Published: The Good Men Project (September 15, 2015)
Back in January, Salon ran an editorial by famous writer and game show winner Arthur Chu called “The plight of the bitter nerd.” Apparently this piece proved quite popular, since it has recently reemerged as one of the site’s biggest hits, and there is good reason for this. Instead of taking a simplistic approach to the concerns and feelings of bitter nerds like himself, Chu acknowledges that “it seems in every group of nerdy guys I’ve known there’s one guy who’s trapped in a feedback loop of anxiety and self-loathing when it comes to women that goes around and around in circles.” Indeed, he admits that he’s very lucky to get away from being at a similar emotional place only a few years earlier.
That said, there is an important reason why Chu identifies with feminism, which deserved to be quoted in full:
“For most of us, sex is a big part of our lives, and our relationship to gender therefore a weighted and fraught thing. We all have hang-ups and neuroses, and they’re much more likely to manifest in the way we see sexual attraction and relationships than in the way we do our taxes. No one actually said men have it easy.
But men are the ones who by and large get to deal with this as an internal matter. Women are the ones who have to deal with internal hang-ups and, as Laurie Penny points out in her piece, external threats from other people. Guys deal with Women in the abstract, as a category; women deal with specific men who physically threaten them.”
Again, Chu is obviously speaking in generalities – of course there are men who have been physically threatened by women who are exploiting gender roles, just as there are women lucky enough to go through their entire lives without ever having their gender used against them. That said, the general trend is precisely what Chu described, which is why he concludes that “I don’t know how ‘women,’ as a group, can help men with the problems he [an MRA sympathizer] describes… But meanwhile, women are getting stalked and raped and killed. That’s something that men are doing and that men can stop other men from doing. And, with apologies to my fellow emotionally tortured guys, that really ought to be our priority.”
While I share Chu’s sentiment on how feminist priorities significantly (and I do mean significantly) outweigh the concerns of lonely bitter nerds, he’s wrong that there isn’t advice which can help nerdy men effectively address their problems. Like Chu, I’m also a nerdy man whose early childhood experiences with girls have given me a residual awkwardness which has lasted for many years (having Asperger’s Syndrome definitely didn’t help matters).
While I was fortunate enough to see that change once I went to college (my school was unusually open-minded, allowing me to develop several successful relationships there that gave me the confidence and skills necessary to maintain a normal dating life as an adult), I still feel a connection to that isolated teenager who hadn’t yet learned that high school experiences can be very different from ordinary life. As such, I have three quick tips for other men who are in that predicament.
1. Don’t put women on a pedestal.
I know quoting Gloria Steinem is a great way to lose sympathy from MRAs and PUAs, but she nevertheless had a saying that is really useful here:
“A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.”
Although she was discussing the experiences of women, this is actually a valuable insight for men as well. When you hear MRAs or PUAs describing “what women do” or (in the case of the latter) how to “pick up” women, they act as if there is some great feminine monolith, a collective of sexbots whose programming can be used to your advantage if you just figure out the right combination. Not only is this assumption blazingly misogynist, it also misses an important point that can help shy and nerdy men – if you act like women are some ethereal “other” that you must win, you make the obstacle of curing your loneliness so much more difficult than it needs to be.
At the end of the day, women are people – no better and no worse – and the tricks you need to communicate with them are no different than the ones you’d use with men. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be awkwardness (just as when you talk to men) or cruelty (again, like with men), but the best way to develop the confidence to talk to a woman is to realize that she isn’t some otherworldly angel. She’s a human being with the same fundamental hopes and fears that you probably possess.
2. Don’t think of women in terms of their “value.”
Another theme I often hear from MRAs and PUAs (not only online but in person) is that women judge men based on a set of superficial criteria: How much money they earn, how successful they are in their careers, various physical attributes (genital size, muscularity, etc.), and so on. While this resentment isn’t entirely invalid (see Point #3), that legitimacy is undermined when these same men insist that they want not only a woman, but a “hot woman.” There are exceptions, of course, but in general one of the most common complaints I hear from self-proclaimed “bitter nerds” is that they want a woman who is thin, conventionally attractive, and as such capable of enhancing their social status by simple virtue of public association
The most obvious problem with this perspective, of course, is that it’s transparently hypocritical; when an angry nerd insists he has a right to date a hot girl, he isn’t railing against injustice in general, but instead sulking that a system of social hierarchies is benefiting others but not himself. Yes, there are women who only date men to enhance their own status, but they are only doing the same thing that men do when they demand that a woman be “hot” so they can assuage their egos and impress other men.
By reducing relationships to games in which there are “leagues” and “winners” and “losers,” these men and women thwart the good intentions of those who seek meaningful companionship, in which emotional intimacy, intellectual compatibility, and sexual gratification are all inextricably entwined.
While I don’t have advice for women, there is one question every man should ask himself if he wants to play a role in stopping this: Am I pursuing women based on whether I feel a deep connection and attraction to them or because I think of her as a prize?
3. Hold women accountable on an individual-to-individual basis.
None of this means that the various wrongs nerdy men have experienced from women should be diminished. Quite to the contrary, when a woman refuses to date a guy simply because he doesn’t have a high-value career or physical appearance, she is no better than a man who refuses to date a woman because she put on a few pounds or isn’t considered physically attractive in general. Certainly those men and women have a right to do that (remember, people have a right to date whomever they want), but it’s shallow and shameful and should be called out as such.
At the same time, it’s important to realize that women who do these things aren’t acting on behalf of women everywhere; they are individual human beings making individual (in this case bad) choices. This distinction strikes many men as unfair, but the reality is unavoidable: Right now, the power dynamics in both America and the world are such that women are politically, economically, and socially disadvantages.
Consequently there is no parity in terms of each gender’s experiences interacting with the other. When a group of bitter nerds decides to harass an attractive woman online, they are participating in a broader culture that deems it okay to reduce a woman’s worth to her sexuality and demean her accordingly. By contrast, when a woman decides to spurn a man on superficial grounds, she isn’t perpetuating a deeper social injustice; she’s simply being a bad person, not only by prejudging someone else but by denying herself potentially rewarding friendships and romances simply so she can climb the social ladder (social ladder-climbing, incidentally, is not limited to either gender).
This still sucks, of course, and as such it is no worse for a man to call out a woman who is being shallow toward him than it is for a woman to call out a man who rejects her for not being a 10 or whatever such nonsense. That said, this stops being acceptable the moment the men in question decide that the actions of bad women can be used to describe all women, or that they constitute a systemic inequality in gender relations rather than a sign that women are capable of just as much nastiness as their male counterparts. Similarly, it becomes problematic when men forget that people have the right to be shallow and prejudicial – just as a vain man has every right to insist on only dating 10s or die alone trying, so too do women have the right to accept nothing less than a flawless Prince Charming.
Indeed, this can be used to sum up the overall point here: When all is said and done, women as a gender are being systematically oppressed, from being paid less than men for the same work to having their bodies treated like slabs of meat owned by other people. That is the main issue that requires discussion in our political debate. The concerns of nerdy and awkward men, though not devoid of merit, are fundamentally no different than those encountered by anyone who has been burned when attempting to seduce and/or fall in love. This doesn’t mean that their feelings should be ignored, but it’s important to place them in the right context.