Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sexing Down the Bad Boy

by: Katya of Readers United

“Interesting. Sex works even better than chocolate to modify behavior.”
-Sheldon Cooper, “Big Bang Theory”, season 3, episode 3

Ten Things I Hate About You, Freaky Friday, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grease, Dirty Dancing, Sloppy Firsts, Hush, Hush. What do these things have in common--other than completely frustrating endings?

They all feature a character that is, or is considered to be a delinquent. An outcast. A man that lives by his own rules. Most of the time. Usually before he meets the heroine.

The bad boy is a well-known archetype, one that can be traced way back, all the way to the Victorian Era. I think Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff both fall into that category, because damn if those guys weren’t hell-bent on getting what they wanted.

They're also known to sell very well, and have become, as of recently, a reoccurring character in Young Adult fiction; Patch from Becca Fitzpatrick’s “Hush, Hush” being one of the most famous examples.

But what does it mean to be a bad boy, and why is this archetype so popular? Why have the delinquent on the charger when you can have Prince Charming? Well, for one thing, one cannot deny the appeal of a man living dangerously, defying society’s norms in favor of his own rules. That usually includes such activities as gambling, drinking, fighting, racing and skipping school – things which are usually forbidden for a straight-laced, straight-aced female heroine.

In fact, it is usually the heroine’s innocence which provokes this type of character to be patronizing, arrogant, and overall priggish towards his love interest – a behavior which usually aims to have her ‘loosen up’ and learn not to judge a book by its cover. When applied in moderation, this playground mentality can be considered endearing. In most paranormal YA books though, that is usually taken one step too far, and readers find it rather creepy.

Still, it’s not hard to imagine why heroines like Bella Swan, Nora Gray or Ever Bloom would be attracted to the type: heroines in popular YA books traditionally come from a family where one or both the parents are gone--physically or otherwise. They’re left on their own for long periods of time and lack strong role models to look up to. At school, they associate themselves with the unpopular, loner crowd, which narrows their specter of friends considerably, and the few they do have are usually vain, selfish and mean. Psychologically, those heroines are the type that would fall for a guy that is deemed ‘dangerous’ as means to satisfy their want for change and attention.

However, the main thing that seems to make bad boys so appealing isn’t their wickedness, per se, but more the fact that they offer women a chance to reform them. Of course, the whole ‘I changed because of you’ line isn’t limited to bad boys in particular – countless movies and books have the male characters change because of the female protagonist, and that is considered to be one of the most flattering, swoon-worthy things a man can do.

In fact, this has become such a cliché that after hearing this Jessica Darling, protagonist of Megan McCafferty’s “Sloppy Firsts”, promptly tells the guy to go fuck himself. Said guy is a reformed delinquent with whom she shares a weird mixed-signals relationship throughout the book, and whom, prior to the confession, she wanted to sleep with.

“Sloppy Firsts” and its sequels are actually a pretty interesting example, as Marcus Flutie, the resident bad boy, is a bit of a precocious actor. He studies people closely and feeds them the lines they want to hear. However, Jessica does not like being fed lines, and his subsequent transition from insincere to sincere redemption is what in my opinion makes these series so good. Well, that and the fact that he, unlike many paranormal hunks these days, has sex. Lots of it, and not always with Jessica.

The thing about bad boys is that they’re sexy. And in many instances, sex is the turning point for them, the thing that somehow gets them to think about changing their wicked ways. Take Grease for example – Danny Zuko really, really wants to get into Sandy’s pants, but she turns him down again and again. Funny thing – by the time he actually breaks down and decides to change for her, she beats him to the punch. The moral of the story? If you want sex, one of you has to give. This theme is repeated in Twilight, where Bella is forced to overcome her aversion to marriage so that Edward would finally have sex with her.

Why is it, then, that Sloppy Firsts does things right, and Grease and Twilight do not? Well, I’m getting up on the soapbox by saying: In Sloppy Firsts, Jessica and Marcus meet halfway. They both change for the sake of the other, and they both give up a little of their own world views in order to understand and appreciate each other. In Grease and Twilight, it’s always only one party that makes all the sacrifices. In the end, neither Danny nor Edward has to give up any of their personal values in order to be with the woman they supposedly love.

