When did a**holes become romantic?

Why are the designated love interests in so many popular stories so abusive, controlling, and troubled? Why are they presented as the romantic ideal? And why, for the love of all things good and beautiful, do women and girls like that in their fiction?

The idea of a ‘bad boy’ love interest isn’t anything new. Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and others make use of this trope to varying degrees. Rochester had a whole host of issues, of which the wife in the attic is probably the best known; Mr. Darcy was an arrogant snob (to a degree); Willoughby was a womanizer. There are many other classic works that I haven’t thoroughly read but whose plots I know enough to know that they employ the idea of a less than ideal man being a love interest for the heroine.

The difference between these works and the more modern bestsellers I’m reading today is that the classics all depict the bastard boyfriend for what he was. Rochester got a building dropped on him to teach him the error of his ways, Darcy got a brutal rejection from the woman he thought for sure would say yes, and Willoughby loses the only woman he cared about because of his philandering. Their behavior had consequences.

In a lot of modern novels, this doesn’t happen. The badly-behaving love interest generally gets rewarded or idolized for the way he acts.

Edward Cullen of Twilight notoriety is sort of the obvious example; I’ll content myself with saying that he dismantles his girlfriend’s car to keep her from meeting someone of whom he doesn’t approve. There’s way more where that came from.

In Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series (the first book of which I’ve skimmed and am about a hundred pages into via in-depth reading), the ‘hero’ spends most of his time mouthing off to the heroine and patronizing everyone around him, including a boy he’s supposed to have a fraternal bond with. There’s no sign that Clary, the main character (who has a host of issues herself), finds him anything but attractive, if annoying.

In Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Anita ends up dating (read “screwing”) multiple men, all of whom have several behavioral issues that can’t be excused by their supernatural nature, and one of whom essentially rapes Anita in Narcissus in Chains (be warned that the video is NSFW). In later books, Anita practically ends up drooling all over herself every time this character comes into a room.

Fifty Shades of Grey, the Twilight porn fic turned porn bestseller features a romantic hero somehow even more disturbing and creepy than Edward Cullen, on whom he was originally based.

All these books are huge bestsellers. They have legions of adoring fans who are quite vocal about their desire for the hero to step out of their pages and into their lives. And the authors usually agree. The extent to which Laurell K. Hamilton loves her characters is rather terrifying, the tone of Cassandra Clare’s LiveJournal and tumblr imply she’s as attracted to Jace as her author avatar main character is, and Stephanie Meyer has gone on the record saying that she’d leave her husband for Edward or Jacob (interestingly, when I tracked down the interview, the quote appears to be gone, but there are multiple people, both fans and non-fans, who confirm its existence- go the very bottom entry on this Twilight Lexicon thread to see).

And these are just a few examples of authors who write this behavior as acceptable. I’m not even touching the mess that is the worship of Severus Snape (his being played by  Alan Rickman does not render the character any less a deeply troubled bully), L from Death Note, or even Malcolm Reynolds (love the character, but he’s a needle short of a moral compass on more than one occasion). Hell, at least E.L. James of Fifty Shades authorship recognized that the behavior of her hero wouldn’t be acceptable in real life. But that doesn’t change the fact that that behavior is perceived by many fans to be intriguing or even romantic.

“But it’s just a book!” you say. “Why does it bother you so much?”

It bothers me for a couple reasons. First, in the case of Cassandra Clare and Stephenie Meyer, the reading audience is of an age where they will be trying to figure out romance and relationships for the first time. If they’re subconsciously expecting romance to come in the guise of a bad boy like the ones in the books, it’s going to warp what they perceive as romantic. Even before these books became a hit, I knew a lot of girls who firmly believed that they could change their significant other’s poor behavior. It almost universally ended in them having really nasty breakups. Having the added confusion of a formative reading influence touting the virtues of someone abusive and controlling is not going to help.

The second reason? It’s lazy writing. A lot of really horrible behavior is passed over from consequence or comment because the heroine loves the man in question. The possibility of consequences for bad decisions, which is really key to good character development, get tossed out the window because the heroine will always forgive her love interest. Always. There’s never any doubt or tension over whether or not the heroine and hero will come together, even if the hero frigging sexually assaults the girl (Jacob Black and Micah Callahan, I’m looking at you down the barrel of a gun). Other times the male love interest is given little to no character development on the grounds that he’s supposed to be mysterious. And what bugs me most is that securing the man is supposedly the culmination of all the heroine’s adventures. I give you the first paragraph of the description of City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare:

The Mortal War is over, and sixteen-year-old Clary Fray is back home in New York, excited about all the possibilities before her. She’s training to become a Shadowhunter and to use her unique power. Her mother is getting married to the love of her life. Downworlders and Shadowhunters are at peace at last. And—most importantly of all—she can finally call Jace her boyfriend.

