Ah, the “Lovable Nerd.” Like so many of our most well-worn pop-culture tropes, the adorkable nice guy’s origins trace back to the mid-‘90s golden age of teen soaps. Before Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) seduced us with his knowledge of Greek mythology on Riverdale and Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) charmed us into taking up comic books on The O.C., there were the boys of Dawson’s Creek, the WB’s flagship drama, which ran from 1998 to 2003. Unlike their predecessors—athletic hunks like 90210’s Brandon Walsh (Jason Priestley) or popular bad boys like My So-Called Life’s Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto)—Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek) and loyal sidekick, Pacey (Joshua Jackson), were earnest, goofy, scrawny, and uncool—and we were supposed to like them. Twenty years later, though, Dawson, with his holier-than-thou condescension and his fixation on old-fashioned (read: cisheteropatriarchal) romance, looks like an early prototype of the Woke Misogynist.
Throughout the series, Dawson is adamant about his respect for his closest female friends, girl-next-door Joey Potter (Katie Holmes) and Big Apple-transplant Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams). And yet, Dawson repeatedly stalks, gaslights, and talks over Jen and Joey. He reads Joey’s diary without permission and uses binoculars to look into Jen’s bedroom window. In fact, it’s hard to differentiate Dawson’s shitty behavior from that of Capeside High’s horny jocks and prom kings who are meant to serve as his moral foils. In Season 1’s “Detention” episode, Dawson pesters Jen for sex with an insensitive persistence that rich classmate Chris Wolfe (Jason Behr) also demonstrates when he tries to get Jen to sleep with him in Season 2’s “The All-Nighter” episode. But Chris’s perseverance is considered a sign of his impurity, while Dawson’s signifies the “strength of his love.”
Dawson’s toxic masculinity is repeatedly explained and excused by the show’s universal guiding principle: Men and women can’t be just friends. From its first episode, the series argues that sexual attraction between male and female friends is inevitable. The first scene of the pilot shows Joey deciding that she can’t spend the night at Dawson’s house anymore, as she has every weekend since she was 7, because “our emerging hormones are destined to alter our relationship. …We’re changing and we have to adjust or else the male/female thing will get in the way.” And by the end of the third season, the show’s core four characters have all hooked up with each other—Dawson and Joey’s love triangles with Pacey and Jen take up most of the show’s romantic real estate, while Jen and Pacey share a smaller friends-with-benefits storyline.
Dawson’s Creek takes the inevitability of male-female desire to its binary, cisheteronormative, and problematic extreme—even queer characters aren’t exempt from this rule. Although Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith) identifies as gay rather than bisexual, he can’t resist sharing a kiss with Joey in Season 2’s “Full Moon Rising” episode or trying to initiate sex with Jen in Season 4’s “A Winter’s Tale” episode. In both cases, Jack’s actions allegedly spring from his sense of intimacy with his female friends. Neither Joey nor Jen is angry with Jack, though Jack’s kiss leads to Dawson and Joey’s breakup and Jen has to unpack Jack’s come-on in a therapy session. Relationships between the men and women of Dawson’s Creek always involve sexual desire, and toxic masculinity is the unavoidable byproduct of that desire.
Since almost all of the male-female relationships in Dawson’s Creek are sexualized, there’s little differentiation between romantic couples and platonic friends. Instead, viewers are asked to evaluate these relationships according to the male participant’s virtue or villainy, even when the line between the “nice guy” and the “not-nice guy” is fine. When virginal Dawson cruelly compares Jen to his adulterous mother after discovering that she’s has had several sexual partners, his overreaction is portrayed as wrongheaded but understandable. Dawson can’t comprehend casual sex because he’s an innocent “nice guy” who believes in true love.
But when creepy older man Vincent (Joe Flanigan), recovering alcoholic C.J. (Jensen Ackles), and unwanted ex-boyfriend Billy (Eion Bailey) similarly slut-shame Jen, they’re framed as jerks. The implication is that Dawson, by virtue of his “nice guy” status, is entitled to the affection of the women in his life. He’s the guy women are supposed to want. They’d choose Dawson if they only knew what was good for them. As such, he’s also entitled to lash out when that affection is denied.
It’s unsurprising, then, that the show overtly perpetuates toxic masculinity in “Road Trip,” a Season 1 episode centered on revenge. In “Road Trip,” Dawson has just been dumped by Jen and is butting heads with Billy, Jen’s bad-boy ex who traveled from New York to Capeside to win her back. Billy suggests that they forget about Jen by going to a bar and trying to pick up women (“Coeds wall-to-wall,” he leers). Dawson likes this idea because “[Jen]’s gonna freak when I’m not there. It’ll be good to let her wonder about me for a while.” At the bar, Dawson ineptly flirts with a woman who is won over by his naiveté. However, he decides not to sleep with her because he wants to win Jen back.
Dawson’s Dogged Nice Guy pursuit of Jen is portrayed as romantic, even as not-nice Billy, who expresses the exact same goal, is rendered as aggressive and irritating. Jen even constantly directs an aggrieved “why are you here?” his way. Despite Dawson’s renewed commitment to winning over Jen, he still kisses the woman at the bar as a “sweet rite of passage.” Dawson’s revenge on Jen is both righteous and complete: Being dumped gives him permission to kiss another woman without becoming a cheater, and his “nice guy” status imbues the kiss itself with harmless innocence.
Jen, meanwhile, is helping Joey with her own revenge plot aimed at Warren (Eric Balfour), a jock who spread a rumor that Joey slept with him. Jen persuades Joey to retaliate by telling everyone that Warren got her pregnant. This plan obviously backfires; Warren is subjected to a few harmless pranks while Joey is treated to a lecture on teen motherhood by one of the school’s teachers (“Girls your age often make mistakes,” Mrs. Tringle laments). Joey never achieves revenge; instead, she forgives Warren after discovering that he suffers from erectile dysfunction, an emasculation that effectively makes Warren a “nice guy” by default, a harmless boy just trying to save face.
In the wake of #metoo, the toxic masculinity that underpins “Road Trip” still feels depressingly familiar. We struggle to believe accusations against Dawson-esque “nice guys” like Al Franken even as we condemn obvious villains like Harvey Weinstein. We’re wearily accustomed to bro-flake backlash, such as cishet men’s claims that “rejection made me do it.” And as our cishet male colleagues wring their hands over trusting themselves at meetings and in conference rooms with their female and femme coworkers, there’s an echoing of “men and women can’t be just friends.” Pop-culture consumers sometimes gravitate toward shows, including Dawson’s Creek, where “nice guys” win the hearts of the women they deserve.
But we should ask ourselves whether the visceral pleasures of these fantasies are worth their cultural impact—after all, the media we consume too often perpetuates the structures we’re trying to eradicate. Dawson’s Creek may have paved the way for a more nuanced and less reductively masculated iteration of the romantic hero, one that has since turned up in shows like The Big Bang Theory and Parks and Recreation. But it also asked us to equate nuance with virtue, and 20 years later, we’re still struggling to unlearn the notion that nice guys are incapable of behaving badly. Here’s hoping future Dawson-esque romantic leads get called out on their toxic male behavior, no matter how many Spielberg movies, comic books, or Star Trek episodes they quote to explain it away.