If you ask any girl who avidly consumes media to give a fictional character that has changed the trajectory of her life, chances are she’ll name a bad boy. Maybe she’ll even mention the specific moment that sealed the deal for her.
Clari, a social anthropology student, for instance, quickly mentioned Jess from Gilmore Girls, who would dutifully read and annotate Rory’s books — the ultimate love language. Marketing major Sage knew at the tender age of three that Dao Ming Si of Meteor Garden was the standard when he dropped everything to rescue Shan Cai from her kidnappers. Personally, Patrick Verona’s serenade for a stunned Kat Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You reeled me in hook, line and sinker.
These comfort characters make for exciting page-turners and edge-of-your-seat TV show marathons. One minute, they shower the objects of their affection with overly romantic gestures only to completely ignore them in the next, like the emotionally stunted beings they are. They’re irresistible, unpredictable, and most of the time, insanely attractive; no wonder we want them so bad.
Despite the warnings, we find ourselves head over heels for these walking red flags like it's a biological reaction -- which it actually is.
However, as we normalize their actions, we often fail to distinguish fiction from reality and end up falling for their real-life counterparts. Our social media feeds and screenshots folders are rife with testimonies from those who simped for toxic men and lived to tell the tale. Despite these warnings, we find ourselves head over heels for these walking red flags like it’s a biological reaction — which it actually is.
Positive experiences like over-the-top attention and grand proclamations of love release dopamine in the brain that automatically link our romantic partners with pleasure. When these sources of happy hormones are taken away from us and we are forced to chase after them, this “frustration-attraction” experience actually heightens our feelings of love. “When we don’t know the next time we’ll see someone or are unable to predict their next move, that person becomes much more alluring to our brain,” Shahida Arabi writes in Thought Catalog. “Our brains can become masochists, seeking out the very people who hurt them,” until they are activated in a way that eerily resembles the behavior of cocaine addicts.
This points to an unusual paradox we unknowingly participate in. We say we want guys who treat us right then crave the daring and mysterious, only for us to make it our life’s mission to change their ways. “Women are often into fixer-uppers,” Dr. Michael Cunningham, a psychologist and professor at the University of Louisville, tells Good Housekeeping. We’re trained to sit through entire seasons and chapters in hopes of seeing our fictional bad boys’ character development. So it’s no surprise that we view their IRL versions as “interesting projects that use a lot of (our) skills, charms and persuasiveness,” and exert much time and effort to fashion them into a man of our choosing.
Since this is a daunting task in itself, successfully whipping them into shape is often considered a huge achievement. This must mean (we tell ourselves) that we possess a slew of positive qualities that are just not present in anyone else. But unfortunately, such a mindset shows how women are in constant pursuit of validation and recognition for the sake of feeling and being enough — whatever that even means.
Marie (name changed to protect interviewee’s identity), a business student, unfortunately attributes her disastrous dating history to her “not like other girls” phase. “Back then, I really believed I could be some rom-com main character that could uncover the bad boy’s hidden softness,” she says. “It was really etched in my brain that it’s okay for me to date them because if I was worthy enough, they’d turn into green flags eventually. As a result, I’ve been with gaslighters, cheaters and straight-up users; it honestly gets worse every single time.”
There’s a difference between seeing the potential in someone, and hoping for something that’s not there at all.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been any success stories in the field. Bad boys are capable of experiencing a change of heart, even when they don’t seem to have one to begin with. They may just be victims of toxic environments, unresolved trauma, or even faulty first impressions. When Clari and her boyfriend first started out, she was sure they wouldn’t last. “He was this alpha male type from an all-boys school, who smoked and rode a motorcycle,” she recalls. “However, I stayed because he eventually proved himself to be a much better person than how I initially saw him. We have such great chemistry and now it feels like I’m in a relationship with my best friend.”
Sadly, while we like to think that love is this unconditional, all-encompassing force that can save everybody, it’s probably not. Change is only temporary if catalyzed by fickle emotion; a real shift in attitude is something of one’s own volition. If he’s a master manipulator who continues to inflict emotional abuse without a hint of remorse, he doesn’t need our support, patience or understanding; he needs cognitive behavioral therapy. This is a lesson we don’t seem to learn until we’ve experienced it for ourselves; we have difficulty believing that even repeat offenders can be truly, intentionally bad. But there’s a difference between seeing the potential in someone, and hoping for something that’s not there at all.
“I feel like every girl should go through a boy that will break her heart in order for her to learn,” Sage shares. “It’s hard to distinguish infatuation from love, then love from manipulation, especially if you don’t have any point for comparison.” Her advice? Date around. “Don’t settle at once because chances are you might not be aware of how you’re being treated. Once you have enough experience, then you’ll be able to distinguish if someone’s intentions are genuine or if they’re just all talk.”
It’s a learning process, this fickle thing called romance. Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense why we had to cross paths with certain people. But rest assured, the partners we meet, love, and leave all form part of who we are, what we think of ourselves, and what we know we deserve. While the bad boys we let into our lives are likely not our happy endings, at least our experiences with them sure make for one hell of a good story.