They say everyone loves a bad boy, but judging by the pop culture zeitgeist, bad boys might just be getting worse.
We have serial killers as romantic heroes on Days of our Lives and General Hospital. Former Gossip Girl star Penn Badgley has had to push back against fans gushing over his murderous protagonist on Netflix’s You. A Ted Bundy documentary hit that same platform while trailers for a Zac Efron-led biopic have had people unfamiliar with Bundy’s grisly history swooning over his good looks. Meanwhile, romance publishing is seeing more and more Nazis, white supremacists, drug kingpins, Mafia dons—things labeled “dark romance” that go even beyond what one would typically imagine as taboo, starring men who revel in criminal acts.
Of course, the phenomenon’s not new. Showtime’s Dexter, which ran from 2006 to 2013, comes to mind—and that awful book and film sequel to Silence of the Lambs where Clarice actually fell in love with Hannibal Lecter. Luke Spencer’s wedding to Laura Webber on General Hospital pulled in 30 million viewers in 1981—just two years after he’d raped her at the Campus Disco. Actor Roger Howarth, who played rapist and eventual leading man Todd Manning on One Life to Live, left the role for the first time in 1998 because he didn’t like the redemptive direction his character was going. And because star-struck fans would cry out “Rape me, Todd!” at fan events. Just a few years before, in 1995, Howarth insisted to The Chicago Tribune that Todd wasn’t “being redeemed at all.” He did acknowledge his character’s skyrocketing popularity, though, and conceded that “people are fascinated by aberrant behavior.” Even more so if the aberrant behavior is perpetrated by a good-looking man, right?
The difference between the Todds and Lukes and Hannibals and Dexters and what’s happening now, I think, is that while they were certainly culturally significant characters, they were still very much outliers. There was an acknowledgment that while they made for compelling television, what they’d done was wrong.What we’re seeing now is that violence—especially violence against women— is not just commonplace but actually something you can just shrug off if the guy is hot enough. There’s a normalization that wasn’t there before.
But why? And why now? You would think, in the era of #MeToo and the takedown of Harvey Weinstein and the bombshell revelations of Surviving R. Kelly, that 2018-19 is the last time period in which we’d see this fascination with romantic leads who revel in assaulting and killing others. Yet, here we are. With lazily redeemed serial strangler Ben Weston sweeping ingenues into his arms on Days. With Franco, a reformed serial killer on General Hospital, marrying rape survivor Elizabeth on Valentine’s Day…which also happened to be the 21st anniversary of her assault. With an East German secret police officer painted as a hero in Brianna Hale’s 2018 release, Midnight Hunter. And on and on and on. It’s relentless. It’s on TV, it’s in movies, it’s in our romance novels. What the hell is up with that?
Romance blogger and podcast host Jennifer Prokop offered one “half-baked theory” on Twitter. She posited that “loving these dark heroes is some sort of 53% thing, where the world of the patriarchy happens, and [women’s] only role is to be victimized by it. And stories like this reinforce that learned helplessness.”
In a way that makes sense to me—especially as a throwback to the days of “forced seduction,” when the only way women were allowed to access and enjoy sexual desire in romance novels was if the option to say “yes” was taken away from them. You’re not an amoral jezebel if he made you like it, right? But where that comparison starts to unravel for me is that forced seduction and the “no, no, yes” progression isn’t the same as murder. How do you make that leap from “he could convince me to do anything in the sack” to “he could strangle me and leave my body in the woods”?
Penn Badgley spoke with The New York Times about the hubbub surrounding You. And he noted that his good looks and his character’s white privilege play a huge role in why Joe and similar archetypes inspire adoration. “If anyone other than a young white man were to behave like these characters behave, nobody’s having it,” he pointed out.
But why ‘have it’ at all? Is it about the challenge of the “fix”? Changing a run-of-the-mill brooding alpha who had a crappy childhood for the better isn’t enough anymore? We’ve been there and done that, so now being the one to reform and redeem a serial killer or serial rapist is the bar we’ve set?
Or is it something else? Could it be that these extremely dangerous men represent the ultimate in competence porn? A post from psychologist Leon F. Seltzer at Psychology Today makes some weird assertions about romance novels, most of which made my head explode, but this observation jumps out: “As repeatedly demonstrated in romance novels, heroes aren’t simply strong but competent also—the best at what they do,” said Seltzer. “And, however ironically, serial killers seem to fit the bill in this respect, too. They may not be corporate CEOs or Hollywood movie stars, but they’re extraordinarily skilled at annihilating people.”
I pondered it for a second, I really did, but I ultimately call bullshit on that particular explanation. I love action movies. I love thrillers. I adore Marvel’s ruthless vigilante The Punisher. He is indeed “extraordinarily skilled at annihilating people.” But liking alpha males who are good at committing violent acts isn’t the same as liking a serial killer. Because your Punishers, your Jason Stathams, your Navy SEAL heroes in romantic suspense, are not hurting women and children. When they showcase their incredibly deft skills in the murder department, it’s in usually in defense. They’re not hiding in your bushes with a garrote because that’s how they get their jollies.
“Once we get outside the realm of killing only provably horrible people, those protagonists are a hard no for me,” paranormal romance author Isabel Cooper noted on Twitter. “I can even get on the side of ‘I kill demonstrably evil people but enjoy my work maybe more than is healthy for anyone,’ even hitman-with-a-heart, but that’s still a good country mile from torture and murder for shits and giggles.”
And yet that doesn’t seem to register with fans, who are on the hook for the second season of You, hashtagging “StrangleBae” while watching soaps, and shortlisting Nazi-led romances for major awards. The more “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” the men are, the more appealing they seem to be to audiences. It’s both fascinating and chilling—and I have a feeling that this is only the beginning of a wide-reaching and long-lasting trend.