Ah, the Bad Boy. He gets a lot of traction in our fictional media. He is alluring on account of his badness, and of course, incredibly good looking. In many cases, he is thrown into a love triangle with a female protagonist where she must decide between The Bad Boy and The Good Guy. We know we are supposed to root for The Good Guy, but why would we do a thing like that when the Bad Boy is always so much better?
The bad boy is appealing because he is forbidden, on account of being, well, “bad.” This is only exacerbated when he is paired with a female protagonist on the side of Good. He is also appealing because his character arc is one of redemption due to the female protagonist. Her love fucking changes him, y’all.
Further, the bad boy provides a point of conflict in what is otherwise usually a bland romance and gives the illusion of complex characterization. Now, this isn’t to say these tropes aren’t frequently subverted and complexified in fascinating ways, but the bad boy trope is a recurring rhetorical device in our fictional mediums that audiences have been conditioned to identify due to its frequent representation. He may come in subtle variations, but his bad boy essence is mostly the same across each. Some variations are:
1. The Brooding Bad Boy
The Brooder is usually incredibly good looking, often dangerous or even a jerk (see “The Jerk Bad Boy” below), and super angsty due to his dark, tortured past. He absolutely must have a dark, tortured past! In most cases, he is older, or in the case of vampires, way older. He is usually paired off with a lily white virgin who will remind him that there is in fact beauty in the world on account of her being very pretty and very white. A classic literary example of this is The Phantom of the Opera where the young and innocent Christine Daae is torn between the creepy Phantom and the bland Raoul. The trope also applies to like every single hetero male vampire paired off with a mortal woman in any fictional medium. I won’t list them. There’s too many.
2. The Jerk Bad Boy
This guy has a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas, often for no reason at all, which is why he is not quite the same as the “Brooding Bad Boy.” When he is paired with the “Total Sweetheart,” he is “not that bad.” Think sidetalking Jess with the lovable and bookish Rory Gilmore. Or consider another Jess, this time a woman, with Nick of The New Girl.
3. Wrong Side of the Tracks Bad Boy
This guy is “bad” because he’s working class or poor, in some cases he may be a bit of a rogue, but a lovable and attractive one. Sometimes he overlaps with the Brooder because apparently not being middle-class means you have a tortured past filled with drugs, violence, and *gasp* single parenting. Shawn Hunter of Boy Meets World was a classic example of this guy. When he is paired off, it is with some variation on the Good Girl; it helps if she is middle to upper class. Another Shawn/Sean was Sean Cameron of Degrassi: The Next Generation who was paired off with Emma. Bender and Claire of The Breakfast Club. And there’s always Lady and the Tramp:
The Bad Boy trope can be powerful for women audiences because it hinges on a lead female protagonist who does not have to change for a man—instead he has to change for her. That can be quite appealing in a world of media where women constantly change to suit the male protagonist, while male protagonists change very little. But the Bad Boy trope is not without its problems.
Bad Boys are often manipulative and abusive, or there is often an underlying threat of violence, whether or not violence occurs. Audiences wait with bated breath when he is upset—will he act out or will he be an exception…for her? And of course that is the problem, he is an exception for her:
A fair point, but it’s really not about the boy, is it?
The Brooding Bad Boys were my trope-y drug of choice as a teenage girl. See again like every YA book with a vampire boy and mortal girl. I mean, he was always just so much more interesting than the Good Guy. He was stimulating in multiple ways (intellectually, sexually), and he provided an alternative to the traditional narrative because the Bad Boy represented a choice. Instead of choosing the suffocating narrative of the Good Girl, when the Good Girl picks the Bad Boy, she is offered a spectrum between Good and Bad. She gets to be a Bad Girl by association, but she also gets to be a Good Girl because that is a part of her role in her relationship to the Bad Boy. And within those two extremes is a space to experiment: to learn more about herself, to make mistakes, to break rules and reel back in when she may have gone too far, and to experience unabashed sexuality without shame.
The latter is one of the most significant aspects of the Bad Boy, in my non-humble opinion. I remember as a teenage girl reading in Seventeen magazine about how teenage boys thought about sex every six seconds. I was freaked! I thought about sex that often, too. There was no mention of how often teenage girls thought about sex, and the absence of that info is crucial. It’s not our sexuality that is of concern here, it is his. The teenage boy is expected to be constantly thinking about sex:
For me, the Bad Boy allowed for an acceptance of female sexuality without shame, or at least a little less shame, and certainly something more interesting than the complete lack of sex that would certainly be happening with the Good Guy. The Bad Boy trope is certainly not without its problems, but to quote one of my dearest friends, “I may hate Twilight, but if it’s getting teenage girls to explore their sexuality and masturbate over two equally objectified males, I can only encourage that.”