Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Those Dark and Dangerous Guys

I survived another day with the kids. It's only three hours, but those are the longest three hours ever. I feel like I've worked a full, eight-hour day by the time they leave. Having our discussion time outside seemed to help, but there are still a couple of little boys I would like to sedate. Or hogtie. And gag. They're not bad kids. They're just full-speed-ahead, and any instructions or directions just go in one ear and out the other. I'm losing my voice from shouting, "No running in the halls!" and "Don't push!"

Meanwhile, I guess I'm on a reading rant tear these days. I've griped about the "cheerleaders=bad" lazy characterization in young adult novels. And I've griped about the way male Victorian novelists don't seem to consider a useful, intelligent woman as a viable romantic prospect for the hero. It's not even a love triangle among the hero, the vapid but beautiful woman and the less beautiful but more intelligent woman. The less beautiful but more intelligent woman is seen as nothing more than friend or sister material. There's a similar but gender-reversed thing that goes on in contemporary fiction. I've been seeing a lot of it in young adult, but it seems to show up a lot in adult fiction, as well.

It's the triangle of dangerous bad boy, nice best friend guy and heroine. If we're lucky, the nice best friend guy actually makes it into the romantic triangle, where's he's at least briefly considered as a viable romantic partner by the heroine. Much of the time, though, and especially in YA fantasy, the friend isn't even a blip on the romantic radar for the heroine. It's as though the guy who treats you well, supports you and is there for you when you need him couldn't possibly be boyfriend material. The only guy who's hot enough to be considered romantically is the one where you're never entirely sure if he's going to kiss you or kill you, and you desperately want him to kiss you even though he might kill you. Of course, the best friend will be there to get you out of danger before the bad boy does kill you, and then your super-special sparkliness will make the bad boy change his ways just enough that he won't kill you. It's one thing when it's an adult urban fantasy and the heroine is just as tough and dangerous as he is, but it gives me the creeps when it's YA and the heroine is either a normal girl or a girl who thought she was normal but who has just discovered that she has some paranormal heritage, and she's helpless before the bad boy's sheer powerful manliness. She knows he's dangerous, but she's so drawn to him and can't seem to resist him.

There are two things that disturb me about this trend. One is that it sends a lousy message about relationships. Not that YA books should necessarily be full of heavy-handed messages, but do we really want to reinforce the belief that a really great relationship is one in which the guy says mean things to you, is possessive and maybe even potentially violent, while a guy who treats you well, supports you and is there for you when you need him -- a true friend -- can't possibly be hot or sexy enough to be a boyfriend? I think the really dangerous message in there is the idea that if you're special enough, the guy will change for you, or that he'll only be cruel or dangerous to other people while he uses his bad boy nature to protect you. It's like a recipe for teaching girls to look for and tolerate abusive relationships and making an abusive relationship the model for a relationship that's "passionate" or "romantic."

The second thing that disturbs me is how readers -- both teens and adults -- seem to eat this up. Not everyone, I know (my books sell at least a few copies), but enough that I'm not sure I could sell a teen book in which the heroine chose her male best friend over the hot-but-dangerous guy. The same thing is going on with adult books, especially in urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Readers will want the heroine to "tame" the bad boy, and it's only really hot if the guy is dangerous and dark in some way. It's "boring" for the romantic pairing to be with the nice guy. I suppose that part of the deal is that a book is a "safe" way to explore a relationship you'd never tolerate in real life. You'd probably cross to the other side of the street and arrange your car keys so they stick out through your fingers if you saw one of these romantic heroes in real life, but in a book you can imagine what it might be like to live more dangerously. As someone who's never seen the appeal of the dangerous bad boy and who doesn't even like the "safe danger" of roller coasters, I just don't get it, and so these books don't work for me.

I do hope to subvert the cliche about the useless vs. useful woman, and today's market is all over that. I don't know what I can do about the good guy vs. the bad boy. Maybe a good guy who's capable of being an utter badass in the right circumstances and a bad boy who's revealed as being a poseur and who runs squealing from the danger the good guy deals with easily? There were a few of the Madeleine Brent books (RIP Peter O'Donnell) in which the guy who seemed dark and dangerous turned out to actually be a really good guy who only looked dangerous and scruffy at the time because he'd just gone through some horrible experience, or he was a secret agent under cover, and then the guy who seemed good and wholesome was a sneak and was actually pretty dangerous.

I'd really love to write the scene in which the heroine lays the smackdown on the dangerous bad boy when he's saying cruel things to her or acting like he's going to hurt her -- and not have it be witty, sexy banter or verbal foreplay. More like, "No one treats me that way," and it's a total turnoff for her.


Carradee said...

Agreed. It's not unusual for me to be wondering "Hey, chica, you really wanna be treated like that for the rest of your @#$%@# life?" If the girl's dangerous, or if her experience is limited, okay, maybe she can handle it or she doesn't know any better. But when there's a nice guy right there… um… huh?

*thinks about her characters* I don't write love triangles. The closest I've come is a side character's unrequited interest in a narrator, and both ultimately end up with somebody better suited for them.

My YA UF novel has a hero who's a bad nice boy. He's dangerous when the situation calls for it, even to the point of killing somebody, but he never ever ever turns that on the heroine, though he technically has a right to and she accepts his right.

I just realized that's an inverse of the entire healthy —> unhealthy relationship progression. My poor hero keeps seeking a healthy relationship with the heroine, and she doesn't understand what he's doing.

If you write that scene, let us know. I'll buy that book. ^_^

Chicory said...

Preach on, sister! One thing about the `bad boy' vs. best pal trope that gets to me is how often the heroine barely knows the bad boy she's fallen for. He's just really hot and... really hot. What happens fifty years down the road when he has a pot belly and his tattoos are stretched out of shape?

That's actually one of the things I appreciate about your Enchanted Inc. books. You let Katie actually GET TO KNOW Owen before deciding she was head-over-heels for him. Such good sense shouldn't be as rare as it is in the book world.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you and also the comments of Carradee and Chicory, but...
Novels are about living out fantasies that are unlikely to impossible in real life. What girl doesn't dream of taming the bad (and also hot) boy?
Is it shallow? Yes. Is it entertaining? Hell to the yes.