I spent the first few weeks of the pandemic tearing through episodes of “Gossip Girl”—all 121 of them. There were times when I grew sick of the unrealistic repertoire of hookups, dresses, and drama, but I stuck with the show because of Chuck Bass, the series’s hedonistic “bad boy.” He checked all the boxes ever imagined—über-rich, arrogant, misogynistic, controlling, and, of course, eternally tortured by daddy issues. When I tried to revisit the show recently, I was hit by the realization of how horrendous his character truly was, regardless of the development the writers pushed on him as the show progressed.
Growing up, I had crushes on my fair share of bad boys, from “Harry Potter”’s Draco Malfoy to “Gilmore Girls”’s Jess Mariano. Maybe they weren’t that deep, since these characters were all hopelessly fictional, but I was under the illusion that I could be the one to change them, if they existed. I also pretended not to see their rude and hurtful actions, and ate up their tragic backstories as an excuse for their hostility. However, the prevailing portrayal of the “bad boy” as the poor guy who just needs a woman to save him is harmful on many, many levels.
For starters, the archetype and its popularity send a clear message to every guy out there—that the ideal guy, the guy everyone either wants or wants to be, is essentially a jerk. The qualities shared by every bad boy start with being generally stuck-up. He looks down on everyone else from his place of privilege. He’s narcissistic. He balks at commitment and refuses to express his feelings. In extreme, but still prevalent cases, he’s violent and abusive, like “Fifty Shades of Grey”’s Christian Grey, whose concept of consent is dubious at many points. Basically, if you grab every single red flag in the history of mankind and stitch them together, you have him—and yet, the ladies adore him. This is incredibly problematic, because it teaches men to equate romantic and sexual appeal with cruelty, or more comprehensively, toxic masculinity.
For instance, a huge number of resources around the world coach men on how to pick women up by insulting them, a practice known as “negging.” Experts in the field claim that men who use these tricks will be able to “undermine a women’s confidence by making backhanded or snide remarks,” and eventually succeed in seducing them. The tidbits they suggest are strongly reminiscent of the lines of a bad boy, such as “I didn’t expect you to be so articulate.” All of this insinuates that a man must be crude and arrogant to be attractive. They cannot show emotion, admit weakness, or even be a decent person. In a world where men often struggle to be vulnerable, the “bad boy” trope greatly exacerbates the problem and diminishes the worth of women.
Furthermore, but just as importantly, the stereotype can cause serious harm to women by encouraging them to be the one to change a dangerous man. Everyone has an innate desire to be special, and tales starring these “bad boys” prey on that wish by linking a woman’s individuality with their ability to rescue a man from misery. Sure, he may be terrible towards everyone else, but what does it matter when he cares for you? The trope nourishes the pipe dream that a dedicated woman will be enough to alter a callous man, and in real life, women end up adopting a heroine complex. They stay in poisonous relationships that have no chance of improving, and blindly sacrifice whatever it takes to be with the man, because they’ve seen those men change on screen. But radical transformations that resemble redemption arcs can rarely be found in our world—not all Chuck Bass wannabes go from attempting sexual assault on minors to proposing to his lover with a heartfelt speech.
And there’s no ignoring the obvious—the reason why so many people chase after these bad boys is painfully simple. They’re attractive. If the same attitude were exhibited by someone whose appearance was average, the viewer might see him for what he actually is: a cheap excuse of a person. But a “bad boy,” complete with his tear-inducing origin story, evokes pity rather than contempt, and sparks interest rather than disgust. Why? Because he’s tall, dark, and handsome. There truly isn’t a better way of conveying that being hot will allow a person to be forgiven for any atrocity.
Jacob Elordi, who plays the ultimate “bad boy” Nate Jacobs in “Euphoria,” said it best: “It’s so scary when you read that stuff [idolizing Nate]. It’s bad, it’s so bad.” These days, whenever I see a classic bad boy waltz onto the screen in all his brooding glory, I pause. Is that really what I want in a friend, partner, or lover? The answer, I’ve discovered, is always no. It’s time for writers, directors, and creatives all around to recognize the damage the “bad boy” trope perpetuates, and start experimenting with kindness and compassion instead.