Bad Boys Too

There’s been a lot of talk lately about fictional teen romances setting a bad example for young-lady viewers (thanks, Twilight). Whether the portrayal of a relationship can be deemed “good” for girls seems to rest on the morality of the boy involved. Sure, it’d be great if more teen females on TV would exert their girl power and be with super nice guys and join a band and play sports and have unbreakable friendships. But just cause that’s a good example doesn’t mean it’s an entertaining one.

And, honestly, would that image reflect our experiences? Did we really refuse to get distracted by romance in favor of extracurricular activities? Were we sure to fall for fellow teens who would always treated us with maturity and respect? Or did we sometimes fall for someone bad? And is falling for a bad boy somehow anti-feminist?

No show examines teen morality like Gossip Girl. While the main female characters (Blair Waldorf, Serena Van der Woodsen , and Jenny Humphrey) tend to move freely between common decency and pure evil, their male characters are a little more fixed. Dan Humphrey is a bookish outsider on the Upper East Side struggling to navigate this wealth and privilege with his integrity intact. Nate Archibald is an upper-crust puppy dog whose Tiger Beat looks and sweet demeanor make him a worthy crush for any youngster…as long as they can overlook the blandness. And then there’s the show’s most popular guy, Chuck Bass:

Chuck was introduced in the first episode as the show’s villain when he attempted to a date rape 15-year-old Lil’ J. The writers immediately buried Chuck’s old habit of sexual assault and replaced it with strictly consensual promiscuity. Now he’s a sex symbol who’s as well known for his daring fashion choices as he is for his villainy. He’s also part of the show’s most compelling love story: the never-quite-a-relationship between him and Blair (one of the most compelling female characters on TV right now, BTW). This dark pair bonded over social manipulation and sinister plots, but their inability to trust other people ultimately prevents them from finding happiness.

Gossip Girl may romanticize the fact that Chuck sleeps around, but it’s his tragic love affair with Blair that makes the girls swoon. (And honestly, I don’t want to live in a world where teenagers aren’t moved by tragic loves stories.) Blair’s aware of Chuck’s libertine sexuality, but that doesn’t hurt her as much as his selfishness and emotional isolation. “Only a masochist could love such a narcissist!” she despairs.

And this brings up my question: Does loving a bad boy really mean a girl is messed up? Before you think on all the lost little Twilight fans and answer with a horrified “Yes!” please remember the crushable bad boys of pop culture past:

Spike Dylan McKay












I could write a whole other post on the major sexism expressed many times by of each of these characters. Yet who among us hasn’t crushed? And if we really believe women have as much sexual agency as men, then we can’t assume that their fictional fantasies involuntarily corrupt them. If teenage girls are capable of being strong and independent, then they know what they’re doing when it comes to the pop culture and their engagement with it..

Whether they’re called womanizers or heartthrobs, bad boys can represent dangerous sexuality, social deviancy, and even rebellion, all of which seem like healthy pursuits for any young feminist.




[Now published at]

by Juliana Tringali
View profile »

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

6 Comments Have Been Posted

Is there a bad girls follow up coming?

I hope so.


This is my favorite Box post to date. Great stuff.

I've wasted hours thinking about Twilight (art, phenomenon, and backlash) (which is odd, because I never have and never will read or see the thing), and I've got to say that I agree: Complaints that it sets a bad example for teen girls are condescending.

Spot on

Greaaaaaat post. Guys aren't really like Jim Halpren in real life, anyway.


Of course one should show women making bad decisions for the sake of verisimilitude, but there is definitely an overwhelming cultural phenomenon of falling for the bad boy, and many shows reinforce it. And while bad boys exist in large quantities in the world, the kind shown on tv is starkly different from the garden variety bad boy one encounters on the street, because all the fictional ones are actually nice guys deep down, and are just in need of someone (preferably a particularly savvy and dedicated young woman) to save them.

So the bad boy crush phenomenon just reinforces the gender stereotype of women being the caregivers, the healers and the glue of society, civilizing raw masculinity so that it can go out and accomplish big things. That seems problematic to me.

