Why Do We Ask Why Women Seem to Prefer Bad Boys to Nice Guys? part I
Originally posted November 2003
Thanks for article inspiration to Jonathan, who pointed me to an LJ which made me initially start thinking about this. Thanks for suggestions on this article go to George, Ian, and Dave, who made it a better read. You all rock! ;-)
I’ve heard the plaintive question ‘why do women want bad boys instead of nice guys?’ so many times I finally had to answer. Short answer — they don’t. They’re doing what they’re taught to do.
I’ve been considering this ever since I first heard the question in college. My answer then was a startled, “But they don’t!” Since then — through personal experience, observation of those around me, and watching media portrayals of relationships — I’d have to say my answer is still correct, but I understand the empirical evidence behind it better now.
Let’s look at this analytically, assuming a hypothetical young female who is interested in guys. What are her peers, society, and the media teaching her regarding relationships?
The media’s job isn’t teaching you how to find nice folks to hang around with. Its job to make you feel desperately inadequate, so you’ll gratefully buy their products, with the implied promise of how ‘cool,’ ‘hip,’ or whatever else you’ll suddenly become, after using them.
The media is really good at its job.
Here’s an interesting factoid for you — a study was made of advertising models, to figure out what human body shape they statistically most matched. The results were eye opening.
Our society has an obsessive love affair with the body type which most matches… adolescent boys who are minors.
Don’t think about that one too hard. It’s kinda icky…
Have you ever noticed these carefully media-crafted roles are emotionally stultifying and impossible to fulfill? Have you ever critically analyzed how life is portrayed in the media? Our expectations are deliberately blown out of proportion to reality by the media — because comforting illusion sells.
Here’s our hypothetical female, unable to be as thin, rich, or successful as the expensive, handler-driven, made-up models the media presents as the norm — which are frankly not normal. What alternatives are there?
Well… there’s Barbie. As the bumpersticker says, “I want to grow up to be Barbie — that bitch has everything!” Unfortunately she’s an impossible role model too. Normal humans just aren’t shaped that way. However, our average young woman probably won’t realize these body models are utterly incompatible. She’s even less likely to laugh and say, “What nonsense those images are!”
A nice girl preferring a bad boy is an expression of a (peculiar) cultural norm: women nurture and civilize men, who consequently provide for them. So what would a nice boy preferring a bad girl be saying, in the societal rubrics we’re speaking of here?
The implied expression would be of a male providing for an uncivilized, sexually free woman. While there are stories about this sort of idea, it is not societally seen as a good thing. Our society seems to believe men are supposed to be in control of women — not the other way around, and not a lack of anyone controlling at all. The fact this control-based rubric is horrifically damaging to those involved doesn’t matter to the society or the media supporting it.
She may wonder what’s wrong with her — why can’t she be that way too? When she looks around, she’ll see her peers are usually asking the same question, and doing their best to be sure all their peers feel just as inadequate as they. Society’s doing its best to affect them too, after all — in the end, the media does nothing more but take society’s existing rubrics to a profitable commercial extreme.
I do find it encouraging to see young women who appear to play a more self-assertive role — but is it really her? Yes, she may be wearing a shirt declaring, “Dump him!” However, has she truly decided to be an unabashedly self-aware woman… or is she just slavishly buying into the latest media-created role model for her gender?
Have you ever noticed how often women’s magazines heckle and lecture? Some of the headlines are downright demanding: “Bedroom Dos & Don’ts” or “Must-Have Fall Fashions!” Why must we do what we’re told in bed, or buy these new clothes?
Others seem to need to denigrate men in order to exalt women: “10 Topics to Turn Him Off” or “Younger Men! Enjoy One Today” or “7 Strange Ideas Guys Have About Sex” — do we really need to lie to guys, treat them like sex toys, or laugh at their misconceptions? Would we like that if it were done to us?