So her boyfriend is more important than her Shadowhunter training- which means essentially a whole new life at the age of 16; her mother getting married happily after horrible treatment at the hands of her first husband; and peace between two factions that have been at war for a long time. Calling Jace her boyfriend is more important than all that frivolous nonsense.

This is why I really am starting to hate the YA genre. The last thing girls need to be told in the things they consume for entertainment is that the ultimate reward for their efforts is a boyfriend. Romantic interests are going to be on their minds anyway, especially during high school. It’s all part of environment and hormones. I’ve been there; I really do know what it’s like. And not every teenage girl is going to be as lucky as I was and have a mother who repeatedly and patiently explains that having a boyfriend is not necessary for happiness. If the books and characters you like are constantly being paired off, it will contribute to your thinking it’s the norm, especially if you’re anything like me and lived a rather sheltered life where books were the key to learning more about other people and how they interacted.

I’m not saying it’s not impossible to have a good love story, nor is it impossible to have a decently written side plot that’s romantic. But I am getting sick of it being such a big component of books, especially books that feature women as main characters. I’m coming to expect that there’ll always be a love interest for the female lead whenever I crack open a book, and I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see a heroine who can make her own way in the world, without a man being the focus of all her efforts, or her reward. I’d love to have a good friendship story between a man and a woman, where there’s no hint of romantic involvement. And I’m certain such stories exist. I’d like to see them appreciated more by the reading public at large.



14 thoughts on “When did a**holes become romantic?

  1. Nice post. I agree as well that those jerk male characters are a bad influence for young adults. However, what about the Hunger Games? When I read that series, I thought Katniss was worse than either of the guys, who both seemed fairly caring, despite the later events of the story. Those books are hugely popular too, so perhaps there’s hope?

    • I think there’s definitely hope- though the poor quality of THG writing has me a bit more cautious about how good of a measure that series is. Personally, I thought Katniss had enough redeeming qualities for me not to hate her completely, and I read her as unreliable- as someone who’s actions we didn’t necessarily have to agree with.. My main issue here is with writers who write horrible behavior specifically as virtuous and ideal, and I didn’t see Katniss as written that way. But that’s purely a case of Your Mileage May Vary- I know others who disagree.

  2. Warning: Extremely long comment :S
    First off: Bleurrrrggg! That Cassandra Clare extract really did make me shudder. MOST IMPORTANTLY????? REALLYYY!?!?!?! Grr that makes me so angry! I started reading one of her books, not totally sure which one but I rented it out from the library and put it down after two pages, which is extremely rare for me. I just didn’t like it, at all.
    I understand completely what you are talking about in this post, seeing as I’m someone who reads a lot of YA. I’m quite suprized you didn’t include Hush Hush in this, it pretty much accumulated everything you’ve been talking about into one character, although there is a heck of a lot to choose from.
    I must admit I do like a good badboy character; in moderation, and they have to be well written. I don’t know what the appeal is. Maybe it makes them seem more masculine? It could be some innate evolutionary thing?
    It is disturbing how many are popping up in literature these days, however I think it’s the badly written books that are the most dangerous, because these are the ones where the female horrifyingly – just goes along with it. And Fifty Shades of Grey…well, I’m just not even going to go there – the popularity and publicity it’s recieving is horrendus.
    I think a large part of why they are used are as plot devices to help create trilogy books – this is something I have noticed, because it provides perfect material to compare two male love interests – the good boy and the bad boy and means the writer can get more money by expanding the series.
    The biggest reason I think they are used though, you touched upon in your post: girls like to think they can ‘change’ a guy. Being able to transform a bad guy into a good guy seems to be seen as the ultimate sign of devotion in romance terms and so people want to read about it because they wish it would happen to them. It’s found a lot on YA TV too e.g. Damon and Elena on Vampire Diaries, Nathen and Hayley on One Tree Hill, Chuck and Blaire on Gossip Girl etc. And this is honestly not realistic, and can cause serious damage.
    Great post! Very thought provoking. Again, sorry for the longness. 🙂

