For this editorial I will be discussing ‘brooding bad boys’ that are also supposed to be the love interest. I’m not talking about broody and mean characters because some of those aren’t romantic interests to the readers/audiences. I am talking about ones that studios think the presumably straight female viewer is supposed to fall head over heels for.
The brooding bad boy is usually a man that the female lead character is supposed to want to change. The movie tells us it’s up to us – the women of the domestic and moral sphere – to bring out the prince in the beast. ‘We’ (again the presumed straight female audiences) are supposed to fantasize not only about changing him, but then him being thankful and indebted to us. Because of this debt, they will love us forever and treat us kindly as we did them. But this of course isn’t true because no one should change anyone who is violent or abusive because that’s not our job as women. We should help them seek consoling or a professional help, but we shouldn’t internalize his struggles and make it feel as though it’s our fault that he’s not ‘happy.’ This trope also brainwashes audiences (straight men and women alike) that women want to be treated badly. It shows men that they can act however they want to, and women will still love them. It teaches women that ‘we wanted it.’ The opposite of this trope is that ‘women who play hard to get are really just torn up inside, and need a man to fix them’ when in reality ‘cold women’ aren’t cold at all. They’re just not that into you.
Lastly, this trope creates fantasies for female viewers. The fantasies include a longing for a deeper relationship with the bad boy. It’s a place where women can live out situations safely that might not ever happen in real life. These dark and brooding men, conflict in my mind with the handsome prince trope (though this is a spectrum due to Beauty and the Beast where the Beast is both). Which one do women want long term? Personally for me, the handsome chivalrous prince is the more appealing because it’s been shoved down our throats longer and in more genres. However, because the prince is so pristine, it makes the broody bad boy more appealing. He becomes the forbidden fruit. It’s healthy to fantasize, but some women may not realize that the brooding abuser isn’t what ‘real love’ is (neither is the handsome prince for that matter, but that’s another story), and stay with him trying to change him. This is why the brooding bad boy who’s dark and mysterious is so dangerous, it teaches women that abuse is normal in a relationship, and that it’s a woman’s job to fix that.
There are countless stories where this is told. The most prominent in the last ten years being Beauty and the Beast where Belle literally has to bring out the prince from the beast, 50 Shades of Grey, Jane Eyre (2011) and Twilight (2008). In most cases, the women in the story do successfully ‘fix’ the abuser and live happily ever after with their respective partners. But before they get to this, they must deal with stalking (Twilight, 50 Shades, Beast), secretive and scary behavior (Jane Eyre, 50 Shades, Twilight), and physical abuse (Twilight, 50 Shades, Beast). Beast screams at Belle, locks her up in his castle where she’s his prisoner, and she is blackmailed into loving and marrying him so he doesn’t die because Belle, due to Stockholm syndrome, convinces herself that she loves him. Christian Grey buys Anastasia’s company so he can literally own her. He stalks her at her job and she goes through with his ‘BDSM’ just to help him work out his own issues, which he never really tells her about. So she’s clueless, but goes along with it anyway because ‘he’s just so mysterious and handsome and rich.’
In Jane Eyre Rochester has his own secrets including a woman he locked in an attic for years because… patriarchy? When Jane finds out she runs away, but then goes back to him after she hears about the fire at his estate. When she sees him again, he’s blind due to the fire caused by the woman in the attic (poetic justice?), and then Jane and Rochester can finally be together (their love was founded on corpses). Jane goes back to him after knowing that he locked his first wife in an attic, but oh he’s so ‘helpless now because of his injuries he’ll be docile and sweet just like I knew he always was.’ Lastly, Twilight (which 50 Shades is based off of) has its own Pandora’s Box of problems, but I’ll only focus on the ones with Edward. Edward is manipulative, a stalker and overall creepy. He’s the epitome of the ‘brooding bad boy,’ most audiences can’t help but love because he’s dark, mysterious and needs to be ‘fixed.’ ‘I’ll be the one that makes him smile’ is the thought that goes through many girls in the audience’s heads. But no we shouldn’t make him smile. He’s scary and in the second movies makes Bella want to commit suicide. Granted, Bella has her own problems, but Edward is just enabling her rather than helping her.
Edward is emotionally abusive and I don’t know how anyone finds that attractive, but even as I watched Twilight as a 13-16 year old girl, I still couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the love triangle. That’s the power of movies. They may seem like mere entertainment, but we lose all level headedness when seeing them (unless it’s something so ridiculous we can’t turn off our brains). I knew Edward wasn’t likable, but why did I still see myself thinking that he was a ‘good idea?’ I guess the only reason was because I’m a woman who’s grown up in the patriarchy. I’ve internalized a lot the media has given me and at the mercy of it, but rather than follow blindly I aim to analyze, critique and try to keep my sanity so I don’t fall down the rabbit hole into darkness. As much as I do this to expand the reader’s perspective, I do it for my own sake in order to remind myself, not everything is as it seems.
23 year old English major and ESL Teacher. Currently living in Fortaleza, Brazil. Feminist and kill joy with a cause.