Read more on this subject in “Why Do We Ask Why Women Seem to Prefer Bad Boys to Nice Guys?” parts II and III
Looks like most folks here have covered most of the bases, and said much of what I might have pointed out.
I would highly agree with what Erin has pointed out as being the fundamental cornerstone of personality being developed at such a young age: while I’ve long since made peace with my parents divorce on most levels, it still is an important point that my first memories, around 4-5, were of my parents fighting and then breaking up. That shaped the person I became drastically, being the quiet sort, the non-confrontational sort, and the sort that has difficulty forming romantic relationships, out of fear of ultimate rejection.
Is that the be all and end all of me? No. But even as I’ve been rebuilding the house of my personality all my life, the foundation is still there, and it is damn hard to replace that foundation.
However, the foundation is also not the be all and end all…in the case of being a nice boy or not, I’d have to say that the influence of my parents far more shaped me than the influence of my peers, and it wasn’t until I became older that this happened. Which only highlights again, that positive communication between a child and *some* authority figure is critical to balanced psychological growth. my father was never a bad boy, never unbalanced, and therefore the primary male role-model for my life also shaped me into what I became.
However, I’m getting away from the topic slightly, therefore let me detour back to hit a couple of notables:
1. In my junior high, the teachers were high-minded enough that all children were to take home ec at some point, and all children were to take shop. Thank goodness for no-gender stereotype, there!
2. It’s interesting that there’s media to objectify women in regards to being sexual toys (or madonnas, as the case may be) but the women’s magazines also objectifies men similarly, reting them as things to be fooled, manipulated, as a source for differnt sorts of goals (including sex the women would enjoy). When the feminist movement desired equality, I’m relatively sure that’s not what they had in mind…
3. There’s an interesting quote I’m reminded of from Richard Morgan’s foray into writing Black Widow:
Natasha: If you want to succeed, you’ve got two choices…pole dancer or Hard Faced Harridan.
Phil: Hey, it beats Madonna or whore, right?
Natasha: No, it is madonna or whore. it’s just that the madonna got promoted…on condition that she’s twice as tough and twice as smart as any man she’s dealing with. Anything less and they’ll rip her to shreds.
Faced with these media image for themselves…to be the sexual stereotype that the majority of men seem to prefer, or to be more stereotypically masculine than most men, it’s still women defining themselves in regards to men, at an age where, if they’re not getting the proper support from somewhere, they may succumb to.
In Bad boys, they perhaps partly see the freedom they desire. That masculinity=agency. That’s part of what we need to fix….even as I see myself that I’m sucked in by that image, too.
Speaking as a mostly “nice-guy”, I’ll echo the comment above that mentioned decisiveness being a trait that seems to be desirable. I tend to be viewed as being nice because I’m just not that pushy when it comes to advancing relationships, getting my way in a domestic setting, and similar things. The largest problem I seem to encounter in relationships with women is that my middle path between control and passivity tends to result in a lot of platonic relationships that just never go anywhere past that point, because nothing is driving them. Most women, in my experience, are trained to be excessively passive, and too mach passivity leads to stagnation quickly. Frankly, I don’t like issuing orders in relationships and I don’t like having the burden placed on me to take almost all of the initiative.
Some of this may be a validation issue: dominant types gain validation by dominating and controlling others, narcissists (of which I tend to be one in the more classic sense) receive validation when we’re pursued by others. If there’s nobody eager to take control, there is no pursuit, it’s as simple as that. I’m quite conscious that this is my personality and that all of my serious relationships, regardless of gender, have all been with partners who are either as neutral as I am (and we alternate taking the initiative), or are more dominant. I don’t know if narcissism is a conscious thing with what seems to be a majority of women who fit the mold, or if it’s just trained. I just am a bit aware of it in my own case, because I fail to conform to the norm.
