Sunday, April 28, 2013

Bad Romance

So I've been noticing a thing lately. A trend. A trope that's getting used everywhere I turn. It's the "bad boy" love interest (the character can be either gender, but is usually male) and the protagonist (again, can be either gender but is usually female) who "saves" him from himself. Of course I see it in stories that are explicitly romance or paranormal romance novels, but it's even gone beyond that. I'm not going to name names because I'm not out to attack any of my colleagues, but I'm sure you can all think of a few. Lately, I feel like every time I pick up a novel and read the copy on the back, it's the same thing. The sexy dangerous alpha male. The often-more-innocent girl who loves him. Can he overcome his past/flaws to be with her?

Now, look, folks: I've got nothing against a good love story (yes, it really is true, despite how I treat relationships in my books). I even like stories about characters who strive to be better so that they can be "worthy" of the person they want. (I loved the movie As Good As It Gets, for example, which was about Jack Nicholson's neurotic writer doing more or less that. And I also liked the evolution of Spike's character after he realized he was in love with Buffy.) And I understand the appeal of a lover who's willing to change for you--it's a sign of devotion, a sign that you're special enough to that person to be worth changing for.

I get that. I do. And I understand why someone might long for that feeling. I'm human, too. I've had my share of doubts about my own worth (some might say, more than my share). I understand the ego boost that comes from a person trying to overcome their flaws for you. And I'll even admit that I'm not completely above using the trope myself--my next novel will have a couple of "bad boy" love interests in it. But can I just take a second here and point out that the "she can save him" trope is also pretty offensive and problematic?

Let's start with the assumption (which, to me, is inherent in the growing use of the storyline) that the only thing that makes a person (especially a man, given that it really is usually "bad boys") attractive is "darkness." This seems to me to be particularly problematic when used in Young Adult fiction--is this really the message that we want to be sending to our young men? Now,  don't get me wrong--I don't believe fiction makes people violent, any more than I believe violent video games do. People, even children, have freedom of choice. At the same time, though, to the extent that we as writers use our work to inspire people, shouldn't we take more care with the messages we send? Shouldn't we write the change we want to see in the world?

Then there's the danger of giving readers false ideas about how possible it is to really "change" a person. Once again, this is a particular danger when the trope is used in Young Adult fiction. As someone who once had a "white knight" complex and has tried to "save" a few people in his life (self-mockery is part of the reason that my character Hunter Gamble is the way he is), I can tell you--most of them don't save. Sometimes they do. Sometimes you're lucky enough to meet one who has the tools to rise above his (or her) demons. But usually, when you set out to "save" a broken person--they stay broken. And sometimes it can have nasty consequences for you.

And, to the extent that the person doing the "saving"  is female, it perpetuates the idea that a woman's role is to be caring and nurturing. Not that there's anything wrong with being caring and nurturing, but the expectations for who should be that way are highly gendered. I can only speak for me, but I'm not a huge fan of traditional gender roles (for either gender).

Where did we get the idea that a person is either "bad" (which usually means a criminal, a playboy, or sometimes even abusive) or he's boring? Where did we get the idea that it's healthy to stick with someone who acts like a stalker or an abuser? (To me, any time a character does that, the object of their affections should immediately walk the hell away. If some really extraordinary circumstances come to pass, then maybe s/he can re-consider. Maybe. But that should be a slow process if it happens at all.)

No person is perfect, and no character should be, either. Sometimes the bad boy really does have a heart of gold. But can we try some other pairings, too? Would I be a total party-pooper if I said that I thought that this particular storyline needs some editing?

I invite your comments (and am bracing for the likely flame wars.)

1 comment:

  1. I definitely agree with your assessment here. On the same note, how many female characters get into a relationship (bad boy or not) with the express plan to mold the man into her ideal? And how many of those end horribly?

    Also, on the other side of the assumptions about character, it bothers me when the male who doesn't conform to societal norms is assumed to be a bad boy, regardless of his actual feelings and behavior. It reminds me a TV commercial (forgot the product being schlepped) that shows what one family member wants and what the mother wants. In part of it, a boy is at the door for the daughter. He's dressed in darker clothes (jeans and casual shirt) and a hat of some sort (an allusion to the bad boy the daughter wants). Then it switches to a boy dressed in yuppy fashion with khakis and a dress shirt (what the mom wants for her daughter). Who's to say the first boy isn't artistic or already comfortable with his individuality? Or that the boy trying to impress the parents isn't a date rapist wrapped in preppy clothes?