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In the Netflix show, Love, which just recently came out with its third and final season, the main character Gus is a blubbering fish outside of the fish tank of Midwestern niceness, the monotony of small town life, and the flourishing naivety that spawns rural sidewalks. The fictional character Gus grew up in the same small town that I did—Brookings, South Dakota—and moved out to Los Angeles—a city that many of us who grew up in the rural Midwest thinks as some sort of far away country of luxury we’ll never step foot in for longer than a week. Not only does he attempt to maneuver his complicated love life, but also his seemingly out-of-place personality, as he tries to adapt to LA. I’ve never been able to relate to a television character more.
Midwestern Americans have the stereotype that friendliness and niceness, even to complete strangers, is oozing out of our forced smiles as we wave to other cars whilst driving by fields of crops on the highway. And it is pretty true, especially in small towns in the Midwest. Bluntness can also be hard to come by in the rural Midwest—If I don’t like eating something another person cooked for me, I’ll say, “This tastes…interesting! It’s yeah, uh, yeah, good.” I’m trying to tell someone advice on what to do about something, but I don’t want to come off as mean. I’ll say, “M-m-maybe you shouldn’t do that, because [insert reason here], but I mean, it’s… it’s totally up to you though, I don’t want to tell you what to do. [Queue me mumbling some more]." If I’m truly angry with someone, the passive aggression appears and is completely counterproductive, like when I cancel plans with someone I’m mad at in hopes they get the picture that this act of defiance means I’m not happy. They often don’t get the picture, and me yelling, “I’m mad!” at them instead would’ve at least gotten us somewhere.
In the show Love, Gus is so seemingly nice that even when he finds out his superiors on the movie set he works on make fun of him—when they tell him he needs to get off the damn set or when they plainly shut down any idea he has—he still gawkily smiles at them, does them favors, and is awkwardly nice to everything that moves. I also see myself there. I smile at my boss a little too much and when the students at the community college I work at demand I help them with every little thing, I too smile, and tell them I’ll do whatever they need right away when they will never be patient enough to let me meet my deadlines first.
In some ways, it can be great to be seen as the “nice girl” or the “nice guy” like Gus, and it’s mainly attributed to our hometowns for the socialization. The lack of outward drama, the politeness that (maybe) makes everyone feel at home and the comfort that those who hang out with us have knowing that we’ll always be the “middle ground” or the “calm” presence that balances out their more demanding personalities, makes us pretty alright to be around.
However, what I think the show Love does a good job of showcasing is how being this seemingly naïve, a nice individual can come with his or her own set of cons, especially when a person is trying to thrive in an environment that is so different from the one they grew up in and when others in that environment may even take advantage of this trait. The other con, of course, is how the stereotypical Midwestern nice personality can suffocate the ability to be authentic—not only among others, but also to ourselves.
As Gus lives in Los Angeles, the other characters from LA have negative, realist attitudes that clash widely with Gus’ “let’s all be friends” attitude and his awkward acts of kindness towards them. It’s almost like a slap in the face—hit with the reality that people’s thoughts and feelings don’t always have to be rainbows and glitter all the damn time for the hope that others will also feel better too. This can also be a breath of fresh air for those of us who grew up in the Midwest and grew up believing that if a person isn’t nice to others and does everything they can to be nice to others, it’s the end of the world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great and beneficial thing to be nice to others, but holding in real feelings and giving up your own opinions to try and make others feel good all the time is exhausting.
Great! I can finally say whatever I want to say here where I now reside in the Pacific Northwest! I don’t have to politely giggle at a random dude’s jokes, nor at the person who came up to me and started talking to me at the grocery store! I don’t have to rigorously nod my head and lie through my teeth when my friend asks me if I like her haircut—I can just tell her it looks like shit and be real! Woo-hoo! But even after this positive realization, you start talking to someone here in this new, hip city far away from the Midwest and damn, they say some pretty rude things. What? How could they? The culture shock is real. Even when I was watching Love and heard what those characters say to each other, I thought, “Wow, these people are mean.” But then I had to realize that I probably just think that, because I’m from the Midwest—and honestly, people in the Midwest say those same rude things, it’s just that it stays in their heads. They’re still judging others left-and-right, just with their thoughts.
And this brings me to my next point—that this niceness creates an absence of authenticity among peers and in public. Newsflash—I talk a lot about how Mid-westerners seem overly nice, but we’re not actually that nice. Love also brings this to light—Gus is nice and works hard at pleasing others, but he’s not as nice as he makes himself out to be. Throughout the series, he tries to hold in a lot of feelings for the sake of needing to keep up with the façade that he’s been taught to hold on to. He also has to come to terms with the fact that although on the outside he's trying to stay positive, he needs to understand that deep down, he may not be completely real with himself regarding how he feels with what's happening in his life. And then he starts holding in these feelings until he just—well—explodes, like when he exploded during the writer’s room meltdown. It’s like the festering feelings you get when you try to brush off every time someone got you to do something for them you didn’t want to do, or when you let go of every time someone said a weird off-handed comment to you that rubbed you the wrong way. But then the anger and the need to let go just builds up and the agony of holding it in is unbearable. You unfortunately hold it in until you blow up and possibly make the situation even worse. Then, there’s the combination of the fact that deep down, you end up realizing that you also have a flaw to work on—you could’ve stood up for yourself, you could’ve shut down that comment, you could’ve been more assertive when you wanted that one thing done. You could’ve stopped being such a damn pushover! But 18 years of growing up in conflict-free South Dakota made you almost fearful of letting go and channeling being real with how you feel and accepting it. When you grow up witnessing adults quietly walk away from their problems with others, showing themselves as polite to those who didn’t deserve an ounce of it, and not openly speaking about feelings that are even a little less than positive, it’s hard to build up the courage to do the opposite.
And now you’re in a new place where people know how to be assertive, blunt and impolite to get shit done. And although you’re trying to adapt to this different type of interaction with others, the fact that you can’t get rid of your inclination to be the product of the place that invented the fake smile in the midst of deep-seeded and hidden feelings is altogether nauseating. You’re working hard at it, but it doesn’t feel like you’ve reached the west coast’s level of “realness” quite yet. Because of that, you're a little more vulnerable to others using you for their gain due to your lack of assertiveness, and you increase your odds of them thinking you're just flat out weird.
In the show Love, Gus continues to work on this assertiveness and tells people how he feels. He tries to be a little less "nice" all the time. Slowly but surely, he tells others that they should stay on the set of his erotic thriller to help him get his scene. He tells Mickey that she’s irresponsible for getting him sick, and he gets more real with how he feels in general with his life itself. He’s still seen as a pushover, but not as much as he was in the beginning. I will always be the nice, Midwestern pushover, too, but at least I’ve been able to break through the comfort zone and stop some people from walking over me so far.
Go University of South Dakota Coyotes! (No, I didn’t go there but… I know a lot of people who did!)