for doing that; the only person who “deserves” anything is the recipient of that-which-is-desired. And it is on that basis which I must say that WHATGMG fulfills the Non-Reciprocity requirement. Because WHATGMG articles don’t merely say that “some women are finding it difficult to find hot men, and would appreciate if men made themselves hotter.” Rather, these articles consistently treat a lack of “worthy” men as a moral crisis that imperils women. These articles treat men as facing a moral obligation to provide women with what women want, even at the cost of mens’ PlayStations, bands, and nights in Vegas. These articles treat the lack of attractive men as an attack on women, as a debt to be repaid, not merely a lack of opportunities for mutually beneficial transactions. Not as something confusing or disappointing or unfortunate, but as a wound inflicted upon women.
Whilst I’m sure some women say “where have all the good men gone?” in a non-entitled fashion, the WHATGMG discourse is just slathered in sexual entitlement. WHATGMG discourse begins with an expectation of a buffet of marriageable men that women deserve, but doesn’t merely become disappointed. It gets angry; it demands men change for the sake of women, it commands men to live up to women’s standards, it treats men’s preferences as meaningless and childish. And women don’t have to do anything for this; the obligation to “man up” is placed upon men with no corresponding obligation upon women. Men refusing to “man up” means men incur a debt to women.
This is sexual entitlement. BIANG passes only one test (Deservingness), but WHATGMG passes all three.
Even if we give WHATGMG the benefit of the doubt and say that the relationship with the woman counts as “reciprocity” that means WHATGMG passes two tests and is thus closer to true sexual entitlement than BIANG. WHATGMG is effectively a single-sided obligation, a demand for men to make women more happy because they are women and deserve it, at the expense of men’s own happiness. BIANG, whilst naive and/or silly, at least has the dignity of exchange. WHATGMG, on the other hand, expects men to live up to women’s demands and is outraged when men don’t; men are expected to conform to women’s preferences just naturally in the absense of rewards or positive incentives from women, and the lack of male conformance is not merely a lack of positive opportunities but an affront to women.
On a personal note I find the “entitlement” discourse to be counterproductive. Accusing people of immorality is not a good way to convince anyone. But the discourse as it is sees BIANG as the height of entitlement, yet treats WHATGMG as worthy of cheerleading. The reality is that WHATGMG discourse in the popular press is certainly more entitled than BIANG and probably constitutes actual sexual entitlement. BIANG is often a mixture of confusion and disappointment; it is rarely a demand for sex. Rather, it is people dealing with disillusionment.
Women too can be lied to by society. WHATGMG can easily be a reaction to a society that over-promises and under-delivers. I won’t claim everyone who is disappointed by a dating pool is entitled. But the popular discourse in the media surrounding WHATGMG certainly seems to be dominated by women with entitled attitudes.
How do we fix this? As I said before, more honesty and directness would fix BIANG. But WHATGMG is based on some of the deepest ideas within the gender system; male hyperagency/female hypoagency, female inherent value, and female power being derived from agency-by-proxy, are good examples. Such a system is hard to change, but the deep roots of sexual entitlement must be attacked for gender equality’s sake.