I’ve talked a lot about the various subsets of geek guys who have issues with relating to women as individuals, rather than an idolized goddess figure. We’ve talked about the Nice Guy, and the perils of the Geek Girl fantasy. Now it’s time to cover another branch of nerds and the issues they have with regard to women.
You may have encountered them before. Hell, you may have been one of them before. God knows I was, back in my younger days.
They are the ones who dream about being the great hero, riding in on their charger (or motorcycle, muscle car, what have you) to save the damsel in distress. They’re the ones who try to live by a self-imposed anachronistic code of chivalry and gallantry. They’re the ones attracted to the “distressed”, the depressed, needy or damaged women, convinced that they can “rescue” them from themselves.
They’re the ones who don’t realize just how insulting their attitudes are… or how potentially dangerous.
I’m speaking, of course, of The White Knight.
If you or anyone you know has ever shown signs of White Knight Syndrome, you’re gonna want to read this.
What Is White Knight Syndrome?
White Knights are a subset of the classic Nice Guy, with a twist. Where a Nice Guy is passive, hoping that mere proximity and obsequiousness will eventually win a woman’s heart, a White Knight is active, working to “rescue” a woman in “distress”. Unlike an Orbiter, White Knights will actually take an active role with the women they’re drawn to, turning themselves into a combination protective – and – nurturing figure.
White Knights are attracted to “endangered” women, usually women with emotional issues or ones who have histories of abuse, trauma or addiction issues. They frequently have an overly idealized and romanticized vision of the women they focus on, and see them as impossibly pure and good. Similarly, White Knights see themselves as having only the purest of motivations, hoping to “save” women out of a sense of heroic altruism and expecting no reward other than the deed itself.
They are, of course, lying to themselves.
White Knights are frequently virgins or have had very few serious relationships. They frequently have little experience with attracting or dating women and often try to compensate for a lack of game by adopting an antiquated and romanticized code of chivalry instead, with an emphasis on treating women with respect and deference. The White Knight has severe issues with self-worth; he feels that he has little to offer to a woman, so he hopes to prove his worthiness by “rescuing” her instead.
Since there’s a dearth of dragons and ogres to be slain, and most of the trolls are infesting blogs and forums instead of hiding under bridges, White Knights focus on women with issues – usually involving substance abuse, past trauma or chronic illnesses, whether emotional or physical. White Knights fall hard for the Woobie1 . Although they will rarely admit it to anyone – or even to themselves – they’re motivated by the hope that by “rescuing” the fair damsel, she will be so overcome with gratitude that she will reward him with her love… or at least her body.
What’s Wrong With White Knight Syndrome?
A lot of you will likely be wondering why White Knight syndrome should be such a negative issue. After all, what’s wrong with wanting to help women or treating them chivalrously? Wouldn’t women appreciate a guy who treats them with respect, one who has a sense of empathy and compassion? A guy who wants nothing but the best for them? Sure he may be a little old-fashioned, but is there really anything wrong with that?
Well… that depends. How do you think women would feel about a guy whose idea of a healthy relationship involves inducing women to feel a sense of obligation to them? For that matter, how do you think a woman would feel about a man who – as with Geek Girls – fetishizes her and her condition, rather than seeing her as a real person?
When you actually stop to think about it, The White Knight’s behavior is actually surprisingly misogynistic. It’s certainly not his intention; in fact, many White Knights would insist that they see women as being superior beings, so they couldn’t possibly be misogynists. And yet for all of their protesting, the White Knight’s behavior and actions are paternalistic in the extreme. By trying to come to her “rescue”, the White Knight is essentially denying that women have agency of their own and have to wait for someone else – the self-declared hero, in this case – to come to her “rescue” and “save” her from all of her troubles.
Similarly, the “chivalrous” code that White Knights frequently adopt is one with very firm roles; the man as the active partner and the woman as the passive one. After all, if the woman had a more active role, she might not need him in the first place. And if she didn’t “need” him, what other reason could she possibly want to keep him around? Of course, therein lies the paradox of the White Knight’s relationship with the object of his affection; despite the “need” of the woman, the White Knight is incredibly needy himself. He needs frequent reassurance from his partner that no, she really does love him, everything’s alright, she appreciates him, etc. etc. More than anything else, the White Knight fears losing her approval – or worse, being abandoned.
For all of the White Knight’s supposed altruism, ultimately the story is all about him. Much like someone with Munchausen by Proxy, the White Knight enjoys the “special”ness that comes with being the caretaker and champion of an afflicted young woman. The woman is essentially a prop in his own story; she’s not a woman so much as a prize.
White Knights are frequently manipulative or even controlling, in the guise of “for her own good”; once again, he needs to maintain his position as champion, caregiver, defender and aide, lest he not only lose the role of “hero” and the sympathy and admiration that comes with it, but the reason for him to be there in the first place. It’s worth noting that White Knights aren’t actively abusive, just passive aggressive and clingy to the point of being almost smothering.
