In Defense of Tropes Part 2: You CAN Change Him
Updated: Oct 7
In my previous installment, In Defense of Tropes Part 1: Three is Not A Crowd, I shamelessly defended love triangles. I presented three common arguments against the use of love triangles in fiction and stated why I find these arguments are unsuccessful in convincing storytellers to abandon them for good. Spoiler alert, they aren't going anywhere.
In this installment, I aim to defend another trope. One that is just as overused in women's fiction but even more problematic. It's the rough-around-the-edges, unattainable, but always sexy, bad boy trope. We all know who this is. He's the dark and brooding vampire lover, the ultra-possessive werewolf mate, or the damaged, mega-rich corporate executive who pushes you to sign a particular contract.
Why do so many works of fiction feature such monstrous boy-toys? Why does the heroine dismiss the obviously deranged behavior and walk straight into the beasts' den…or arms in this case?
Now, I'm not going to make any moral arguments for or against the bad boy trope. I'm only going to argue against one particular issue that people have with it: 'As a society, we need to stop romanticizing abusive behavior in men and sending the message that women want that.'
Disclaimer time: Violence against women (or anyone for that matter) is never okay. Ever! This post is not in defense of the perpetrators of this violence, nor is it making any sort of claim that victims of this violence bring it on themselves. I don't defend the abusive actions of fictional characters in any work of fiction, but I will defend an author's right to use those types of characters in their work of fiction… that's the keyword here. Fiction. So, take a deep breath and bear with me. This is going to get rocky.
Bad boys tend to fall between two ends of a spectrum:
The misunderstood boi
The irredeemable prick
Where a certain character is placed within these two extremes differs from reader to reader. Someone's misunderstood boi is another person's irredeemable prick. This is what makes this trope so controversial.
You may think your bad boy is a harmless fantasy while others will believe he's an abuser and daring to cast him as the love interest makes you part of the problem. As any writer already knows, you can't control how the public will perceive your characters, what emotions those characters will draw out, and what real-life traumas your words will trigger. Everyone has lived their own life with their own experiences, and it's impossible to know them all.
One of my own examples was with my first novel: The Eye of Verishten. I have a kindly old professor character who was a mentor to his female student, the protagonist. Everything was above board as far as I was concerned, but not for one reader who told me she thought the professor was creepy and was waiting for him to do something untoward. I couldn't figure out how she could possibly have thought that from any of his scenes. It wasn't until she revealed that past (not her own) experiences with professors made her suspicious of him from the start. How could I predict a response like that unless I had gone through (or knew someone who had gone through) those same negative experiences? I don't blame the reader in the least. Again, we all have experiences that frame how we perceive a story. At the end of the day, what is storytelling for, if not activating our emotions and helping us get to know ourselves a little better?
Fictional bad boys, too, can help us get to know ourselves a little better.
This boy isn't really that bad at all. He's putting up a front--he's been through some stuff, you know? He really is a good person deep down; you just need to get to know him. He's a diamond in the rough, waiting for the right woman to scrape off that coal dust and reveal the sparkling interior (not to be confused with sparkling exterior. Thanks for that, Twilight).
The misunderstood boi usually possesses a positive change arc. In the beginning, he's a jackass, a disagreeable beast, sometimes downright abusive. Still, our special heroine sees something in him, something he didn't realize was there, and out of it comes a profound love and devotion beyond her wildest dreams. A Beauty and The Beast narrative is at the heart of many misunderstood bad boy stories. We see them all over popular fiction going back to…well…Beauty and the Beast.
These stories tend to have a happy ending. The heroine comes out of it with a handsome prince after all her hard work to change him. And herein lies the problem, some may say. These stories wrongfully imply that girls can have their handsome prince as long as they stick it out and put up with his bullcrap for a certain period of time. This is not a good message to be sending our daughters. That, I agree with. But if you've read Part One of this blog series, you can probably guess what my rebuttal will be.
Fiction belongs in the realm of fantasy, not real life.
No parent alive would encourage their daughter to pursue a man lacking basic human decency. Most women know they shouldn't date criminals, murderers, gangsters, or all the other real-world equivalents to the bad boys in fiction. Despite that, many women do date and marry these men. Though I'm no sociologist or psychologist, I'm going to go out on a limb and say their taste in men was not cultivated by reading too many bodice rippers. For those who read these books, it is painfully clear that these men's character traits do not a healthy relationship make.
