"Cold Takes" is a new column in which we express our passionate beliefs about insignificant events and Internet discourses at least several months too late.
If you google "Dawson Leery," you will quickly learn that people love to hate Dawson Leery.
The eponymous lead of the '90s teen drama Dawson’s Creek is notoriously sincere and sentimental to a fault. He spends his life making way too historically accurate movies about the girl who broke his heart in high school. The walls of his bedroom are covered in Steven Spielberg film posters arranged in chronological order. He’s a melodramatic, moody Pisces who says things like, "I’m at a profound crossroads in my life." It’s all annoying yet entertaining enough to watch, but what makes Dawson truly insufferable is that he's nice and really wants you to know it.
Dawson exemplifies the Nice Guy persona that is all-too-familiar today, whereby self-identified sensitive men perceive themselves as morally superior to and passed over in favor of their more stereotypically masculine peers. The Nice Guy thinks he's so good to women that he feels wronged when rejected by them, revealing a sense of entitlement to women's bodies that was there all along.
When the show premiered 20 years ago this week, Dawson qualified himself as part of a breed of "well-intentioned geek[s]" who’d been steadily losing appeal since the good ol’ days of the mid-1900s. He is the sweet, hopeless romantic contrasted by his best friend Pacey, the clown and screw-up. Dawson’s other best friend and eventual love interest is Joey, who quietly transforms from the cynical tomboy into the beautiful, supposedly morally pure woman of every man’s dreams. Then there’s Jen, the sexy wild child from New York with an overlooked heart of gold who moves in next door to Dawson and sets the show’s plot in motion—as attractive new female characters are wont to do.
Despite these main characters’ differences, what they have in common—besides teen angst, of course—is that they’re all good to other people and they try to do the right thing (though they make the occasional mistake). And yet it is specifically Dawson whose niceness gets noticed, applauded, and shoved down our throats. His niceness practically defines him, forming an identity that sticks with him throughout the series, regardless of how many times he acts like, in his own words, "a puke."
So what makes Dawson think he’s such a nice guy? Well, he talks an awful lot about his virginity, which he plans to keep until he finds true love. He dismisses many of his male peers as jocks without deep thoughts and fancies himself as their opposite: an artist. (An actual quote: "I'm an artist, torture is a prerequisite.")
Unfortunately, everyone else on the show reinforces Dawson’s Nice Guy self-concept. In season one, Jen calls Dawson sweet, romantic, and caring ad nauseum. When Jen’s ex-boyfriend Billy visits town and fails to win her back, he concedes to Dawson: "Looks like the nice guy’s gonna get the girl after all." In the following season, Pacey blows up at Dawson during an argument: "We can’t all be the fair-haired embodiment of perfection." And Dawson is still nice in season five when an older film critic post-coitally remarks that it was upon noticing his Skechers shoes as the moment she knew he was "safe," one of the good ones.
Now, I’m not here to say that Dawson Leery is a total monster or to criticize his footwear. But like any insistently Nice Guy, our bare-hearted protagonist gets away with maintaining a reputation for being harmless and respectful even when his behavior suggests otherwise. After hearing the unsettling news midway through the first season that Jen, now his girlfriend, has been sexually active since age 12, Dawson slut-shames her, accusing Jen of defending his mother’s extramarital affair because "who better to understand a woman’s need to have multiple partners?"
Jen eventually dumps Dawson and later attempts to foster a friendship with him, but he hasn’t given up. Dawson agrees to be friends and somehow invites himself on Jen’s upcoming date with high school stud Cliff under the pretense that he, too, has a date at the same time and place. He then proceeds to use innocent Mary Beth as his stand-in date, stringing her along as he tries to woo Jen back.
Though he sees himself as devoid of aggressive masculinity, Dawson periodically engages in some of the most typical dude behavior ever: In season three, he enters enters a sailing competition for the sole purpose of beating Pacey, because he doesn’t want Pacey to date Joey, who he still has feelings for. After the contest, Joey accuses the boys of fighting over her like a trophy. It’s not the first time Dawson expresses a misguided sense of ownership over women. In the second season, Joey breaks Dawson’s heart when she decides she needs time alone and ends their relationship. Yet when she starts dating Jack, Dawson is convinced that he "stole" Joey from him.
Sometimes Dawson recognizes that he’s messed up and delivers very sincere-sounding apologies to women he’s hurt—but that doesn’t stop him from feeling disadvantaged by his niceness, convinced that women actually like assholes who treat them poorly. "She rejected romance, honesty, and respect," Dawson laments after his breakup with Jen, as if any woman has ever complained about being too respected. "Let’s face it, Dad. We’re a couple of nice guys, which stopped being a desirable character trait about half a century ago."
Dawson believes that women should be treated well and that he personally treats women well, which leads him to assume that he's a good match for any woman he sets his eyes on. When some nevertheless ignore or reject him, he feels slighted. The irony of Nice Guys like Dawson, of course, is that their entitlement is not nice.
In the show’s final season, we finally witness a character call bullshit on Dawson’s Nice Guy persona. "See, Dawson’s the kind of guy who’ll walk a girl home, you know, help her over a rain puddle? Real gentleman," says a drunken Natasha, dumped by Dawson the morning after he finally has sex with Joey. "Then he’ll sleep with her, tell her she’s the best he ever had, and break up with her answering machine." It was a long time coming.