I should lead with the dragon thing, yeah? Recently my friend confessed that she had to tell of a developing celebrity crush and she was kind of embarrassed by it. Since I don’t really understand the concept of embarrassment, my mind started running through a list of names she might say. Tom Bergeron. Kevin Bacon. The Hound on Game of Thrones. (Not that…I’m attracted to…them…or anything.) My daydreamed rolodex of embarrassing celebrity crushes was interrupted by one name: Smaug.
As in the dragon, Smaug, from the second Hobbit movie. As in a CGI mythological creature. Her burgeoning celebrity crush was Smaug.
Once I was finished spitting out all of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs in my mouth, I listened to her reasoning. Smaug has a sexy voice. And that sexy voice belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch. And Benedict Cumberbatch plays a neurotic, slightly autistic, slightly sociopathic, emotionally unavailable, genius mastermind on the BBC’s Sherlock series. Where he is incredibly attractive.
(Also, of note, Benedict Cumberbatch did motion capture for Smaug. But examining the attractiveness of CGI characters because their movements were captured from real human beings is a different essay entirely. Can we be attracted to the humanity we see underneath the CGI? Based off of Smaug, who is a dragon, I’m going to say…yeah, at least some people can.)
What is it about Benedict Cumberbatch? Because he is incredibly popular. And I’ll admit that I recently jumped on this train as well. It took me awhile, but for some reason during my second viewing of Star Trek: Into Darkness I suddenly understood his appeal.
Benedict Cumberbatch: A deep and ultra-masculine voice (with primal undercurrents of a growl), physically slightly androgynous, with angular, almost alien-like facial features. A bit strange looking, yet still incredibly attractive to much of the female population, I have heard him described as someone who “looks like they will form the master race.” He’s almost super-human looking. And I think there has to be something evolutionary in the attraction to that, because animal instinct dictates that women would desire the strongest and most powerful male amongst them all to father her children. Perhaps surprisingly, despite his thin frame, Benedict Cumberbatch (more accurately, his characters) seems to exude raging testosterone and the kind of power that would be most desirable to women in the 21st century—supreme intelligence. Survival of the fittest is no longer about physical strength and endurance, but cleverness, intellect, and aptitude. It’s why the most powerful men in the United States are nerds who built computers in garages and now sit atop billion dollar empires. And women date them even though they play segway polo because (I mean, I’m sure they’re nice guys too but mostly) they’re rich and powerful and that’s attractive.
In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Cumberbatch plays Khan, who literally is part of a master race—he’s infinitely faster, stronger, more powerful, and more intelligent than humans. He’s just better, and even though he’s evil kinda, he’s like really hot when his hair falls in his face.
When you frame it all like that it’s not hard to see why I would suddenly be attracted to him in this role (or why seemingly everyone, including myself, is attracted to him as Sherlock Holmes). Physical attraction is animalistic and everything about his characters in this show and this movie prove that he is superior to other men. We’re attracted to his power and (in Star Trek) even if he’s using it to do bad things or (in Sherlock) he’s a complete asshole, we still find it totally hot because he’s better and more powerful than all of the other options. Hey, it’s in our DNA, you can’t blame us.
(Of note: My friends and I have discussed Benedict Cumberbatch as a person in real life and: Not that into him.)
But while it’s easy to understand how intelligence and power would appeal to most females, what is it about emotional unavailability? Because that is also one of the traits that makes Smaug so hot (you know what I mean). The character of Sherlock is, amongst other things, emotionally unavailable, which instantly makes him more attractive.
Why are so many women attracted to emotionally unavailable men? So much so that you see it everywhere on television, in books and movies, and in our own freaking lives? What is the appeal of a man who can’t love you the way you want and need, why do we love to watch it play out in the media we consume, and how does it all impact our own relationships in real life?
The emotionally unavailable man involved in a love story can be found practically everywhere (and is found with shocking frequency in the young adult genre). They’re one half of the love stories that are considered the most epic (by internet standards). Internet shippers ship them harder than anyone else. Recently, the most famous of course is Edward and Bella of Twilight fame. But there’s also Damon and Elena (of The Vampire Diaries), Klaus and Caroline (also of The Vampire Diaries), Chuck and Blair (Gossip Girl), Sawyer and Kate (LOST), Daryl and Beth (or Carol depending on how into recent developments you are, on The Walking Dead), Adam and Hannah (Girls), Eric and Sookie (True Blood), Spock (a person whose culture literally values the suppression of emotions) and Uhura (in the recent Star Trek films), Khal Drogo and Daenerys (Game of Thrones)…and this is just to name some of the most recent ones in popular culture.
