Dangerous Stereotypes: Bad Boys

I’m going to tackle some stereotypes present in modern fiction that I think are dangerous when used irresponsibly.  Any entries part of this series will be labeled as “Dangerous Stereotypes.”  The previous entry on this topic is about the Scientist stereotype, which can be read here.  

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People have interesting ways of coping with scary things.  Some deny their fear.  Some avoid what frightens them.  Some seek it out.  And many people, often women, seem to be taking what should be scary and try to make it cute.

I’m talking about the “bad boys.”

There are so many villainous characters out there with cute, sorrowful, gentle, loving, or chibi-fied pictures of them out on the internet.  Sometimes they are anti-heroes like Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z or Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Sometimes they are villains like Voldemort from Harry Potter or Loki from the Marvel Comics.  Sometimes they are someone who flickers in between like Mr. Gold from Once Upon a Time.  And sometimes they are like Alucard from the anime and manga Hellsing. Alucard is the opposite of cute.  He’s one of, if not the most, badass, psychotic, murderous vampire in modern literature.  He’s fucking terrifying.  He’s murdered and drunk the blood of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, human and vampire, and enjoyed it.  The only think that keeps him under control is the special spell that binds him to the will of the leader of the Hellsing Organization.  And he’s one of the GOOD guys!

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With these kinds of credentials, why is there so much fan art and fan fiction dedicated to depicting cold, heartless, psychotic, violent, egotistical and/or murderous characters as sweet men beneath all those bloodstains?

One possible theory is that this makes them a little less terrifying.  Is it easier, perhaps, to take what is disturbing and unknown and make it more manageable?  To think, “Oh, it can’t be that bad.  They’re like that because reasons”? “They had a bad childhood, or some other trauma in their life that made them like this.”  “They’ve never known love, never been given a chance, never seen another way to live.”  “It’s not their fault, or, even if it is, they can redeem themselves with good deeds.”  “They can change.”

The redemption story is a compelling one.  Unfortunately, in real life, it’s usually false.

I do think that people can change.  But it’s much rarer than the movies would have you believe… and that can be dangerous.  I’ve heard too many stories of women (and some men) who get into or stay in abusive relationships because they think they can change their partners.  They take on the guilt for their partner’s outbursts, thinking if they try harder then things will be different.  They come up with excuses for the behavior.  And eventually, they become too scared to leave.

I’m afraid that the allure of “bad boys,” of wanting to be the redeemer of a lost soul, can lead a lot of people down a dark and scary path.  It becomes especially troubling to me when this stereotype is created, consumed, and perpetuated by teens and preteens.  Young people are still forming their identities, learning what is and is not acceptable to society and to themselves.  Stories have a profound impact on how we look at and interact with the world and those around us.  If the next generation is consistently shown that “bad boys” are really sweet, warm, loving people deep down, and that they can be changed with enough personal sacrifice… well, I just don’t think that’s a responsible message to send.

Granted, I am guilty of this myself.  There is a bizarre appeal for well-crafted bad boys.  I like watching interesting dark characters, seeing how they came to be, inventing tragic back-stories, etc.  I enjoy a lot of the fan creations that attempt to explain their behaviors or fill in the blanks in their story.  But I never forget that these are fictional characters.  They don’t hurt real people.  All of their atrocities and abuse are heaped upon fellow fictional characters.  I remind myself that the behavior I tolerate, understand, or explain away in fiction I will not tolerate from living human beings.  Real live bad boys aren’t cute, cuddly, and redeemable.  Trying to make them seem so may look like a harmless pass-time, and for most mature adults, it is.  I’m not calling for bad boys, villains, and anti-heroes to be stripped from stories, or that there shouldn’t be fan art or fiction exploring alternate scenarios.  They have their place, after all.  But writers should be aware of the potential repercussions of these bad boys and their odd appeal to our fantasies.  It’s a narrow and uncertain line between crafting a character with an edge and one that’s outright abusive.  I’m a fan of more realistic developments in fictional relationships, and that includes other characters not putting up with a bad boy’s bullshit.

2 thoughts on “Dangerous Stereotypes: Bad Boys

  1. I think this is my favorite so far. You analyzed something that bothers me and articulated why it’s actually (sometimes) not okay.

    Like you said, I love a good villain… but I’ll never understand the fans who love a character for being dark and grim but express that love by neutering the character into a harmless pet.

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