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Bad boys in fiction – why we love them, yet revile the bad girls

round robin, helena fairfaxIt’s time for another Round Robin, and another thought-provoking topic, especially for romance authors and readers:

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, why do you think “bad” boys are so popular as heroes, and “bad” girls so often reviled? In real life, can those labelled “bad” really change, or are such fictional romances misleading?

This is a great excuse to post one of my favourite scenes ever, from Gone with the Wind

In Gone with the Wind, bad boy meets bad girl, and it’s one of the few romance films / books where a bad girl is the helena fairfaxheroine, and everybody still loves her. I’ve been racking my brains trying to think of other romances  I’ve read where a bad girl is the heroine, and I can’t think of very many. About Last Night, by Ruthie Knox, is one that I enjoyed, and also Eloping with Emmy, by Liz Fielding. There are lots of “bad girls” in other genres outside of romance these days, though, which is good to see. Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has set a great trend.
As for “bad boys” – well, there are just so many! Heathcliffe, Mr Rochester, the Duke of Avon in Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades, Cameron Quinn in Nora Roberts’ Sea Swept, Rupert Campbell Black in Jilly Cooper’s Riders, Christian Grey in E.L. James Fifty Shades…I could go on and on and on…
I don’t know all the answers to the questions above, but these are some of my thoughts.
Why are “bad girls” reviled in books? Because girls are brought up from an early age to be “nice.” Both men and women find a woman who asserts herself threatening. I don’t know why that’s the case, but I feel it is so. Even Margaret Thatcher famously didn’t have any other women in her cabinet.
Can “bad boys” really change, or are fictional romances misleading? Most romance readers are women. When we’re reading, we identify with the heroine and, in the best romances, we really feel that we actually become the heroine as we’re reading. So of course it’s flattering when a powerful person falls in love with the heroine – we identify with her. And it’s also flattering as a reader to feel that you are the person who has changed a “bad boy” and “tamed” him.
People do often change when they fall in love – I do think your partner can have a big influence on you – but I don’t think they ever change completely. Still, I think “misleading” is the wrong word to use to describe this type of romance.
helena fairfax
Image courtesy of Pixabay

Personally, I think most readers are too savvy to be misled. There’s a place for literature that reflects life for the majority of us – eg Margaret Forster, Monica Ali, Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith – and there’s an equal place for romance novels, where everything ends perfectly. I think most of us know the difference.

* * *
 What about you? Do you love “bad boy” romance stories? Do you think they give young female readers a dangerous perception of their ability to change their boyfriends? And what about “bad girls” in literature? Why do you think they aren’t as well loved?
If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!
And I’m curious to know what the others in or Round Robin have to say on this topic, too. Please click on the links below to find out…

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Helena Fairfax  https://helenafairfax.com/
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Anne Stenhouse  http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Connie Vines http://connievines.blogspot.com/
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com/

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32 thoughts on “Bad boys in fiction – why we love them, yet revile the bad girls

  1. Thank you for the thought provoking post. It had me thinking about my own attraction to gangsters and ‘bad boys’. Even though logic and reality tells me these people are best avoided I’m always draw to the bad guys in books and films (not in real life thankfully. I have a wonderful, gentle husband.) As a newbie writer I’m amazed at how my own ideas start with a women in crisis or even needy, I never plan for the tough guy in my story and yet he just seems to appear, the challenge seems to make my female character stronger, as she stands her ground or fights back.

    Anyway, I was wondering how much of this is actually in our psyche. Generations of being fed information about the strong protective male, even if it’s demonstrated with aggression, and the needy woman, often a victim. Jack the Ripper was a real monster and yet look how the story has grown over the years, immortalised by films, books and dramas. Perhaps it’s time to embrace the Salander’s; Incidentally I loved her character, worrying thought but maybe I’m just drawn to the aggression and violence.