These are men who are literally evil predators who murder people (Damon, Klaus, Eric), who do bad things to other people because they don’t care and because they can (Chuck, Sawyer, Khal Drogo), who put up walls and never let anyone in (Daryl, all of the above), who are strange and treat women poorly (Adam), who make it their mission to be unfeeling (Spock, Daryl, all of the above), who are inherently damaged (all of the above). And yet women love it. They eat it up, and I include myself in that vast estrogen pool.
To start, let’s take a look at one of the most popular trends in young adult right now: The supernatural teen romance.
The appeal of the supernatural teen romance to its intended audience is easy to understand. Here we have a girl not unlike the girls reading the stories (or watching). She is usually average, kind of personality-less, and predominantly uninteresting. She flies under the radar, is maybe kind of a loser, and pretty much unappealing. She is how most teenage girls with low self-esteem see themselves. She lacks personality enough that young girls reading these books or watching these shows can insert themselves into this role and live the fantasy. When they cast the Twilight movie, the biggest complaint over Kristen Stewart’s casting as Bella was that “she doesn’t look like me.” Girls read about these average girls in these books and replace said girl with themselves. I’d like to say the authors write the characters this way on purpose, but it could really just be chalked up to bad writing.
Then enter the supernatural love interest. He’s usually incredibly attractive in a super-human way. He’s strong. Powerful. Intelligent. More skilled at everything. Usually insanely rich. Damaged. Dangerous. Emotionally unavailable. Then he meets the average girl, and almost always inexplicably and for no reason falls in love with her. Their lives become intertwined. He rescues her a lot. Takes care of her. Protects her. And through knowing her becomes a better person. She makes him more human. She takes a non-human character and finds his humanity. This person who didn’t know how to love suddenly only loves her.
It’s the formula for so many of these supernatural teen romances. These girls who are the light in the darkness of this man’s life. These completely ordinary females are the objects of desire to these super-human, powerful beings and they are so desirable that they manage to change a man and fix them.
These are the stories that gain popularity in young girls. The ones that, I admit, I have always liked to read and watch too. There is an immense appeal in the idea that a woman—and not just any woman! A girl just like you!—can be so worthy of love that they can fix what’s broken about a man. That they’re so special, they’re the only person in the entire world who can break down this man’s walls and defenses and turn him into the perfect person.
It’s true that we’re seeing a surge of these stories in supernatural teen romance (and teen books and shows in general) but it appeals to an older audience too. Take R-rated As Good As It Gets.
In 1997’s As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays neurotic and obsessive-compulsive recluse, Melvin. Unpleasant, highly unlikeable, and rude, Melvin alienates everyone around him. The only person he truly likes is Helen Hunt’s Carol, the only waitress in Melvin’s favorite restaurant who will interact with him. Much of the movie is spent with Melvin trying to woo Carol, who doesn’t want to have really anything to do with him. As the movie progresses, Melvin changes his behavior slowly, all in an effort to win Carol over.
The movie climaxes with a famous restaurant scene in which Carol asks Melvin to pay her a compliment. Melvin tells her that he hates taking pills, even though his doctor assures him that they might help him. He stresses how much he abhors taking medication. Then he tells her that after she told him that they would never be together, he started taking the medication. Carol responds that she doesn’t see how that’s a compliment to her, and Melvin pauses before saying bluntly, “You make me want to be a better man.” The camera zooms in slowly on Carol’s face as she says, ‘That’s maybe the best compliment of my life.” The movie ends with Melvin and Carol kissing, despite everything. Despite the fact that she seems to never really like him, despite the fact that he’s mean and arrogant and rude, despite the fact that even though he changed a little bit there are still so many problematic things about him.
But he won her over by telling her that she has changed him, is fixing him. Carol is literally so desirable that she can make a man overcome mental illness. And the exchange is considered one of the most romantic scenes in cinema.
Variations of this are everywhere.
In The Vampire Diaries, Klaus is literally supposed to be the oldest and most evil creature on the planet.
Unable to be killed, he began on the show as the world’s only hybrid (part vampire, part werewolf…I didn’t say this stuff wasn’t stupid). Physically stronger than every other supernatural being, and infinitely more cunning, his only goals are to further his own power and agenda. Enter sweet Caroline—blonde, ditzy cheerleader—and suddenly the most evil and powerful person in the world is giggling at her jokes and leaving him breathless. In order to be worthy of her, he slowly shows compassion, kindness, and mercy (he also tried to kill her twice and killed her boyfriend’s mother but everyone just overlook those plot points!). The end result? Caroline can’t resist, and she eventually has sex (in the forest!) with Klaus.
