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To Love Or To Hate The “Bad Boy Trope”: 10 College Girls Spill Their Thoughts

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCLA chapter.

Maybe it was the tension of having online classes for over a year, or maybe it is truly a topic that makes people extremely passionate. Nonetheless the reason, I will never forget when my communication class about media got into an intense argument on GroupMe over the boyfriends of “Gilmore Girls.” Turns out, more people are Team Logan than I thought, and I remember my mouth dropping wide open when a man typed, “If you are Team Jess, you need to get out of the mindset of a 16 year old who loves bad boys and understand the stability that Logan offers.” I’m Team Jess for a number of reasons that would need to go into a different article, and I was generally taken aback, especially when so many people agreed. I then read another Her Campus article a few weeks ago completely slamming “the bad boy trope,” claiming that it should be phased out of media and replaced by winning nice guys. I began to think, was my mindset outdated? With exceptions of course, I generally am a sucker for the bad boy trope, especially when the said bad boy has a soft spot. Therefore, I decided to ask fellow college girls, most who chose to remain anonymous, their thoughts on the trope, and I learned I’m not alone. Using the thoughts of ten different college girls, this piece will show the favorite and least favorite bad boys of media, what makes a bad boy so likable, and how it impacts our expectations in real life. With these responses, I have the end goal of answering the questions: “Is the infamous ‘bad boy’ so controversial it needs to be phased out of media?” and “What can we do about it?” 

Of the ten girls interviewed, when asked their opinions of the bad boy trope, seven said they like some bad boys, while disliking others; it depends on the storyline and context. One said she was indifferent to the trope, while two completely loved it and did not want to see it phased out of media. Since this is a convenience sample, I understand this is not representative of all college girls, but it’s reassuring to see that I am not alone in my defense of bad boy characters. I next asked who were their favorite bad boys? The list of favorites included the following: 

  • Jess from Gilmore Girls (a common response)
  • Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones
  • Jack Harkness from Dr. Who 
  • Damon from The Vampire Diaries
  • Han Solo from Star Wars
  • J.D from Heathers 
  • Dylan from American Vandal
  • Tony Stark, specifically from the first Iron Man 
  • William Herondale from The Infernal Devices
  • Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer 
  • Rio from Good Girls (a common response) 
  • Gojo Satoru from Jujutsu Kaisen 
  • Hisoka from Hunter X Hunter 
  • Nick from Altered by Jennifer Rush
  • Danny Zuko from Grease (a common response)
  • Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother
  • Loki from The Avengers series 
  • Daniel Cleaver from Bridget Jones
  • Flynn Rider from Tangled 
  • Johnny from Dirty Dancing 
  • Patrick from 10 Things I Hate About You 
  • Klaus from The Vampire Diaries/The Originals/Legacies (a common response)
  • James Dean characters 
  • Rhysand from the ACOTAR book series by Sarah J. Maas 
  • Noah from The Kissing Booth
  • Jacob from Twilight 
  • Peter from To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before

One recent UCLA graduate went into deep reasoning before giving her favorites, “Honestly I like all the early/mid 2000s bad boy content cause I feel like even though a lot of them are problematic, I can acknowledge that as a society we weren’t quite ready for that conversation. I can appreciate them in retrospect for the way those movies shaped me, for better or worse, and know that they exist in a specific bubble that should stay in that era and not be republished now or in the future. Examples include: Cruel Intentions (movie), Draco Malfoy (Dramione fanfiction) and After (the fanfic and the movie).”

This respondent brought up a solid point that helped solidify the reasoning behind this piece. Bad boys are problematic, but we love them for some reason we cannot explain. Plus, we grew up with them, also giving them a sense of nostalgia. Rather than completely eradicating them, should they just evolve to have less toxic or controversial personalities? As the list shows, bad boys pull the heartstrings in various types of genres and media forms; they are popular in multiple contexts. The same goes for bad boys that we hate. I also asked the respondents their least favorite bad boy characters and got the following list. Some of the above favorites also made an appearance on this list, enhancing the controversy around the “bad boy.” 