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    1. Hi Eleanor, that’s really interesting what you say about wondering how much of this is ingrained. Are we really genetically programmed to think men are the strong hunter gatherers and women the nurturers? I don’t know. Personally, I think women were gradually forced into submissive postions. Even in Celtic times women had more power than in the 1950s – eg Boadicea, and other female Celtic leaders.
      A lot of people are drawn to aggression and violence in books and films.James Bond is still as massively popular as ever. But it’s not something most of us would ever want to wtiness in real life. Just like most of us would hate to be actually married to a bad boy.
      I think it’s great that you are consciously trying to give your heroines more power. I wrote another post a while back about trying to make the hero and heroine an equal partnership, and not let one dominate. (People think it’s easy writing romance – but it isn’t!)
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, and for taking the time to drop in.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Such a brilliant take on the topic, Helena. I never really thought about it, but you are absolutely right! “Bad boys” probably never really change, but it does make for a great reading experience seeing the heroine “taming” her Mr Right. #TalkoftheTown

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  3. Helena, loved your image of the Gone With the Wind dance. I think that story also shows we are all influenced by our time in history. I also loved Georgette Heyer’s Duke of Avon, especially in his son’s story, The Devil’s Cub.

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    1. Hi Rhobin, thanks for dropping in. I love Georgette Heyer’s books. Now I come to think of it, the heroine in These Old Shades was independent and didn’t conform to the rules. Great topic again. Thanks!

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  4. Excellent post. It made me think. Having been through a rough first marriage, and now married to the nicest man I’ve ever met, here’s my take on this question: People can change behaviors (if they choose to do so), but they can’t change their underlying personality. If you expect a bad boy to completely change who he is, you will be let down. This is, indeed, something that concerns me about the bad boy trope and its influence on young readers/viewers (both male and female). That said, I want to read/watch a story with a happy ending. To me, fiction should be a distraction from daily life, rather then a reflection of it.

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    1. Hi Heather, it’s ineresting to hear things from your perspective. I’ve often wondered if the bad boy trope can have a bad influence on readers. I had begun to think that writers had moved on from the old arrogant and bullying type of hero, but then Edward Cullen is frankly stalkerish – and as for Christian Grey! You can’t help but wonder if these portrayals influence teenage readers negatively.
      Thanks very much for your very thoughtful comment. It certainly is a thought-provoking topic.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Such an interesting post, Helena. Must admit I love a bad boy in films and books, if he is ultimately tamed a little by the heroine. And I loved Lisbeth in the Dragon Tattoo books. Even in real life, I was attracted to the ‘bad’ boy in school at one point because he didn’t faze me and I didn’t hero-worship him or anything. However, I’m very glad I married someone the complete opposite from that as I knew I could never trust a bad boy in real life!

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    1. Hi Rosemary, the bad boys are often the ones who get the girl even in real life, but they don’t often keep them for long. Most people would totally agree with you and be much happier with the complete opposite! (I wonder what happened to your bad boy crush? Did he settle down??)
      Thanks for dropping in, and fo ryour great comment!

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  6. I’m not sure that “Assertive” women are bad girls. In my mind the bad girl is the one who breaks the rules of appropriate behavior, perhaps because she’s lashing out at over restrictive parents or the other end of the scale, had no guidelines growing up at all and only bad examples to follow. Margaret Thatcher might not have had women in her cabinet, but she wasn’t a bad girl.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point about the distinction between “bad” and “assertive.” Margaret Thatcher was a hard-working grammar school girl growing up. People might say she had a “bad” influence on this country, but that’s something else entirely!
      Great comment. Thanks very much for dropping in!

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  7. Discussed this with a female friend up to here with men recently – essentially, back in the Stone Age, the bad boy was the one who’d go out killing mammoth etc. and provide.