Case in point, Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Most women would call the police if a leather-clad, Billy Idol wannabe, stood outside their window each night while they slept, no matter how hot he was.
If that doesn't resonate with the younger crowd, take Kylo Ren instead. Who in their right mind would consider such a whiny, destructive, war criminal who would kill his own father as boyfriend material? No one. But damn, if I didn't want Rey to pull him from the dark side and have force-sensitive babies with him. Reylo was literally the only reason I watched those poor excuses for Star Wars films to the end, and they couldn't even get that right! Disney, how hard is it to do a decent redemption arc? Why did I waste my life?
Okay, tirade over.
My point is, no one is saying girls should aspire to date men like Spike and Kylo Ren. Luckily, most people don't get their dating advice from Buffy or Star Wars. They watch those shows to escape. There's a big difference between a fictional pirate and a real one, just as there is a difference between onscreen violence and witnessing it firsthand. Ask anyone who's returned from a warzone.
Women throughout the ages have tried to change morally bankrupt men only to come up empty-handed. So, forgive us for wanting to escape into a fantasy land for an hour or two to imagine what it would be like if we could. I mean, would you instead read a romance where the love interest is a nice boy next door with a good upbringing, who listens to and satisfies the heroine's needs, is always open and honest with her, and because she, too, was raised in a healthy, stable home, she recognizes they're compatible, and they get married; the end? If you do, then…fine… I'm sure there are many neat things you can do with a story like that, actually. But some of us might want a little more danger. Is that so wrong?
Not if you equate wrong with abnormal.
So, the question really is, why do some of us salivate for men in fiction that we'd most likely avoid in real life? Why should that not be considered abnormal?
I'm of the belief that art speaks to a deep psychological need that already exists within us. Art cannot create that need out of thin air. It is true that propaganda can and has been able to influence the masses, but only by exploiting weaknesses already inherent in the human condition. Even though entertainment media's influence on us is strong, our impact on entertainment media is far stronger (provided we have choices in a free society). If viewers consistently respond favorably to a type of show, more shows of that type will be made.
Then what is this deep-seated need that makes this trope so popular for women?
I honestly don't know. But I do have a theory (that's right, another one of my crackpot evolutionary theories. Brace yourselves.)
For a long time in our prehistory, a few dangerous men were good to have around. In a time before complex societies and the rule of law. In an age when tribal warfare was rampant, you couldn't guarantee your safety throughout your lifetime. You had two choices. Run or fight. As we became more agrarian and sedentary, the running option grew more costly, making fight the more viable option. Societies that didn't learn organized warfare quickly didn't get very far. And who are the ones that suffer the most in times of war? Women and children. Men laid down their lives to protect them, but once they were gone…none of us in our comfortable modern lives today could imagine the horrors inflicted on the conquered people left alive. This happened over and over again, all across the world, throughout all of human history.
Men had to learn to fight better than their rivals to survive. Women had to learn how to select better fighters for the same reason. And the best kind of selection is sexual selection. It's no coincidence that men's bodies are built for battle more so than women's. We had other things to worry about during those tumultuous days of antiquity where birth control was extremely unreliable or nonexistent. So, we outsourced those fighting duties to the only people around who didn't have to carry future generations for months at a time and feed them with their literal bodies! Sounds legit.
Women who chose the smartest, fastest, or strongest male, probably had a better chance of seeing their children to adulthood than women who couldn't. But, mating with the best warrior or most clever tactician was not all roses and rainbows. We walked a thin line between honorable man and fiendish brute for hundreds of thousands of years. We traversed those muddy waters for a chance at the holy grail of mates. A man who was dangerous enough to strike fear in the heart of his enemies but gentle enough to not frighten his wife and kids on the daily. Can't blame a gal for wanting that, now can you? Even though such a man was unattainable for the vast majority of women, it's the desire that drives us to get as close to that ideal as we possibly can. Just as the vast majority of people couldn't eat as much as they wanted, that desire to stuff our faces incessantly kept us forever in the pursuit of food.
The modern world has made the big bad warrior man relatively obsolete outside of professional sports, bouncers, and the Marine Corps. Humanity has mostly adapted to our new reality. Still, that old software keeps running in the background of our new operating system, popping up every so often by the media we consume.