In Game of Thrones, Daenerys is sold by her brother into marriage to savage Khal Drogo, in exchange for an army. Khal Drogo spends the beginning parts of their marriage consistently raping her, but despite this Daenerys decides she wants to learn how to please Drogo. One session with her handmaiden on how to please a man, and Drogo is suddenly putty in her hands. He goes from raping her, to listening to her when she says no. She uses her magical vagina (I guess) to tame the wild beast inside of him, and he falls in love with her. Daenerys’ kindness and innocence turns a violent and savage man into a loving husband and future father who respects his wife.
The final example I’ll give is Chuck and Blair from Gossip Girl. This one is a little different, as Chuck and Blair were always equally matched in every way—both rich and powerful, both cunning and manipulative, both a little bit despicable. In terms of emotional unavailability, Chuck spent an entire season unable to say the words “I love you” because he was scared. One of the worst things Chuck did was try to sell Blair to his uncle in exchange for a hotel. Blair did awful things, too, but the audience was never supposed to view them in a light quite as terrible as what Chuck did. This audience manipulation, if you will, was accomplished by having Chuck be the one often chasing after Blair, and having Blair often rejecting him. Chuck’s redemption story is a long one, spanning the entire 6 seasons that the show aired, with Blair being his ultimate salvation. Their story (and the series) ended with Chuck and Blair married, with a son.
But if we think the women of these love stories couldn’t resist the allure of a changed man, that’s nothing to the women consuming these stories. Here are characters that are horrible people and yet at the slightest inkling of emotional vulnerability, women in the audience latch onto them in an almost maternal way. Women romanticize them so quickly and insist that they aren’t really bad, not really, these poor babies are just so misunderstood.
These emotionally unavailable men that women are so keen on watching and reading are also known by a more popular term: the Bad Boy. Women have always loved the Bad Boy. Admittedly, damaged characters capable of redemption make for interesting characters (though there are other ways of finding redemption than to be saved by a woman, or a man). They are far more interesting than the alternative archetype: the Nice Guy. The Nice Guy is the beta to the Bad Boy’s alpha; the one in the love triangle that usually isn’t chosen. The Nice Guy is typically the heroine’s friend, often for a long time, and has loved her secretly for nearly as long. The Nice Guy is habitually by all accounts better for the heroine than the Bad Boy, but he lacks passion. He is stable, reliable, and practical. He’s very real life in a story where women seek fantasy.
There should be nothing inherently wrong with fantasies. But the problem is that the Bad Boy and the Nice Guy are just that—fantasies. When these tropes play out in real life, they are often fraught with consequences, because in real life there are very real problems and a distinct lack of fairy tale. In real life, you really can’t fix an emotionally unavailable man—only he can fix himself. In real life, damaged men can be abusive, they can be alcoholics or drug addicts, they can cheat on you, they can be dangerous. And you loving them won’t save them. But maybe you believe that it will. After all, you’ve seen it so many times before.
Conversely, the Nice Guy of real life isn’t really what women are looking for either. There’s a difference between being a nice guy and being a Nice Guy. The Nice ones think you owe them something, because they love you and have cared for you for a while. They feel entitled to you. They blame you for not loving them. They don’t understand why you would pick a jerk, a Bad Boy, over them. That’s not the kind of man women are attracted to. (Yes, I know I’m making sweeping generalizations here, obviously there are exceptions to everything.)
But to see these tropes used so widely in mediums that are meant to serve as escapism: Is that necessarily bad? I think the answer is yes and no. People like these stories. I like these stories. I do believe that women may be inherently wired to find these kinds of stories attractive. Even without living in the wild, perhaps our basest instincts still lead women to be drawn to power, protection, strength, and good genes. Perhaps all we’ve done is romanticized primal longings that we don’t necessarily understand because we don’t necessarily have need for them anymore. The romantic version of wisdom teeth. And when it comes down to it, fantasy is fun. There should be nothing wrong with using these stories to fulfill a little bit of fantasy.