Now the funny thing is that I do tend to be regarded as a Bad Boy around work, because I often jump into things, ignore rules and procedures if it suits me, and otherwise do my own thing and lead if given an opportunity. I have a problem with authority in a closed system where I’m stuck with people and they’re stuck with me, and control is the only source of validation and I just want to take it in that dynamic. Funny how that works…
I’m looking forward to part II – this is a subject I’ve never understood, myself.
I recall back in my elementary school days, when I was (I’m ashamed to admit) very much obsessed with the boy-band New Kids On The Block. The group was carefully engineered to provide girls with a range of crush possibilities – the young blonde, the two ‘good guy’ brothers, and the rebel, ‘bad boy’ drummer.
All of my friends had crushes on the bad boy drummer, and even at that tender age, I couldn’t understand what they saw in him. For my part, I preferred the ‘good guy’ lead singer.
The pattern’s continued for me, now that I’ve married a wonderfully sweet guy, who is thoroughly approved of by my family and treats me as an equal. I’m very happy with the arrangement, and I STILL don’t understand the appeal of the Bad Boy. Why do so many women go for that image, when they could have a kind fellow who would treat them with respect?
Two points missed in your post:
1. Women tend to bond quickly after sex. Bad boys push for sex quickly. This leads to women who are bonded to bad boys…
2. As advertisers and aikidokas can tell you, something almost in your grasp which is just out of reach only a little stretch to take hold of…is very enticing. Bad boys, pulling away slightly, are good at this.
3. Bad Boys may represent “uncivilized” but they also represent “Decisive” and probably “Desireable” as well. Decisive is a positive masculine trait. Most “Nice Guys”, especially the ones complaining, don’t act.
I gotta recommend the “Dating Revolution” book referenced above…
So, the thesis is that women choose bad boys because a) we’re told that bad boys are the ideal, and b) we’re expected to reform and civilize them, and it’s hard to reform or civilize someone who is already both.
Part of the problem is that people’s baseline personality traits are established very, very early – like, by the age of three or four, they’re pretty much established. So that boy you hook up with isn’t ever going to grow up into a man, emotionally speaking. He’s going to continue to be an emotional boy all his life. I’ve seen this in the kids I’ve taught. I can tell in grade four which boys are going to make their girlfriends’/wives’ lives miserable with their inability to accept responsibility, among other traits. Their girlfriends are going to enter the relationship with the intention of creating a healthy one, and growing together – but their boyfriends are, if not incapable of that growth, at least unable to see the need for it, and very unlikely to change some core personality traits at that point in their lives.
I’m going to spend a lot of time talking with my daughters as they grow up, helping them understand what a good relationship looks like and sounds like, and how an emotionally-mature person acts and sounds. It helps that their father is an emotional adult, and an all-round excellent role model. Heaven forbid, though, that they take their one aunt’s taste in men as their role model. she’s fallen headlong into the “save the bad boy” model of dating, and it’s definitely not working for her.
Hi, Erin! I’m so pleased to see you commenting here — I’ve missed the conversations we used to have, and your erudite commentary.
Regarding personality traits, I had read they’re established early, but I had no idea they were quite so visible. Thinking about it, though, I guess that just makes sense. From a “let’s fix this problem!” perspective, I find myself wondering: if it’s “too late to change” by such an early age, then is what we really need something like more training on how to be good parents — so valuable traits like responsibility and respect and trustworthiness are passed on to our children?
It’s really nice reading about how you’re raising your girls. Despite the fact I shan’t be having children, I always find it incredibly encouraging to hear from someone who is, and who seems to have a real grasp on how to parent well. Best wishes! :)
One of the reasons I’m a firm believer in widely-available, cheap early childhood education is that it has the potential to provide different role models for kids whose role models at home are not of the best quality, at a time in life when they could actually benefit greatly from that. While it would be nice to suppose that most families are capable of raising well-adjusted, well-educated children with a school system that starts at age four, in actual fact, there’s a signficant portion of the population who probably can’t – because they weren’t well-raised themselves. If those kids are going to have a good shot at life, we need to get those life lessons into them as early as possible, which involves both training the parents and getting them into a setting where the caregivers are well-trained.