I like to think of the bad boy narrative as another type of hero's journey. A heroine's journey, if you will. And the bad boy is the damsel in distress. Except he is not in trouble, he is trouble. He's not a princess who needs saving but a beast who needs taming. It's up to a strong-willed, enchanting woman to accept the challenge. She puts herself in danger, but instead of slaying a dragon, she must slay his inner demons. She gets her heart broken, but she picks herself back up again and comes out the other side victorious. Through sweat and tears, she reached the holy grail of mates, someone dangerous and utterly devoted to her for all time.
This does not negate women being the center of the traditional hero's journey, historically told from a man's point of view. When it comes to fiction, every story and every perspective is valid. Your only job as an author is to keep your reader engaged and wanting more.
The irredeemable prick
Don't think I forgot the other side of the bad boy spectrum. The irredeemable prick may be alluring on the outside, but he's rotten to the core. He commits acts so heinous that one feels positively ill reading about him. The heroine often falls for him, but it's a mistake. She doesn't know better, but the reader does. He may start out as a misunderstood boi, but he turns to the dark side throughout the book, and our heroine stands to lose it all.
A classic example of the irredeemable prick is Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. His obsession for Catherine turns him into a monster, one that never truly redeems himself. Catherine eventually chooses the good guy on paper, knowing that a life with Heathcliff would never work out. This triggers his downward spiral into a vengeful and resentful shell of a man. Although romance is at the heart of this tale, Heathcliff's evil deeds are far from romanticized.
Probably my favorite example of a love interest crossing the line is in the 1996 film Fear (Yes, I was a 90's kid, you got me). Mark Wahlberg plays the gorgeous, troubled teen who captures the attention of an inexperienced daddy's girl played by Reese Witherspoon. He quickly proves himself to be not the kind of guy you take home to your parents. But that does little to quell Reese's attraction to him. However, as the two get closer, his psychotic behavior becomes more and more apparent, not spoiling the film, but things go from bad to worse. Reese's love turns to terror.
As different as these two stories are, they are framed as romances that go sour, as cautionary tales rather than love stories. They are meant to scare us more than make us swoon.
Although romantic for the heroine in the beginning, the irredeemable prick is often anything but romantic for the reader. So why do we consume these stories? Does a part of us want that deep down?
For anyone who is not a serial killer groupie, we don't like these stories because they turn us on. The title of my film example says it all. Fear. We like to be afraid in safe and controlled environments, women most of all. About 75% of true crime consumers are women, where most perpetrators are male, and most victims are female (even though the vast majority of murder victims in the world are males). I have a literal serial killer encyclopedia on my bookshelf. Why? For the same reason, I binged the entire Criminal Minds series in one week (I do not suggest doing that, or you will want to install bars on your windows). It's a little something called morbid fascination.
It is normal to fixate on things that can harm us more than something that makes us happy. And no wonder. We have all our lives to find happiness, but it only takes one moment to find ourselves in a life-threatening situation.
Today, we have the privilege of living in relatively safe environments compared to our ancestors, where entertainment media can satisfy that morbid fascination from the comfort of our living rooms. One of those things that morbidly fascinates us is dangerous predators in the skin of a charming love interest. Will our heroine survive? Will he get his comeuppance? You'll have to keep reading to find out.
Where the bad boy becomes truly problematic, in my view, is when the heroine's journey of the misunderstood boi and the cautionary tale of the irredeemable prick come together to make something far more disturbing. This is the dark underbelly of fiction where men do horrific things while also titillating their (primary female) audience. Anyone who spent any time on a fanfic site knows what I'm talking about. I won't try to unpack the psyche of these readers. All I can guess is perhaps the line between fear of the reprehensible predator and the attraction toward the dangerous protector can get a little…blurred? I've often wondered if serial killer groupies experienced a misfiring of the Friend response in Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Friend. Maybe fear for some people can become love in a few.
Frankly, it's none of my business what gets other people's goats. I say as long as you're not hurting yourself or others, you do you. At least we can safely say that the more extreme cases of the bad boy fetish are relegated to special places on the internet and are not fully mainstream. But that brings up an interesting point. Suppose we, on principle, stop writing about the bad boy for the good of womankind. In that case, we are only pushing him further underground, making him more forbidden and, therefore, more attractive, perhaps even more dangerous. The love of fictional bad boys is real. Women will continue to seek him out, wherever he may be hiding, until the end of time. So how about we keep him out in the open where we all can see him.
To conclude, we as a society are not about to break up with the bad boy trope any time soon. We're committed…even if he's not ready to commit to us just yet. It's okay to