  • Danny Zuko from Grease (a common response)
  • Five from Umbrella Academy
  • Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind
  • Any 80s bad boy characters from movies such as such as John The Breakfast Club (a common response)
  • Jang Deok-Su from Squid Game
  • Noah from The Kissing Booth
  • Damon from The Vampire Diaries 
  • Anyone from Riverdale 
  • Chuck from Gossip Girl (a common response)
  • Don Draper from Mad Men
  • Troy Dyer from Reality Bites 
  • Hardin from the After series
  • Safin from 007

These favorite and non-favorite lists brings the question of what makes a good bad boy? What qualities make these characters so redeeming despite the controversy that goes around them, and why do some people love them while others hate them? Personally, I like bad boy characters who have a soft spot. They appear cold at first, but they are just people you have to break down. Maybe it’s the complexity of multiple layers or the way my heart melts when they start to show who they really are, but that is what makes a good bad boy to me. I asked my fellow college girls what they thought, and I received similar responses.

One UCLA junior says her opinion process is shaped by “their ability to change and whether or not they have a heart of gold…All of my favorites have a tough kind of unlikeable exterior, but they’re good people on the inside and are very kind and loving to the people they feel close to, which personally I identify with. Maybe they’re misunderstood or come from troubled backgrounds, but they can be warm once you put in the time and effort.” A junior from Valdosta State University shared a very similar response and wrote, “I feel like their backstory and personality play a huge role in how I feel about them. Lots of times the bad boys have sad backstories that make me understand why they act the way they act. Other times some bad boys are just obnoxious and their actions are inexcusable.”

Some girls even got more specific in the bad boy types they like: “[I like the] popular boy who has lots of love interests and enjoys this lifestyle until he meets a sweet-girl-next-door character and falls in love and wants to be in a committed relationship with her but must give up his bad boy activities.” said Kennesaw State University Junior. 

In addition, an important element of the bad boy is the mindset he enters a relationship with. Women, fictional or not, do not deserve to be treated like they are second choices, invisible or inanimate objects for pleasure. They shouldn’t be talked down to either. The relationship should be a safe space, and if the bad boy violates that, then I no longer see him as a good character. I think the following response words this perfectly: 

“If a bad boy character has a legitimate reason for being the way he is (ex. some type of backstory where his behavior is understandable), then he is a more likable character. It also depends on how he is a bad boy. If he just doesn’t like school or breaks some rules, then he can be excused. However, if he is sexist, breaks consent rules or generally crosses the line between ‘bad boy’ and ‘douchebag,’ then he isn’t a good character. Additionally, his chemistry with the love interest matters. Even if he isn’t the best guy, if his chemistry with the main love interest is palpable enough, then some of his actions can be excused. Also, if he accepts the role as boyfriend and doesn’t keep up the ‘bad boy’ persona to an extent where he becomes a bad boyfriend, then I like him.” said a UCLA sophomore.

Overall, the consensus for a good bad boy is a solid backstory, an ability to change, and not doing anything way out of line (being super hot is helpful too). These redeeming qualities are what make us love bad boys, but they are also what cause the most conversation around them. Most controversy around the “bad boy trope” stems from the believed expectations it gives women about healthy relationships and what to look for in potential partners. Is it okay for women to date “a bad boy” if they can at some point prove themselves to be worthy? As media becomes increasingly interwoven with society, it can be hard to distinguish what is realistic, what is right, what is healthy, and what is not. I have a close relationship with my mom, so growing up, after reading a book or watching a TV show/movie, we talked about the characters within them. During these conversations, we often talked about bad boy characters where she helped me distinguish red flags, what is good, and what is bad. Therefore, I like to think that I have a solid perception of what to look for in a future boyfriend, but I also can be victim to the daydreams of falling in love with someone completely opposite of me or someone who has a soft spot that is just mine. I am able to snap back into reality, but it is hard, so I asked the girls in my survey if the bad boy trope also has impacted their expectations or hopes about relationships, and I was surprised to see six out of the ten girls said the trope shaped what they have thought about relationships. Here are some of the responses I got to the question “Do you think the bad boy trope in media has impacted your expectations of real world relationships? How so?”