It’s also my belief that, since 80% of people will be parents of some type at some point in their lives, there should be a compulsory high school class devoted to raising children. Topics should cover basic physical care and nutrition, but also discipline based on core values. The kids who need this course the most will often be making use of it quite soon after they take it, while the ones who had better parenting themselves are both more likely to wait, and more likely to have decent parenting skills from having been well-parented.
Oh, and for the record: I don’t think it’s impossible for them to change – I just think it’s much, much harder.
You know, it never fails to amaze me how we “train” for parenthood. I’ve been told I deal extremely well with children, and I’ve learned not to say it was animal training which taught me that. The total extent of parenthood training in high school (that I perceived, at least) were a handful of incredibly titillating but ultimately terribly dull sex-ed classes and one elective home-ec class which I had no interest in whatsoever.
Thinking about it now, I can see the threads of disdain we were taught still weaving through my memories of those classes. The sex-ed classes were so abstracted and clinical as to be ridiculous. Mainly they covered only the physical information (i.e. carefully sanitized line drawings in the books with captions like “this is the egg and this is the sperm…”) The closest they came to anything concerning the emotional impact of sex was the breath-taking hysteria I could dimly and confusedly sense swirling about the classes being offered at all, and one segment where we were shown a slide show (the precursor of PowerPoint! :) ) about how boys and girls would have difficulty discussing sex. Talk about setting up expectations early!
The teachings on the consequences of sex seemed to imply instant venereal disease and pregnancy if you did not have protection — and again, the words were so sanitized as to lack any real meaning. “Pregnancy,” “protection,” and “venereal diseases” were all words I knew the clinical definitions of… but it wasn’t like those vaguely naughty seeming words really applied to me, you know? I suspect I was indoctrinated early and firmly with the belief that sex was filthy, disgusting, and self-destructive, and should be shared only with the person I loved most in all the world! ;)
Regarding the home-ec classes, I find I’m not even entirely sure what the ‘ec’ in home-ec was, or whether I’m spelling it right. I’ll guess it was home economics, but I’ll also note the general perception amongst the clever nerds I hung out with was that home-ec was for the dumber girls — the ones that only took the “easy” classes, who’d be getting married right out of high school (yes, this was a rudely patronizing attitude I now regret. In my [slight] defense, I found out later a great many of those “nice” Texas girls did indeed do exactly that).
As far as I know, though, the total extent of motherhood training those poor girls had was “the egg exercise” — where everyone takes a hard-boiled egg and carries it everywhere with them for a week. Some of the girls decorated theirs like little babies. Some broke or lost theirs. To me, from the outside, it seemed a little creepy to be lavishing that sort of attention on a piece of food, as a baby substitute. I was later told the point of the entire exercise is to show the girls babies are a lot of effort and bother to keep track of, so they should wait to have kids. I was not impressed at all. Even as a teenager vehemently sure she’d not even consider children until age 30, I considered it a dreadful way to train someone to deal with parenthood — especially the very strong implication that men had nothing at all to do with raising children, and that babies are disposable if it’s too much bother.
All this meandering is just to say I agree with you. Some kind of class on parenthood — even for those who have no intention of being parents — would surely be of use. I might worry about whose opinions are taught (authoritarian parenting or more supportive parenting? Spanking or positive reinforcement? Stay-at-home mommies or multiple-adult extended families?), but at least it would be a step in the direction of recognizing we owe some sort of familial support to our children.
I’ll hold off on a full comment til part II, but I will say that occasionally I’ll read those Cosmo ‘What he really wants in bed but will never tell you’ articles, and they are usually hillarious, and nearly always wrong.
Oh, good, I’m oddly relieved to hear they’re wrong about what men want too. They sure never described anything I really wanted, after all! :)