    • Woohoo, long comments! Anyway, yeah. I’m trying to get through City of Bones because I want to do a huge snarky annoyed review on how a gorgeous cover was completely wasted on a book as annoying that, and I feel like I can’t really do that unless I actually slog through the thing. But yeah- I’m a hundred pages in and I hate Jace, Clary has almost no personality other than being annoying, and Simon is constantly getting shoved to the side in a way that smacks of author favoritism.
      The main reason I didn’t put Hush Hush is that I honestly didn’t get far enough into it. Patch annoyed the hell out of me, as did Nora, but I didn’t get far enough in to say for sure whether or not he had any character development. From what I can tell from summaries, he didn’t, but I couldn’t in all honest say for sure.
      As for the badboy thing- I don’t know. It can be done well, and I do love Rochester and Darcy; but in most of the modern stories I’ve read, I find myself very much repelled
      Gah, Fifty Shades of Grey. Seriously I should try using that strategy to pay for my college fees- yank the one semi-successful romance fanfic I wrote, fill it with smut, strip my heroine of all her personality and my hero of all his redeeming qualities, change the tragic ending and voila! Instant cash!
      Indeed. But if you have to have a trilogy, I can’t help but feel there should be a damn good reason for it. One of the things I did like about Veronica Roth’s Divergent (which admittedly had some issues) was that the love interest wasn’t terribly annoying and the books seem to have plot-relevant reasons for being, you know, more than one.
      Damaging- no kidding. It’s something that can really be a problem if someone relies on books very heavily to figure out how to interact with others (ie someone from a sheltered life or childhood) and has only this to go on. I think the main reason I have such issues with it is that a good book CAN teach you a lot about the world. As a result it really bugs me so many of them fall short.

  3. Canon vs. Fanon had me roaring!! So true. I would be more attracted to the Canon version of Snape (if I had a Snape thing, that is).
    You are right about all of this, and if you find the type of story you are seeking let me know! I would love to read it too.
    The only explanations I can suggest are that bad behavior creates conflict, which drives the plot (if it has a plot. It might just drive the plot around the block, then park and make out). And also, if you look at some of our primate relatives, there is a tendency for big males behaving badly to become head of the harem (which relates to protecting the females from outsiders or predators). Now if they take it too far, pissing on everyone and don’t actually do a good job, sooner or later they’ll lose support and get their asses handed to them by up and coming males. But perhaps there is something in the more primitive sections of our brain which applauds this type of bad boy thing because it contributed to evolutionary success. That’s just massively simplistic, and I’m sure there are papers that refute hypotheses like these on scientific grounds, but I toss it out there anyway.

    • Haha, I admit to have an Alan Rickman thing, but not a Snape one, except as an interesting character. And yeah, I love that illustration because damn, it’s true. A quick cruise of the Snape fics over at ff.net provide all the evidence for that.
      See- bad behavior does create conflict, but in these stories it’s rarely handled in the way it should be. I would find it interesting if the love interest’s poor behavior actually threatened the relationship and was called out on it for being what he is, but in too many cases it’s used for the other half of the party angsting, which is really boring after a while. If I ever find anything that handles it remotely well, though, I will be sure to blog about it 🙂
      The theory about evolution is an interesting one, but I still feel like there should be some acknowledgement of “Hey- aren’t we sort of past this sort of behavior now?” One werewolf story I did find that touched on something like that- if only vaguely- was “Kitty and the Midnight Hour” by Carrie Vaughn, and while it’s hardly what I’d call fine literature, she did a really interesting depiction of how twisted the standards of a wolf-pack are when applied to human lives.

  4. Pingback: Thoughts on ‘Guilty Pleasures’ | I Could Be Arguing In My Spare Time

  5. Hi! I’m slowly working my way through your posts! And I have to say, I loved this one. It is so very true. Perhaps it was a good thing that I found so little time to read during my high school years (and even now)? ~At least I’d like to make that excuse for myself. 😛 And I absolutely loved the “Canon vs. Fanon” picture! 😀

    • Hi! And yeah, I had fun with this one. It’s such a shame that so many books are like this with their love interests, especially ones aimed at teenagers, since most teenagers are going to be too hormonal to think about the implications (not all, but I know I definitely was…) And that picture was way too awesome not to put up there. Though it is a little depressing how true it is…

  6. Reblogged this on Writerling and commented:
    Girls of Literature: Boys don’t have to define you. They are not the be all and end all of life. Find one that will allow you to be an individual at the same time. Don’t make them your whole life. It’s all about balance… Bianca oxox

  7. Pingback: Fictional Guys I’d Run Away With, Part 1 | I Could Be Arguing In My Spare Time

  8. I completely, completely agree. That’s why, in my writing, I’m trying to show healthy relationships that demonstrate that adolescent males and females can be just friends, too. I’ve heard a lot about Cassandra Claire’s books (I haven’t read anything of hers since the fanfiction days) and most people seemed to be positive about them, but I’m glad to have your point of view. And the blurb paragraph…is just laughable.

    • I commend you for that- it’s something that fiction sorely needs.I wish you luck in your fiction pursuits- I’d love to see something that doesn’t invoked the omnipresent love triangle.
      Yeah… I think her work is rather overrated, merely because it has the vestiges of a plot I’m writing a review of it now- my thoughts on it will be a bit more detailed there.
      Thank you so much for commenting!


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