The Bad Boy vs The Bad Girl

| Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Today's Tune: Never Go Back

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So, last post, I was asked if I thought there was a literary equivalent to the "bad boy" trope for girls, aka a "bad girl" who follows an equivalent line -- sexy, impulsive, domineering, attractive, morally ambiguous (or leaning toward corruption), rough around the edges, shakes up the "good" characters, etc. I mentioned the character Amber from Malinda Lo's Adaptation, and although I don't think she quite fits the bill, she has some of the qualities.

However, my readers came to the rescue with several possible examples! From the comments on the last post, people suggested Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sharon Stone's character from Basic Instinct, Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Mandarin of Like Mandarin, characters from Courtney Summers' novels, and Alaska of Looking for Alaska. All very interesting choices.

Of these examples, Faith really leaped out at me, mostly due to her extensive character arc throughout several seasons of Buffy and Angel. I was also intrigued by the comparison to Manic Pixies, because I nearly made that comparison myself.

The thing that hung me up on Manic Pixies is that the character doesn't fit the same mold, exactly. That, and Manic Pixies are well known for being ideas rather than actual people; dreams or inspirations to guide the (usually) male protagonist out of his ho-hum life. They aren't typically "bad" so much as intended to define the existence of some guy through spontaneity and carefree spirit. Which from a gender standpoint is pointedly different from a "bad boy," who rather than being an empty shell for the female protagonist to fill is a defined person who often drags her around to his way of thinking.

There's a power imbalance with a "bad boy" that's not present with a MPDG. If a dude ever said, "No, I am not interested and you are of no value to me sexually or emotionally," then that would be it for the MPDG. The typical "bad boy," however, is the sort who doesn't take no for an answer and imposes on the heroine until she budges. These tropes can naturally be lampshaded or subverted in a number of ways, but for the purpose of this discussion, we're going with the typical version of said trope.

Now, let's talk about supposed "bad girls," shall we? BUFFY SPOILERS AHEAD.

Using Faith as an example, because I think she's a near-perfect one, we find a lot of the typical personality traits present in bad boys. She's angry, always looking for a fight, sexual/sexually experienced, comes from a shady background situation, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, shocks the "good" characters, morally ambiguous/corruptible, likes to wear leather, etc. This is mostly portrayed with a steady hand and Faith is considered to be confident, funny, a fun friend, and a good ally to have on your side.

However, things change for Faith. She's never really accepted into the core group, she's slut-shamed by Willow and others, she's rejected from sexual and romantic overtures, and her descent into going "dark side" is largely inspired by her need to feel respected, loved, and wanted. Some of these are elements that could be shared if she followed the line of the typical male trope, but generally speaking, a bad boy character may not be accepted by all the characters, but the protagonist and possibly several other characters warm to him and tend to stay warm. It's typically revealed that he's actually a "good person" behind a rough exterior. And he's never seriously slut-shamed for his sexual past/present.

Ultimately, the bad boy trope usually exists as a romantic metaphor for the sexual awakening of a (usually virginal or otherwise sheltered) female. He has a personality and a certain allure simply by being male and able to kiss her real good. This is where gender typing comes into play, bigtime. A bad girl in a heterotypical story can't be the romantic interest, so she doesn't hold the same allure and value for the heroine. If we're dealing with a male hero, the bad girl tends to be viewed as a heartbreaker, a bitch, a slut who makes him question his masculinity (again, speaking about the general tropes, not subverted versions).

Now when we edge more into queer theory and breaking down gender constraints, I think a whole new ballpark opens up. It's generally believed, and has (I believe) even been canonized, that Faith is hetero-leaning queer and definitely had some feelings, romantically or sexually, for Buffy. However, Buffy is canonically heterosexual, so the potential broken gender rules don't really stick. Also, though Faith may be queer, she identifies and presents as cisgendered female. Which basically undoes any kind of genderfluid or queer extrapolation on the bad boy trope that could be going on here. She is, at the end of the day, a woman who bucks societal norms and is unsurprisingly criticized/punished for it.

Which is not to say that Faith's characterization and arc aren't emotionally powerful, in character, and examples of strong writing. In my opinion, they are. However, when she's stacked against the bad boy trope, her experience is markedly different and colored by her sex, gender, and the characters around her.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Women do not and should not need to be exactly like a male equivalent in order to fit neatly into a trope box. Faith's character ends up being a lot deeper and a lot more emotionally complicated than many factory processed Bad Boys (TM).

Now, when the bad girl character is a love interest for another woman or otherwise genderqueer individual, I think the context can change. The element of sexual awakening is again present, in a more even-handed context since there's less of a sex-specific power imbalance. The attraction is back, as is the potential for change in the protagonist, but this time there could be the possibility for both characters to come at it on equal footing. I think there's a lot of gender deconstruction to explore here.