“Not really. I’m not the kind of person to try and go for the ‘bad boy’ type in general because more often than not their actions just annoy me. I honestly don’t even think I’ve seen someone in real life who can realistically portray the ‘bad boy’ trope without coming off as immature and cocky.” – Valdosta State University junior

“Yes, because I used to believe that all rude and mean men wanted to secretly stop acting like that and wanted to be nice and kind. They don’t actually want to change, they’re just mean and rude people.” – Kennesaw State University junior

“YES. We think that the bad boy is new and exciting, but in reality, they can be abusive and untrustworthy. It often distracts us from men who might be a better option, because we think that we have to be with someone who’s cool and well liked instead of with someone who’s good.” – Kennesaw State University senior

“Absolutely, 100% especially when I was younger. [I] grew up in a kind of weird home environment and watched a lot of Bollywood, so I thought having a partner who was mean, tough, closed off, etc. was romantic. But now after consuming different types of media and learning to consume media critically, my expectations for a relationship and my expectations for an ideal partner have dramatically shifted. I think that if any of these ‘bad boys’ approached me in real life, I’d probably run the other way.” – UCLA junior

What I love about this last response is that it shows the importance of consuming different types of media and going into it with the correct mindset. The bad boy trope can be a guilty pleasure, as long as the lines between media and reality remain relatively defined. A UCLA sophomore reaffirms this mindset as she wrote, “…I don’t think the trope is dangerous in any way if the people consuming it have critical thinking skills, but I have definitely been susceptible to liking people who probably aren’t the best for me simply because they display some of the ‘bad boy’ characteristics.” Therefore, the question is, how do we promote these critical thinking skills and conversations that keep the bad boy trope what it is, just a trope? Also, what can the media do to make the bad boy character a little healthier and non-toxic? When I asked a recent UCLA grad what shapes her favorite bad boys, she described someone who doesn’t exactly exist yet, “I think backstory matters most and it shouldn’t be hidden to make him mysterious. I prefer when the viewers/readers are openly aware of their backstory and see that they are working through their trauma before approaching the girl in an intentional way with the end goal of getting her. Have I seen this in bad boy media? Not really, but I’d like to.” 

People have problems with bad boy characters because their actions can inadvertently teach an audience whether or not something is okay. Overall, do I think the “bad boy trope” should be phased out of the media? No. Do I think writers and producers can enhance the character and make him more respectable? Yes. While I think producers and writers need to take the lead, there’s also a responsibility on us as viewers to understand what is fiction and what is not, what is realistic and what should just stay in a movie. I encourage girls to discuss the movies, TV shows and books they are reading or watching with friends and family. Even if there isn’t someone physically nearby, there are so many online communities that encourage open dialogue about controversial characters such as bad boys. It can make for an interesting conversation. Just look at the favorite and least favorite lists in this article! Even just among the ten girls I surveyed, there is disagreement as to who is a “good” bad boy and who is a “bad” bad boy. It’s never a bad idea to hear different interpretations or opinions, especially in fun topics such as media love stories! 

Hollywood and the media are not perfect and never have been, and the bad boy trope is a perfect example of that. As many toxic and obnoxious characters the idea has created, it has also created so many lovable and enjoyable ones. Loving the “bad boy trope” isn’t something any girl should be ashamed of. It’s a guilty pleasure that is fun, and as long as we continue to absorb media with the correct mindset, it shouldn’t be eradicated or phased out. We can hope the media will evolve so that there won’t be any blatantly awful bad boys, but complete elimination is not the solution.

BriannaRose is a UCLA Communications major and Film/TV minor who aspires to break boundaries and stigmas. As an aspiring creative director and editorial writer, she works on student films and photography projects, and has professional experience in entertainment and fashion journalism, fashion public relations and internal communications for cable. In addition to writing, BriannaRose volunteers at local animal shelters, competes in pageants, and is always excited to read a contemporary romance novel.