Edward Cullen is an interesting example because of his unique brand of vampirism. We can all agree that vampires are sexy, in fact, in their earliest literary incarnations vampirism was used as a metaphor for sex. But Edward does not burn in the sun, or fear flowing water and crucifixes. He doesn’t even drink Bella’s blood, although he wants to. In a way, a vampire without the trappings of vampirism is like an extended metaphor for being sexy without actually having sex. Throw this to a target group whose most tangible fear is of sexual violence, and the Twilight phenomenon is suddenly not so inexplicable.

But are the bad boys in popular paranormal YA really all that bad? In Sophie Jordan’s “Firelight”, the main love interest Will is a dragon hunter, a very dangerous guy with a fairly infamous reputation. However, it turns out that he’s a very sensitive guy who questions the things he has been taught and wants to do the right thing, which doesn’t stop him from breaking into the MC’s house several times.

“Hush, Hush” is a book has become quasi-infamous for reinforcing rape culture with its underlying messages. However, as the story unfolds, we learn that the protagonist, Patch, cannot physically feel, which adds a curious dimension to his character – he’s increasingly frustrated with his inability to be fully human, yet in the end, he gives it up. In that book, it’s actually Patch who makes all the sacrifices, while Nora… well, learns that no matter what stupidities she commits, she will always get her happy ending.

In fact, they all have one thing in common – they don’t want sex. Or pretend they don’t want sex. Or can’t have sex. Either way, only one person in the relationship has to change completely to prove that they love the other. This is a mindset that I find objectionable for several reasons. One, it prevents both characters from having any sort of substantial development - any change feels contrived and forced. Two, it doesn’t seem very realistic – being in a relationship with someone is, after all, a journey of self-evaluation and discovery.

You want to be good for that person, and you’re happy when that person wants to be good for you. The lack of this balance in Young Adult novels is what prompts me to ask: Is this real romance? Or is it just the result of authors trying to be edgy and cool, but not having it in them to take it to the end?


  1. I LOVE this post, Katya! My mom once told me, a long time ago, that one of the things that really keeps a relationship going is compromise. Since my parents have been together for 34 years now, I guess it's good advice! :) I hate the fact that YA relationships are so facile! Also, I keep wondering, what happens after the HEA? After you've made all those sacrifices and the tension is over and everyone goes home to watch TV? Can such an unequal relationship last then? (Ooooh, blog idea! Don't steal it! :D)

  2. Great post! I don't mind reading about a hero who doesn't sleep around. He doesn't have to be a virgin, but when he meets the heroine, I love it when his attention is on her alone. It's more romantic that way.

    That being said, seeing I know it's unrealistic, I can't bring myself to *write* a hero in that way. If my hero's going to be a bad boy, he's going to sleep around (unless the plot calls for him to worry about more important things than sex, like monsters or the end of the world...).

  3. I second Vinaya. LOVE your post. And I have been noticing the rise of the "bad boy" in YA. I guess that as long as the said bad boy is unique - not just another attractive figure in a leather coat - then I can deal. As long as they're characters and not imitations.

  4. Fabulous post. You made a good point with Will. It seems to me that although many boys are labeled as badasses, they haven't actually done anything wrong. They seem to have a softer inside and are simply mislabeled, which I think is what makes them as endearing as they are. You always want a guy whose sexy on the outside, misunderstood on the inside, and tortured. For whatever reason.

  5. Excuse me while I go pick my jaw up off the floor. This was such a thorough exploration of the bad boy phenomenon and notion of true romance -- bravo. I've come here by way of Persnickety Snark, and I'll be staying for awhile. ;)

  6. I adore this post. Very smart, so well articulated. It's everything I thought but didn't REALIZE I thought till you verbalized it for me. And you hit the nail on the head when it came to Marcus & Jessica. Will be passing this one on to friends :)

  7. Wow. Very well said. I was directed to your blog from that girl up there ^^ hehe. Definitely coming back again! You have a way with words & totally made sense of the whole "bad boy" image & why it works & doesn't work in YA lit. I completely agree with about Jessica & Marcus. I think that is one of the reasons why I love that story so much. It's REAL.

  8. Thank you, everyone. I have to admit though, this post wouldn't have been half as good if it weren't for the editing.

    Also, for those of you interested, Lindsey Ellis has a fantastic review of Grease here: http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thedudette/nostalgia-chick/23148-grease

    You gotta love how in forty years movies and books send the same conflicting messages.