    Nowadays, scientists, accountants etc. are much more the provider types but we’re all still Homo Sapiens Mark 1 – women are still genetically programmed to think the bad boy will be the good provider even though nowadays he’s more likely to end up doing a stretch in Barlinnie and (unless they’re Penny in THE BIG BANG THEORY), scientists, accountants and other geeky types – and I include myself in that definition – scarcely get a look in…

    Caveat: this is of necessity a generalization. Not all women run blindly after Heathcliffe, but some still do.

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    1. Hi James, I think that’s a really interesting point. My answer will have to be a generalisation as well, but I’ve heard that in the 21st century the geeks will rule. People in IT are some of the biggest earners on the planet – eg Bill Gates – and geeks are now the equivalent of the stone age mammoth killers.
      I get your point about women being attracted to the strong “bad boy” type, but as a few women have commented here, the bad boy type isn’t the one they’d get married to. Like you said, not all women run blindly after Heathcliffe, no matter how romantic he might appear. Just think of the nightmare of actually living with him :)
      Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. I liked to hope that, overall, the providers will have their day…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hello, Helena,

    Great post. The thing about bad boys is that if they REALLY changed…wouldn’t they become boring?

    Of course in romance the so-called “bad boys” are really just waiting for the right woman to appreciate them. Or else they’re really not so bad, just suffering from bad press.

    As for bad girls….harder to define what that means, but I love them. I’ve written a number of heroines who might be considered “bad”, especially Ruby Maxwell Chen in “Nasty Business”. I like women who claim their place in the life and own their sexuality. I don’t think that’s “bad” though. From my perspective, it’s good!

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    1. Hi Lisabet, thanks for dropping in. That’s a really great comment. We love to read about bad boys – and bad girls – because they are never boring. And what defines a bad girl? Scarlett isn’t genuinely bad – if she was, she would have left Melanie to burn in Atlanta and saved herself.
      I love the sound of your heroine, Ruby. I still think there are many people who find a woman who “claims her place in life and her own sexuality” threatening – ie “bad.” It’s great that you’re writing heroines like her. I’ll look out for yor book.
      Thanks so much for your comment!

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  9. I love spy movies, but hate the misogyny. So I was totally thrilled with Melissa McCarthy’s Spy, where all of the important roles are females, and the eye candy is Jude Law, with Jason Statham as the comedy relief-eye candy.

    I find it odd that what we think of as attractive about men, ie, they’re egotistical and sleep around, is anathema for women. I blame our Puritan past. Anthropologically-speaking, the whole reason for marriage was so the man would know he was leaving his stuff to HIS kids, not the neighbor’s kids. In order for him to be sure, he had to invent a system that severely punished women for enjoying sex, both before marriage, and afterwards with anyone but her husband. From that, oppression of females grew into our cultures like a poisonous vine, leading people even today to pursue “honor” killings in some countries, and deny women the right to control their own bodies even in the US, where getting pregnant is viewed as the logical “punishment” for any woman who dares to have sex out of wedlock.

    I reject that whole mind-set, so I don’t write books starring virgins, and I won’t read them either. I like more realism in my romances, and I want to identify with the heroine.

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    1. Hi Fiona, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I’ve never seen Melissa McCarthy’s Spy, I must look out for it. It sounds a great film, and just up my street!
      It’s so true about there being one law for men and one for women. Men are studs, where women are sluts. I really don’t understand why that’s still the case today. And it’s good that you mentioned the repression of women in some countries. What still goes on in some places in the 21st is an appalling crime.
      I like the way a lot of writers are turning away from the virgin as heroine. Like you, I prefer more realism, and I thought most other readers did – until 50 Shades came along. It sold by the shedload. Just goes to show that we won’t get rid of these old gender stereotypes any time soon, sadly.
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment

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  10. What a fascinating post, Helena, and the comments too. I’m not attracted to the bad boy type–not in real life or in person. I cut my eye teeth on Gone With The Wind, crying buckets at the end because it didn’t have a HEA (before I knew what that was!) She made me soooo mad, but even in 8th grade I knew the stair scene was not the way things should be. I’m not attracted to bad girls stories either. We have enough of those in real life. Literature (genre fiction which I write) should uplift spirits and provide role models for how to live. Call me naive, but it’s what I like. And no I don’t like Romeo & Juliet. Hated to teach it to Freshmen high school students. Theoretically, teachers should be able to use it to show how suicide is never an answer, but not sure that’s what really happens. I’m sharing your super post.