So...attempting to date one?

I was immediately drawn to this topic, considering, I have found myself in a relationship(courtship/friendship/...thing?) with a young man who many, more probably most, conservative religious believers would say was a "bad" boy. Okay, so his morality doesnt hold up to the checks and balances of conservative religion (so he smokes weed and drinks?). If anything, it is the mischievous way that the corner of his lip curls when he is playing his shows at coffee houses that makes me fall in love with his ridiculous self all over again. If I do say so myself, I am a well adjusted young woman who is passionately perusing my dreams with no deterrence from this so called "bad" boy in my life (albeit, he does make me a little crazy at times!).

Some young women (myself included it would seem?) are just drawn to, and intrigued by the "bad" boy. That or it would seem that they tend to be irrationally afraid of them (and their moms tell them that underwear with lace is the equivalent to "satans panties" - Miss. Congeniality anyone?) Regardless, I think it shows the healthy sign of human-ness flowering in a young person. Whether it to be observed as a "bad" or "good" thing is simply interpreted differently because of the existing schemas in our minds - our experiences, our religious views, etc. Its like, when my little sister likes the jerk who dumps her over the steady, possibly mildly-boring, steady guy? Thats her prerogative, and no matter how many times I talk her through fits, she is going to still go after the edgy, shady ones.

I mean, maybe its just our society trying to desensitize young girls to the fact that the divorce rate in America is now at 50% (according to I mean, that just might be it but who's to know?


The problem with fictional

The problem with fictional 'bad boy' relationships isn't the boys, it's the girls. Fictionalised representations of 'good girls' who fall for 'bad boys' tend to represent the 'bad boys' as being rebellious and surly because they're emotionally starved or even abused, possibly because their family is working-class (and you can rely on American films in particular to pull out the classism). E.g. John Bender from <i>The Breakfast Club</i>. The stories then revolve around how women can tame the wild beast by offering love and affection, while 'bad boys' in turn offer young women sexual experience and status. This is even the case where the male character is obviously abusive towards the female character, and can't be shown to have had any worse of a time than she's had (e.g. Buffy/Spike -- Spike pretends to be working class because he's actually spoilt and well-educated, and he thinks working-class men are thugs).

This makes the female characters into emotional accessories for the male characters, and because it's fiction, the writers (usually male) can design the conclusion to pretend like affection and sex can resolve major emotional problems in men, especially their sexism.

In real life, this myth doesn't hold out. Women are taught to believe that their role is one of emotional servitude, and that they won't (and shouldn't) be loved unless they offer it and sacrifice their own wellbeing for it. And men use the myth to constantly shift the goalposts of their expectations of women, and disguise their own abusive behaviour. This results in the kinds of destructive patterns of emotional dependency which has women returning to their abusive partners again and again. What looks, on the outside, like a sexy and fun adventure, ends up in the hospital.

Western culture as a whole is piss poor at giving women the tools to understand abuse and to stand up to it. If women aren't hearing good messages about romantic relationships within their culture, why should we expect that they're "savvy" enough to negotiate pop culture messages?

To be honest, that looks like more feminist elitism, whereby only the women who are clued into pop culture (and into "dangerous sexuality, social deviancy, and even rebellion") are worthy of being included in the fold, while all the other women, who aren't up on the trends only have themselves to blame. Young women shouldn't be expected to have all the knowledge about how to look out for themselves -- and I think it's a good thing if a young woman hasn't had the life experience that will teach her how to differentiate an abusive man from a rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold, because currently the only way women seem to find that out is by bitter experience.
There is a point at which celebrating young women's savviness looks like punishing them for naivete.

This isn't to say that no popular media should ever explore young women's sexuality and their attractions to rebellious men. But these representations of romance in popular media blur the line between rebellion against authority and abuse of people more vulnerable than you.

And feminists are the last people who should sanction the conflation of those two things, given how often we're accused of behaving abusively towards men when we challenge their privilege.

Add new comment