Of course, for all of his championing of the ill girl or emotionally troubled, real life inevitably sets in. As appealing as the fantasy is, the reality is that helping someone with emotional or physical trauma or addiction issues is never easy, simple, pretty or terribly glamorous. It’s messy, it’s ugly and it’s complicated. It means dealing with setbacks – not ones that are suitably-dramatic-but-easily-overcome, but ones that can undo years of work and struggle and devastate people emotionally. A White Knight rarely understands – truly understands – that chronic conditions are often permanent, and being the partner of someone with one means that these entail a lifetime of dealing with them.
When that realization finally sinks in, the addictive rush and thrill of the fantasy start to pale and the reality begins to assert itself. The White Knight then finds himself faced with a choice: abandon the fantasy and deal with the woman as she really is… or make up an excuse and eject himself from the relationship, only to repeat the process again with another suitably “broken bird”.
The Hidden Dangers of White Knight Syndrome
Interestingly enough, men with White Knight syndrome actually put themselves at risk for abusive or exploitive relationships. Because of their idealized view of women – and their partners in particular – they’re almost pathetically easy marks.
There are women out there who will look to take advantage of a man, and a White Knight makes for excellent prey. Being drawn to women in “trouble”, they’re suckers for false drama and tales of woe. Their need to “rescue” a woman often overrides their common sense and the idealization of their partner means that they’ll sublimate any sense of suspicion. Their need for acceptance and tendency to be conflict averse means that even if they do raise any objections or suspicions, they’ll back down right away rather than risk a confrontation. A skilled predator will manipulate the White Knight into fulfilling her needs, whether it’s for money, resources or connections… and worse, convince him that it’s his idea in the first place.
Even if they don’t end up as the victim of a con or a thief, White Knights are especially vulnerable to emotionally abusive relationships. The initial thrill wears off and leaves them stuck in a relationship with emotional vampire, who drains the life out of him as he struggles to try to meet her needs. Her fears and constant need for reassurance can be alluring at first; after all, the White Knight loves to be needed and being able to assuage her fears will make him feel strong. Over time, however, that need becomes increasingly unreasonable and unmanageable; she goes from needing reassurance to requiring his presence at all hours. He will find himself making excuses for her to his friends; after all, it’s hardly her fault that she’s like this, she’s the victim of horrible circumstance and it’s his duty to help her… even as he slowly comes to realize he’s not allowed to have a life of his own.
Other unstable women might take advantage of his need to please and fear of abandonment by using it to excuse her own bad behavior. It’s his fault she made a scene while they were at the gallery show because he’s being overbearing… or not attentive enough to her needs. It’s his fault that she cheated on him because he abandoned her when she most needed him, so she had to find someone else to take his place.
White Knights often find it difficult to extract themselves from these sorts of relationships once they’re in them; emotional abusers and grifters are masters at using a White Knight’s sense of responsibility against them. One of the most common complaints you’ll hear from a White Knight is “I can’t leave her, I’m afraid she’ll hurt herself.” And to be sure, threats of self-harm or even insinuations of suicide are a common way that abusers keep White Knights in line.
The Difference Between White Knight Syndrome and Genuine Respect.
The label “White Knight” is frequently applied as an insult, often online, and can have the effect of blurring the lines between treating someone with respect and genuine White Knight behavior. Trolls will call other men White Knights in order to shut them up; calling trolls out on shitty behavior or for being insulting isn’t being a White Knight, it’s about not being an asshole yourself.
Similarly, being willing to help someone in need isn’t White Knight behavior; it’s being charitable.
It’s only when a man’s “defense” or aid to a woman comes with unseen strings, the way a Nice Guy’s “friendship” comes with an agenda, that a line gets crossed
The line between being a good man and a White Knight is like the difference between a good guy and a Nice Guy – it’s about application and intent. A White Knight’s “respect” for women is in the form of worship and fetishization; a woman is someone who needs to be defended. A good guy’s respect is just that: respect. Respect doesn’t imply a lack of agency or the need for someone else to come riding to the rescue, nor does it carry with it the hope of a reward or brownie points that can eventually be traded in for sex.
Treating White Knight Syndrome
As with being a Nice Guy, White Knight Syndrome ultimately is a case of low self-esteem. The White Knight’s need for external validation and his discomfort in dealing with women as individuals is what leads him towards this unhealthy behavior. He needs to learn to accept that he has intrinsic worth and doesn’t need to prove himself worthy by “rescuing” people. By building his confidence, he’ll be reducing his neediness; that fear of rejection and abandonment comes from the belief that he has no value outside of what he can do. Similarly, by learning how to act around women, how to build genuine attraction and pursue an honest relationship, he won’t fall back on outdated (and frankly, insulting) views of relationships.
He also needs to find a passion in his life… besides women. Part of the cause of White Knight Syndrome is the feeling of emptiness in one’s life and being convinced that women are the cure. Having interests that are fulfilling intellectually and emotionally, whether it’s work, a hobby or even a pet charitable cause will help find a purpose outside of trying to rescue people for his own selfish interests.
He’ll be better prepared to have an actual relationship, a partnership of equals rather than one of the Defender and the poor Damsel in Distress.
If a recovering White Knight wants to feel that he’s being truly altruistic, the best thing he could do is find a cause to volunteer for; local animal shelters and non-profit organizations are always looking for people to volunteer their time and energy.
Plus… they’re a great place to meet new people.
- http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheWoobie – now say goodbye to your productivity… [↩]