“Dating Data” columnist Sara Lynn Michener answers a (nice) young man who thinks that bad behavior might lead to better dates.

Dear Sara, I am 20 years old and I read your column. I was hoping maybe you could teach me to be a little more masculine. I am in love with a girl, but she’s not in love with me. I realize your gut reaction would be for you to tell me there’s “No way to get someone to love you,” and yeah I sort of agree, but I think maybe part of it is a matter of ‘manning up’ as much as I hate saying shit like that. I was wondering if maybe you could give some advice on how to fall between being a “bad guy” and being a “nice guy.” Because right now I think I’m the nice guy she doesn’t like.

I think the only way to begin to answer this question is to go Back to the Future. As in George McFly vs. Marty McFly. Both boys, it is important to mention, are fairly physically weak. Biff is the only one with muscles, and Lorraine isn’t interested in him at all, thank goodness. At the beginning, George is a meek pushover with an annoying laugh, and Marty is exciting, confident, rebellious, and, well, from the Future. George can’t compete with one of these things, but has the upper hand unbeknownst to him: he is not Lorraine’s future son. This scenario is not going to happen in the real world (at least not until someone invents time travel, further complicating all of our love lives). But I mention it to bring up a very specific point: You will always have the upper hand of not being the other guy; no matter how hot you think she thinks he is. You never know what his faults are, and everyone has them. In romantic relationships, sometimes the faults of the cutest guy in the room don’t make him any less cute, but make the relationship impossible. I’ve dated some amazing men, but the things that ended our relationship were very important signifiers of why each union would never have functioned long-term.

Back to George vs. Marty. The audience doesn’t see George as masculine at all; neither in the beginning when he is Marty’s depressing father, nor when we meet him later as a young man; he is a Peeping Tom who does the town bully’s homework and can’t stick up for himself to save his (son’s) life. The audience sees why Lorraine prefers Marty — we don’t blame her, and we pity George. What changes? Well, Marty coaches him, yes, but all the coaching in the world doesn’t seem to help. Nothing does, until the proverbial nick of time, when Lorraine is in danger, George seems down for the count, and Marty’s existence is disintegrating. Then suddenly we see George change. All the years of having been bullied seem to come down to this defining moment of fury, and George summons the will to knock the bully out, saving Lorraine and, in the process, completely changing how she sees him.

This is not shallow on Lorraine’s part. Why do women like strong men? There are a number of plausible psychological, sociological, and evolutionary explanations. There are also a number of theories that come solely from cultural myths of womanhood that make me roll my eyes and die a little inside, But here’s the thing: Masculinity is simply the word we give to human strength (physical, emotional, and intellectual) when it is expressed by men. This is very important, because when I think of a strong man, I think mostly of qualities that I possess myself, simply packaged within a man — depth of character chief among them.

Semantics here are everything. What is the reality of one thing without having things in opposition to aid in describing them? No such word as masculinity exists for women. We must use multiple words strung together: e.g. strong woman.

Femininity isn’t strength. It is thought of as the qualities one possesses within a female form such as a certain elegance and grace, gentleness, and sweetness. When a male possesses those qualities, they are often considered derogatory: “He is too… feminine.” Femininity isn’t going to keep you alive in a survival situation unless it is by proxy; your desirability attracts a man who is going to survive.

As a woman who has made out with a few feminine guys, I admit it feels different than it feels to make out with a man who is more powerful. Notice I said different, not wrong. But the semantics are incredibly revealing: We have words to describe everything a woman should be if this is a fairy tale, but we do not have words to describe everything a woman should be in the reality in which most of us live. One day I hope feminism manages to rebrand femininity so that when we use the word, we mean the kind of strong, gorgeous, gracious, loving badassery with which Michelle Obama recently graced the nation during her extraordinary speech at the DNC. Right now there isn’t one, and that makes this feminist sad.

Back to your romantic conundrum. First, you must forgive the object of your desire for not automatically seeing you as masculine. And I mean the kind of permanent forgiveness that you don’t get to take back if she never changes her mind. You give her the right to see you however she sees you. After all, if women weren’t around to describe men, the language you would use to describe each other would be quite different.

Second, you need to encompass masculinity to include everything that could be described as a strength. If you think of it as height x biceps and you don’t have any of either, you’re setting yourself up to see yourself as not masculine, and you’re undervaluing your best qualities.

The more experience women have, the more willing they are to redefine the margins of their own desires to include more qualities. In fact some of us start out that way; my first love weighed less than me and, at the time, I didn’t think of him as masculine nor its lack. Now that I have had some experience, I recognize the pleasures of both, and in truth, don’t really have a preference. I also remember how scary and simultaneously thrilling it was to be held by someone more physically powerful than me for the first time, which wasn’t till my third boyfriend, by the way, but he was only attractive by denying himself the use of that power — by his restraint. When he was using that power to abuse, I wanted to run into the arms of the nearest weakling sensitive “type.” Experience has taught me that avoiding certain types, however, isn’t the way. If a person is weak in other ways, like letting other people walk all over him, that’s a game-ending problem (and a problem which any size person may possess).

I’d like to say such weakness is a problem for men, too — that men universally aren’t attracted to weak women — but unfortunately that is not the case.

Especially since you’re only 20, you get to choose with abandon what kind of women you want, just as they get to choose what kind of men they want. It may not feel like a choice. But examining why you feel the way that you do means you have more of a karmic right to ask females to be more flexible as well. And it’s never a bad thing to be more self aware concerning your own desires.

There is no reason you can’t take the initiative with women. You don’t even need to ask them out on a date, just talk to them and treat them like normal people for starters. Most of the guys who can’t ask a girl out are the same ones who can’t talk to them at all. Baby steps.

So by all means, seek self-improvement. Ask others earnestly how you are seen by them, and be thankful for the honest critiques when you manage to get them. Strive to be more like what you look up to, not what you think she looks up to. Strive to be more logical, more fair, more open-minded, more tolerant of others living their own lives, yet less of a doormat toward those attempting to control yours.

Actively think about what makes you different from other people, and be proud of those things.

I am thinking now of the men in my life I’d label masculine. How I see them now is often quite different from how I first perceived them. Some of the taller, stronger ones ended up being the weak ones, but not all. Usually possession issues and anger problems amount to sheer insecurity. But have you ever watched a male ballet dancer perform? There’s nothing feminine about that.