And then there's what happens when we move beyond using this character as a staple romantic interest and make them a singular character acting independently. What do they become then? Something different altogether? I'm not sure.

So... yeah. These are my thoughts!

What say you, readers?



{ Allyson Lindt } at: January 30, 2013 at 5:35 AM said...

I think this was a really interested examination of bad boy vs. bad girl. I don't have a lot to add, I think you covered all really well, touching on so many appropriate aspects of the character.

And in the end, the one thing I think I like the most about your thoughts is Women do not and should not need to be exactly like a male equivalent in order to fit neatly into a trope box.

It's definitely bothersome how some characteristics are seen as 'positive' in the male character and negative in the female one, but...yeah, I think you covered it all very well. Thanks for making me think :-)

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: January 30, 2013 at 8:37 AM said...

DITTO what Allyson said.

{ Tricdice } at: January 30, 2013 at 10:52 AM said...

This is a really great post, I'm always interested to see how different tropes translate for each gender. I don't have much to add except I'd like to suggest another example: Lila from Holly Black's Curse Workers Series.

{ Paul Anthony Shortt } at: January 31, 2013 at 2:08 AM said...

I hadn't really thought before about Faith's mistreatment by the rest of the Scoobies/the show's writers, but you're right. She becomes a villain not simply because she's violent and dangerous, but because she represents a different set of values to the core characters. From a narrative sense, that is, not an in-universe sense.

Her arc, much like Willow's "Magic is Crack" arc in Season 6, forces her into an antagonistic role because she's doing something that the dominant majority don't approve of. Faith enjoys sex and partying and sees the lighter side of her role as a slayer, and the narrative punishes her for that. Which, really, shouldn't be a surprise, since sex and other forms of "temptation" are regularly punished in the show.

Certainly, none of the male characters (bad-boys in particular but the meeker ones too) receive anywhere close to the same level of suffering in response to sexual behaviour.

{ Heather } at: February 1, 2013 at 7:07 AM said...

Ridley from the Beautiful Creatures books is a fun bad girl character - she is bitter, manipulative, sexy, and impulsive, and many of her actions are designed for shock value. At the same time she's insecure and protective of the people she loves, so I thought she was really interesting to read about. Her friends never stop believing that there is good in her, and she proves them right - but holds on to a lot of her "bad girl" attitude.

I'd love to read something with the bad girl as the main character or narrator.

{ Malinda Lo } at: February 1, 2013 at 7:46 AM said...

I've been thinking about this subject for months and I totally enjoyed reading your take on it. Also I admit I was super excited that you mentioned Amber *and* noted that she didn't fit the category exactly! (giant happiness)

In terms of other bad girls in lit, I'd agree that Lila from the Curse Workers series by Holly Black is definitely a bad girl. The character of Bev in Nina La Cour's THE DISENCHANTMENTS is also a bad girl, but in a contemporary/realistic setting. Interestingly, Lila, Bev, AND Amber all have short blond hair. I don't know why since I'm pretty sure none of us were aware of the other characters while writing our books, but it's kind of funny to me. I think that there's something hugely symbolic about the blonde, throughout all of pop culture.

On TV, Faith is one of my favorite bad girls. These days I'd argue that Bo the bisexual succubus on "Lost Girl" is also a bad girl, but more directly along the lines of a bad boy. She has the sexual agency/power, but she's also one of the team. She isn't ostracized the way Faith was; her sexuality and bad-assedness are celebrated equally, but she does still have a potential for violence.

{ Barbara } at: February 1, 2013 at 8:17 AM said...

This is a really interesting article. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I do agree that Faith is an excellent example of the Bad Girl trope, and that gender played into her character's trajectory in some interesting ways. That said, I also see a lot of similarities in how Spike is treated in the narrative arc, as a fairly prototypical bad boy. Ultimately, they both get redemptive journeys and end up being at least somewhat accepted back into the group in order to fight the good fight. Aside from gender differences, I'd say that one reason Faith's fall from grace and subsequent redemption play out somewhat differently from Spike's is that Spike's initial badness can be blamed, at least in part, on the fact that he lacks a soul - a very significant factor in the Buffyverse. I could probably babble on about this for quite a while more, but I think I'll just leave it there for now.

Also, another prime candidate for the Bad Girl (TM) trope: BSG's Starbuck. You get the sense at the beginning of the show that she's fairly equally adored and hated by the rest of the crew. Though she does unfortunately become increasingly ostracized as the series continues, I suppose.

{ Robert Berryhill } at: November 1, 2015 at 10:15 AM said...

Scarlet O'Hara is my favorite

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