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    1. Thank you so much, Marsha! I remember being gutted by the end of Gone with the Wind, too. I was about 14 when I first saw it.
      I don’t mind bad girls in stories, but as one commenter said, what do we mean by bad? I mean by it the Scarlett level of “badness” – not an actual violent psychopath :) Like you, I prefer stories that are uplifting.
      And Romeo and Juliet is my least favourite Shakespeare play. I think Romeo is a silly ass :)
      Thanks for dropping in today. I really enjoyed your comment!

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  11. Great food for thought Helena. I know there’s a little bad in everyone but I’ve never been in ‘love’ with bad boys. But when I think of ‘bad girls’ I think of the story “Mean Girls.” Want them to get their just do. But I admit, I’m working on a story with a ‘bad girl’ in it. Not the main character, but her sister. And in the end, I’m hoping the reader will accept her and love her for what she’s been though. Thanks for the post. :)

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    1. I love the sound of your bad girl, Charlie. It’s a challenge to write a character like that – someone who behaves “badly,” but you have to write her in such a way that the reader sympathises. I really like the sound of your book. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks very much for your comment, and for dropping in!

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  12. What a great post and I enjoyed the comments. A bad boy is always charming and manipulative. How can you NOT fall in love with him? That element of danger attracts women–So cool to be living on the edge. But, it wears thin pretty quickly, I’d say. So many women think they can change a man, but in the end, she has to be smart enough to recognize she can’t and brave enough to get out of that relationship. Really enjoyed the movie clip. Clark Gable took my breath away in the close-up. So charming, so gorgeous. But it’s only a movie, not real life. Our books are fiction and written for escape. I hope readers remember that.

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    1. Hi JQ, it’s tempting to believe we can change people, but the only one who can make that change is the person themself. It does take courage to walk away from relationships sometimes.
      I think most “bad boys” in romance aren’t really bad. They’re not psychokillers – they’re just guys like Clark Gable, who don’t care about social reputation.
      I think most people recognise the difference between real life and stories. I have to hope so, or it might stop me writing!
      Thanks very much for dropping in, and your comment. I’ve always loved Clark Gable!

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  13. Hi Helena
    I’ve been thinking a lot about this post since first reading it a couple of weeks ago. You’re so right about Gone With the Wind being about a ‘bad’ girl meets ‘bad’ guy. I was thinking about Jane Austen and how in her novels she very often has a bad guy, someone who in many cases the heroine is attracted to but then during the course of the book she comes to her senses and realises he’s not going to change and makes her match with the good guy, the hero who has proved his love and good character over the course of the week. But then Austen was a very pragmatic novelist – her heroines need to make a good marriage to survive in society. I think some of today’s romance literature is more based on the fantasy of the girl making the bad man change into the perfect partner.

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    1. Hi Clare, thanks for mentioning Jane Austen. You’re so right that she often has a bad guy. I was pondering over your comment, and how it applies to Pride and Prejudice. Wickham is a bad guy, but he’s genuinely bad. In romance novels, the bad guys who get the heroine aren’t really bad – just like Rhett isn’t a bad guy at all. He just doesn’t care about convention.
      At the start of P&P, Darcy comes across as a bad guy. Even when he proposes, he’s still smug and proud. But Lizzie tames him by the end. Pride and Prejudice to me is the perfect tomance novel, and your comment has made me think about how the book also fits the “taming the bad guy” trope.
      Thanks for the interesting comment. I genuinely think a whole book could be written on this topic!

      Liked by 1 person

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