Alongside the romantic ideals of best friends falling in love and love at first sight, sits one other shipper trope that makes the fans go crazy — the girl with the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. From having your boyfriend trade you for a hotel, to spending some alone time with a guy who thirsts for your blood, shippers have flocked to root for the villain when it comes to love. But as we swoon over our favorite female characters dating bullies and murderers, it makes me wonder, why do we fall for the idea of falling for the bad boy?
Maybe it’s due to some innate instinct some of us hold. After all, the trope dates back to the 1800s, when Emily Bronte first brought tortured Heathcliff into existence in Wuthering Heights. Fast forward a few hundred years, and the trope is solidly embedded in television history — poor James van der Beek got shafted in favor of the rabidly popular Pacey/Joey ship in Dawson’s Creek, and it definitely wasn’t Brian Krakow that found himself plastered on every teen girl’s bedroom wall when My So-Called Life aired. And now, in a post-Twilight world, it seems the trope has dug itself deep into the public’s consciousness. But there has to be some explanation for the pull towards these anti-romantic heroes. For me, it mostly boils down to three main reasons.
I make them bad boys go… good?
Probably the most significant reason that I end up shipping these bad boys is the idea that the girl’s love can make a leopard change his spots. While these guys never become wholly good (unless they suffer a bout of amnesia, which transformed Eric in True Blood from vicious vampire to basically a docile puppy), they do improve in some respects, or at least towards the object of their affections — enough to excuse their more distasteful actions.
In Gossip Girl, sexual fiend Chuck suddenly hesitates when Blair leans in for a kiss. “Are you sure?” stammers Chuck, who just a few episodes ago took the acceptance of a sandwich by Serena as consent. Then, far from being another notch on his heavily-riddled bedpost, he can’t stop thinking about Blair. The power of Blair’s vagina has caused his stomach to be filled with butterflies and his heart to be filled with feelings.
“You know I came into this town wanting to destroy it. Tonight, I found myself wanting to protect it.”
Damon grows more and more sympathetic as The Vampire Diaries goes on, going from the psychopathic older brother to someone worth saving. Elena’s presence triggers a change for the better in Damon, and the time he spends with Elena peels back the layers of bravado and casual cruelty to reveal a nuanced character. This helps overlook any missteps he may have along the way, such as when he force-fed Elena his blood, effectively taking away any free will she had in the matter of her death (though we know now that’s no longer an issue).
While the rest of Stars Hollow never really warmed up to Jess in Gilmore Girls, being around Rory revealed a more sensitive side to him. He’s smart. He reads. He spends way too much money just to have lunch with her. When he does vandalize, it’s to help her win a snowman competition. He steals her book and scribbles all over it, and she ain’t even mad — because he epitomizes the idea of a bad boy who has a softer side, just for her.
This doesn’t mean the turnaround from bad boy to good guy can’t be jarring. Logan in Veronica Mars, in the space of an episode, goes from resident bully to sweetly romantic and protective over Veronica. Contrived? Yes. Did I ship it anyway? Yes.
All these shows tell us that all bad boys can change, with the right girl and a heavy dose of love potion number nine. Maybe not the best life lesson, but it makes for great TV and I fall for it almost every time.
Danger is sexy, and the good guys are boring
Even if they don’t really change that much, let’s face it — illegality? Life-threatening situations? The possibility of being murdered by your beau? All of this is irresistibly attractive (okay, maybe not that last point), or at least as the show writers make us believe. And if initially the good guys had some element of excitement to them, the writers do their best to make it seem like life with them would be a dull, meaningless existence, devoid of stimulation or happiness. While in real life, spending a night in watching television with your significant other doesn’t seem too bad an option, in TV drama land, it pales in comparison to a guy with a bit of edge, who can whisk you off on an adventure in the middle of the night, and maybe get you killed.
In Gossip Girl, Chuck was shown as a way for Blair to escape and spend a night of debauchery with instead of hanging out with Nate and his dysfunctional family. Chuck barely lifts his voice over a gruff bedroom whisper, and it is frequently noted in the show that nothing gets Blair’s blood pumping the way Chuck does. (Though admittedly not everything about him is designed to raise his sex appeal. Teletubby onesie, anyone?) As the seasons have worn on, a relationship with Chuck has been shown as often distressing, but never boring. Though I jumped ship a while ago, I have to admit I see the appeal, and sometimes get drawn back in. While arguing about pretentious movies together is sweet in real life, it’s not the same as watching Chuck and Blair spend a day scheming against their enemies, or having some awkwardly slow-motion sex in the hallway, or even watching Chuck casually getting shot in Prague. These are the things teen soaps thrive on.
True Blood ramps up the sex factor of vampires, even to the point where a bite on the neck is akin to climax. Sure, Bill is a vampire, but dude is old and spends most of his time lecturing people and pronouncing Sookie’s name wrong. Eric, on the other hand, embraces his vampiric nature, owns an awesome nightclub and looks like this with his shirt off. Who are you going to root for?
Dean in Gilmore Girls did have good aspects about him, but his character was dumbed down from intriguing outsider to bland stock boy in a matter of episodes. And clingy. While in season one, his devotion and endless calling seemed at least sort of romantic, by season two his incessant need to constantly update Rory on the minutiae of his life was just overly needy and insecure. Get it together, Dean!
Damon swaggers around Mystic Falls, drinking and charming all the ladies in town. As opposed to Stefan, who, before the writers had the strike of inspiration to turn him bad, was sort of a killjoy. And don’t even get me started on Duncan in Veronica Mars. While there was a little bit of gross-out intrigue about whether he was her brother and/or the killer, his character failed to have any other kind of interest. Was there actually anybody thrilled to discover it was him instead of Logan at the door after the season one cliffhanger? I know he had his fans, but for me it just meant more episodes of him being impossibly boring before he exited the series for good.
Sometimes shows present other ships with really nice guys that are perfect for the main female character and are interesting, to boot. Sometimes, they really don’t.
It’s all about chemistry
Often I’ll just follow a ship because the actors just have a little bit more smoulder between them. Combine this with a bit of danger, and maybe a little resistance of their attraction to each other, and it’s fantastic. You know those romantic comedies when two actors force their way through various declarations of love when there clearly is nothing there, and it’s a little painful to watch? The opposite of that is when two actors enter a scene, and the screen almost visibly crackles with romantic tension. It isn’t all acting ability; there are times when the combination of the actors and their characters just click.
This could be because the coupling transcends television and into the real world. Ian Somerhalder and Nina Dobrev’s real-life romance couldn’t have harmed the Damon/Elena ship sailing along. As well, Alexis Bledel and Milo Ventimiglia’s fling definitely gave a bit of steam to the Jess/Rory pairing, especially in contrast to the defiantly G-rated scenes of Dean/Rory lore. A possible exception: I know Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin from True Blood are married in real life, but this seems only to add a layer of discomfort for me during their highly explicit sex scenes. Like, I can’t help but think, is this what it’s like in the bedroom for them? I don’t want to know. I only want to know what Eric looks like shirtless, again. (But that may just be personal preference.)
In the end, sometimes it just seems that the wrong side of the tracks equals the right couple. Do you like any ships that fall into this category? Are there any other reasons why?