Bad Boys

Let’s face it: girls like bad boys.

I imagine it drives men nuts, right? It’s the old cliche: they try to do everything right, try to be polite, treat a girl well — and what happens? The girl runs off with some asshole with a fancy car who’s going to sleep around on her and expects her to clean his toilet. The phrase ‘nice guys finish last’ is a cliche for a very good reason: apparently it happens. A lot. Make jokes about girls with daddy issues all you like, but no one’s denying that bad boys don’t seem to have much trouble catching the girl — or the attention of the audience. Look at how Draco Malfoy is depicted in the Harry Potter novels (hint: it’s not flattering,) and then look at how many stories are out there utterly romanticizing the hell out of him anyway (hint: a lot.)

Mike and I sometimes have our personal shorthand for certain phenomena in writing and entertainment, and this one we like to call the Alex Effect (after Alex from A Clockwork Orange.) It’s a simple premise: a character can be as thoroughly nasty and evil as you could possibly want, but as long as they’re charming, witty and crack the occasional joke, the audience will love them anyway. They can even dispense with the jokes as long as the they’re driven by some horrible wrong done to them or come from an underdog background before they began their mad crime spree (Magneto, I’m looking at you.)

Seriously, what is wrong with our species?

I fully admit that I am completely complicit in this phenomena. I go ga-ga over villains and always have. Lex Luthor? Much more interesting that Superman, thank you. Dracula? Yes please. Loki? Don’t get me started (seriously, I haven’t crushed this hard on a movie character since Buckaroo Bonzai…don’t judge me.) The point is, it’s kind of  a long list. When I talk about this with other women they either look at me oddly or their eyes mist over and they give a long wistful sigh because they know exactly what I’m talking about.

So after giving this matter far too much thought, I’ve decided the answer is simple: it’s because they’re safe.


That’s rediculous, you say (and with every reason.) A bad boy is anything but safe. Evil is anything but safe. These are the antithesis of safe.

But…let me clarify: I’m not talking about real life.

In real life, I think most women (and men, to be fair) understand that a real bad boy is a cute fling but the last thing in the world you want for a real relationship. That way lies madness, broken hearts, philandering and quite possibly domestic violence. You might date a boy like that in high school, who will of course break your heart, but you grow out of it. It’s a phase. Every study that talks about how women are drawn to the heightened testosterone levels typical of the type also mentions that those same women are also drawn to the ‘nice’ boys when it comes to longer term relationships and the raising of kids. On a hormonal level, bad boys may steal the girl, but nice boys really do win her back in the end. (I suspect this is why a fair number of romance stories hinge on the idea of the girl ‘saving’ the bad boy — because if you can turn a bad boy into a nice one then you can very much have your beefcake and admire his leather jacket too. This tends not to happen very often in real life, and I think most women know that.)

However, the bad boy of a book or movie is no risk whatsoever, is he?

The fictional bad boy brings with him all the qualities that would attract us to such a person in real life (confidence, excitement, mystery, a callous disregard for the rules of polite society, the probability of wild, kinky sex) and neatly delivers it all into a realm of fantasy where there is no actual risk. We can sigh over them, talk about how they’re just misunderstood (or find delicious glee in the fact that boy, they just really aren’t misunderstood at all, are they?) and yet there’s no danger. It’s okay to indulge.

Basically, I don’t think we’re in any danger of losing this particular stereotype anytime soon.



Filed under Down With The Sickness - Rants, General, Words words words - Writing and books

2 responses to “Bad Boys

  1. MichaelLyons

    The ‘he’s safe’ thing doesn’t entirely explain why girls -do- go for the “bad boy” sometimes even in real life, but I do think it explains why the stereotype is as wildly popular as it is, especially in romance fiction.

    There is the flip side to the coin also: This type of character isn’t -just- popular because the women like them. Outside of romance novels and movies, women are not normally expected to be the target demographic of most big-budget movies and TV shows. Certainly, ‘women’ are not the target of your average Michael Bay movie. So why are these types of characters so popular even in that type of story?

    I think it’s because as much as women like to fantasize about ‘saving’ the bad boy who makes them weak in the knees, men like to write about that type of character. Not because we fantasize about being with them (on average), but because for a few brief moments, we get to fantasize about -being- that guy. The guy who says what he wants and damn the consequences. The guy who doesn’t back down, the alpha dog. The guy who -does- get the cute cheerleader, at least for the duration of the movie (these things never really show what happens six months later when it’s no longer ‘cute’ that the bad guy has all these odious personal habits like starting fights for no reason).

    I think there are, like in most things, two sides to this particular coin. And I agree, this character stereotype isn’t going away anytime in the near future.

    • In my opinion, safety is only a factor in fantasy scenarios. In real world cases, I really do think it’s about danger, testosterone and excitement (and very often, about a ‘good’ girl flirting with breaking society’s rules.) Indeed, I would agree that a certain vicarious thrill appeals to the girls as much as to the boys in this case.

      Interestingly enough, articles that talk about hormonal reasons for going after bad boys (they tend to be higher in testoreone in a quite literal sense than their more mild-mannered counterparts) also mention that women prefer the ‘nice’ boys for settling down and raising kids. So bad boys might win the girl initially, but they don’t seem to keep her, and in the long run, it might just be that nice guys don’t finish last after all.

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