Rachel Aberle cracks The Code on Nice Guy Syndrome

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Rachel Aberle

Do nice guys finish last? Not according to prevalent pop culture relationship narratives. And award-winning playwright Rachel Aberle has something to say about it.

Her newest play The Code explores themes of loyalty, accountability and the assumption of power, while upending the “Nice Guy Syndrome” trope. She got the idea for The Code after noting a rise in internet conversation about it. The term denotes a scenario where a man feels that a woman should return his romantic affections because he has “earned” it with his good behavior – something which, alas, does not happen right away for most “nice guys”. “This was certainly a trope I was familiar with from the movies and television shows I’d grown up with, which generally focused on a male protagonist, a ‘nice guy’ who started the story overlooked by the object of his desires, who herself was usually romantically linked, or at least interested in, an undisputed jerk,” Ms Aberle offers. By the end of the story, of course, the female protagonist would realize the error of her ways, and end up with the nice guy (whom she should have been with all along).

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these plot lines (“after all, the woman winds up with the nice guy, not the jerk, and that’s a good thing, right?”), their prevalence as a perspective on dating is potentially damaging. “I certainly had never seen a story in which a nice guy got rejected by the girl of his dreams just because she didn’t feel the same way about him, not because she’d been bamboozled by a villain in the form of a jocky-jerk.” This “nice guy will win in the end” scenario devalues female agency and populates the rom-com genre with alarming predictability . . . and The Code takes direct aim at it.  

When writing The Code, Ms Aberle decided early that it would not have any “villains”. Her aim was to write a “new story”,  about a nice guy who “does not get what he wants”, and “what he does with that disappointment and frustration, and how his choices affect his relationships moving forward”. The play’s title stems from its exploration of formal and informal codes of conduct and social codes. In the play, Moira (Elizabeth Barrett) orchestrates a protest against the school’s new dress code for school dances, which she thinks is unfair to the girls at the school. She is rewarded with significant backlash. Her best friends Simon (Nathan Kay) and Connor (Mason Temple) initially support her; however, Simon’s support turns to anger when he learns that Moira does not return his romantic feelings. To retaliate, Simon leaks a humiliating video mash-up of Moira’s protest speech, spurring consequences that soon get out of hand. Here, the play intersects the “bro code”, which Ms Aberle has heard men in her life invoke as a reason to stick up for each other, “sometimes in instances where I don’t think their behavior necessarily warrants it”. This is an important area of her focus: “I wanted to look at where we do and don’t draw lines for our friends’ behaviour, and how and if we let that line shift based on their gender.”

Mason Temple and Nathan Kay, The Code; photo: Leah Gair

The Code follows on the heels of her playwriting debut Still/Falling. Audience response to both works indicates that Ms Aberle has a firm finger on the pulse of the teen world, and she does not short-change the challenges she finds there. Still/Falling dealt with the urgent topic of teen mental health, playing to acclaim at Green Thumb Theatre in Vancouver before running to packed houses at Young People’s Theatre in 2016. It earned a Jessie Richardson Theatre Award for Significant Achievement, and a Dora Mavor Moore nomination for Outstanding Production.The Code premiered earlier this year at Green Thumb Theatre, and has already received 5 Jessie Richardson nominations, including Outstanding Original Script.

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and the complexity of The Code’s themes, audiences should expect to laugh. Yes, “the show is funny!” Ms Aberle smiles. While she acknowledges the gravity at the heart of the play, “I wanted to write a show where all three of the characters were really loveable, and I think I was able to do that.” This is another example of her consistent knack for tackling serious themes through characters and storylines that are provocative and relatable. “In the play, Simon, our ‘nice guy’, isn’t wrong for feeling hurt – that’s a natural response to the disappointment he’s faced with,” she points out. “It’s the choices he makes in the grips of that pain that are problematic, and I hope young people of all genders walk away thinking about how they might navigate similar disappointments in the future.”

In this digital age, manipulating messages has never been easier, and the line between truth and falsehood has never been so blurred. A post intended to be funny may end up offending, hurting, damaging . .  or enraging. Might The Code inspire teen audiences to pause to consider intention vs. outcome? Ms Aberle hopes so: “Lashing out when we’re angry at people is a natural response, one that everyone has to learn how to navigate and curb, so that they don’t wind up hurting people or damaging relationships without meaning to. This kind of impulse control is even more important in an age where the things we post online in the heat of anger may reach far beyond and last much longer than we ever imagined they might.”

Equally important is Ms Aberle’s hope that the show will spark discussion. She wants theatregoers to debate the choices the characters made, and where they think the characters were right or wrong . . . and to do so with an openness to disagreement: “The earlier we get people discussing what is and isn’t flirting, what is and isn’t leading someone on, the earlier we can also get them wrapping their minds around how to navigate disappointment or miscommunication with respect and integrity.”

Do nice guys finish last . . . or first?  Let’s talk about it – because there’s a lot to discuss.

Elizabeth Barrett, Nathan Kay and Mason Temple, The Code; photo: Leah Gair

News You Can Use

What: The Code by Rachel Aberle; Produced by Green Thumb Theatre; Directed by Patrick McDonald
Performed by Elizabeth Barrett, Nathan Kay and Mason Temple.

Who: Audiences 13 years and older (grades 8 – 12)

When: November 27 – December 14, 2018; Run Time: 55 minutes (no intermission)

  • ASL Interpreted Performances:
    • Dec. 9 at 2PM (public)
    • Dec. 10 at 10:45AM (school)
  • Relaxed Performances:
    • Dec. 2 at 2PM (public)
    • Dec. 3 at 10:30AM (school)

Where: Young People’s Theatre, in the Studio, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Explore and Learn: Study Guide 

Curriculum Connections:

  • Language/English (Listening to Understand, Speaking to Communicate, & Critical Literacy)
  • Drama (Reflecting, Responding and Analysing)
  • Health and Physical Education
  • Social Science – Gender Studies

©2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

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