Where I think it starts to become problematic is the continued exposure of it to impressionable young girls. Young girls receive mixed messages from the media every day in their formative years. (And, indeed, it continues into adulthood.) Magazines like Cosmopolitan claim to be directed at 20-year-olds and older but the core audience of readers are sexually inexperienced teenage girls who look to these magazines for guidance. They tell girls that pleasing a man is the most supremely important thing a female could ever do. They offer tips and tricks on how to do this (often wildly bizarre and baffling recommendations to get him off) segmented by beauty articles on how to make yourself look good (what other conclusion can you come to except that you have to make yourself look good for him, whoever he may be?). The magazines are filled with photoshopped images of impossible beauty standards, bodies that couldn’t ever even possibly exist in nature, and a young teenager with low self-esteem (is there any other kind of teenage girl?) measures her self-worth with this as her compass.
One might argue that truly the ultimate desire for an American girl is to love herself, and to feel accepted by the society that she lives in. And the only way society tells her she can love herself is to let a man love her enough for the both of them. Man as the solution to self-loathing, as taught to the American female subconsciously her entire life. After all, Twilight’s Bella Swan never ever thought she was worthy of Edward, even after he told her she was perfection a million, billion times. Even after she became a vampire and was his equal in every way. She still felt unworthy. His love never made her more confident—it simply replaced the need for her to have self-worth.
Enter these Bad Boys, these emotionally unavailable men. Girls put down the magazines telling them on every page and in every way that her job is to please a man and pick up a book or turn on the TV and read and watch stories in which women who believe they are ordinary are seen by impossibly perfect men to be extraordinary. I mean, no wonder The CW is still in business.
You might say, “Oh, come on, these magazines can’t have that much of an impact on somebody.” But let me tell you a story. When I was a teenager, I read in one of these very magazines that when buying flats, you should always have them fit so that you’re showing a little “toe cleavage” (in other words, when wearing the shoes, you can see the part of your foot where your toes begin). The reasoning, they said, was because men are always attracted to the suggestion of cleavage, no matter what part of the body they are seeing it. And to see it on your feet would make them think of your breasts and instantly make you more sexually attractive even though they wouldn’t understand why. Writing this now as a 25-year-old, I see the complete ridiculousness of that advice. But I will also tell you, as a 25-year-old, when I look down at my feet when wearing flats, guess what I see? Toe cleavage. I do it with every pair of flats I buy. I do it without thinking.
I’ve come to realize that every single one of my “beauty regimens” I read in a magazine as a teenager. Washing your face last in the shower. Shaving with the hair not against it (though that is good advice). Making sure to pat makeup under your eyes to reduce wrinkles. I know what tricks to use to check if your breath smells before you meet up with a guy (lick your wrist, wait 10 seconds, then smell it. Side note: Don’t ever to this, it’s gross, just chew gum). I know you should limit how often you drink from a straw, as it will produce wrinkles around your mouth (jesus, I was a teenager, why was I worrying about wrinkles?!?). I know 3 different tricks on how to curl my eyelashes. I know exactly what tools you need to give yourself the perfect manicure. I know what to pack in your bag for prom. I know exactly what these magazines want me to believe beauty is. And I do believe it. Without even thinking about it. These things are so ingrained in me because I read them in magazines when I was a teenager. So yes, this kind of stuff really does have an impact on young girls.
Books have already been written about the problems with shoving Disney princesses down a little girls’ throat and how that might impact how she sees herself. Every women’s studies class out there at one point or another talks about the way magazines and advertisements tell women how they should see themselves. Everything in American culture teaches women how to think less of themselves, how to always strive to be better—how to be skinnier, prettier, smarter, more confident…all for the benefit of getting a man to love you.
So it’s no wonder that when you combine animal instinct and low self-esteem, women of the 21st century would find it so mouth-wateringly alluring that an unattainable man could find a woman (just like her, with all her self-loathing and ordinariness) so irresistible that he becomes a better man. After all, the happily ever after of these stories satisfies the internal cravings of potentially all women as well as the societal demands placed on them: Acceptance for who she is as a person, and successfully fulfilling her role as a woman by pleasing a man.
Like I said, I like these stories. But I just worry that they only further the harm to women’s self-esteem. Too many of these stories exist. Too quickly do we forgive the transgressions of the male characters at the slightest sign of romantic vulnerability. And too often do we think so little of ourselves, that perhaps we’d be willing to overlook problematic faults of real men in our lives because we think we could save them, only to our detriment. I’d like to think that we are all above this, but women stay with horrible men all the time. And while there isn’t anything wrong with fantasy, we should be vigilant that what we’re consuming isn’t harming our self-esteem without us even knowing it.
After all, I have like 7 pairs of flats that show off toe cleavage. My only hope is if I ever meet Smaug, he would find that utterly irresistible.