According to every romantic TV show and movie ever made, women are hopelessly attracted to “bad boys”, meanwhile, overlooking the “right” person for them – AKA the “nice guy”. Hollywood seemingly has a whole deluge of these nice guys, ready to step up at a moment’s notice and show the leading lady the type of life she really deserves (as if she can’t figure that out for herself).
In addition to being extremely condescending, these tropes are a disservice to men and women everywhere. Not only do they add unnecessary pressure on guys about how they should look and act, it’s potentially harmful to women to push this narrative – not least when the so-called “nice guy” isn’t nice at all. Case in point: Sex/Life’s Cooper Connelly.
For those who haven’t seen it, the saucy series is Netflix’s answer to Fifty Shades and is centred around a married couple with kids, desperately trying to inject a bit of excitement into their… well, sex life. It all begins when Billie Connelly starts fantasising about her former love affairs and writing about them in her sex journal – in particular, her smokin’ hot sessions with Aussie, Brad. So far, so good.
But things take a turn when Billie’s husband Cooper discovers her journal and, not only breaks her trust by reading her entries, but also manipulates her into feeling like she’s somehow wronged him by having a few dirty daydreams here and there (N.B. we all do!). Cooper continues to push Billie throughout the course of the show; first by using her journal as a “sex manual” to try and replicate Brad’s moves (just a tad creepy), then by using his colleague’s infatuation for him as leverage to make Billie realise how “lucky” she is – the whole while maintaining that he is an all-round top bloke.
What really takes the biscuit, however, is when he and Billie attend a friend’s sex party together. Yes, she knew where they were going, but neither of them had discussed the eventuality of getting with other people or, indeed, getting each other off in front of a room full of strangers. Despite being visibly uncomfortable and telling her husband that she doesn’t want to go any further, Cooper starts stripping Billie in front of everyone, before getting a blowie from his mate’s wife to prove he’s “all man”. The night culminates in him explicitly blaming Billie for turning him into this depraved person who, until this point, never had a bad thought (because, naturally, we’re all Eve-like temptresses leading men astray).
Of course, it’s not the first time (nor will it likely be the last) that male characters have been presented as good guys when actually they display abusive behaviours. And I’m not talking about the likes of Joe Goldberg from You, who, it is made clear to the audience, is an absolute sociopath with murderous tendencies. I’m talking about the imposters who are built up to be decent people, even when there’s plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.
One of the first times I recall seeing this type of male character on-screen was when watching 500 Days of Summer as a teenager. Tom Hansen, of course, has his charms and is seemingly sweet and sensitive. However, his refusal to listen to Summer and her desires is palpable from the offset and it’s as though he feels entitled to be with her because of all the “effort” he’s made with her. And yet – as one of Tom’s post-”breakup” dates points out – Summer made it clear from the beginning that she wasn’t into relationships and tried multiple times to remind him of that fact while they were dating. Very quickly, every boy in my year group simultaneously held Zooey Deschanel’s character on a pedestal and condemned her for being a “total bitch”. Even Joseph Gordon-Levitt has since spoken out about how Hansen is the “real villain” of the movie, after viewers apparently missed the point.
Then there’s the incessant whining of Dawson Leery (Dawson’s Creek) and Dan Humphrey (Gossip Girl) – both of whom have a PHD in what they do and don’t deserve. Indeed, while Dawson’s relationship with Joey Potter is at first endearing, it soon turns toxic, with Dawson constantly chipping away at her confidence and mocking her interests (this coming from a Spielberg wannabe who can’t take any form of criticism). He continues to be emotionally manipulative towards her long after they break up, as though she needs his permission to move on.
Dan, on the other hand, spends his whole adolescent life pining after Serena van der Woodsen, but then as soon as they get into a relationship, he constantly makes digs about her sexual past, friends and privilege – as though he himself isn’t attending a prestigious private school on the Upper Easter Side and living in a gigantic Brooklyn loft.
Now, there are many more examples from Nineties and Noughties TV shows and movies I could go into, from Noah in The Notebook to Ross Geller from Friends – don’t even get me started on Sex and the City’s Jack Berger (or Skipper, for that matter!). But it’s not just a theme isolated to that specific era. It’s a concerning pattern that crops up time and again, that, in my opinion, goes beyond the excuses of creative licence. What happens when life imitates art and these toxic attitudes start filtering into real-life situations?
Teresa Parker, Head of Media Relations & Communications at Women’s Aid, commented: “We know the role that television plays in shaping understanding of what a healthy and unhealthy relationship looks like.
“There are many times where abusive, controlling and manipulative behaviour is shown on screen as part of a popular character’s personality,” she said, “and when this happens it mainstreams abusive behaviours as ‘normal’ or even attractive – for example, showing obsessive and controlling behaviour to be a sign of love.”
Parker also stressed that the organisation highlights these problematic storylines where possible, but that it’s also vital for others to raise awareness: “Talking about what we watch on TV, and calling out controlling behaviour when we see it, can start an important conversation that leads to recognising unhealthy and abusive behaviour in real-life relationships, and getting help if needed.”
Couples therapist and lecturer Dr Katherine Hertlein, however, believes these storylines are helpful: “The truth is – and this is an ugly truth – people sometimes behave the way that is depicted on screen, and it might be important to help recognise those patterns in your life.
“I think that many times we expect somebody who is pathological to be obvious – and they’re not. There are many people who covertly have a lot of pathology that we don’t recognise because they do look helpful, they do look like they’re giving and kind. But really that isn’t how they’re oriented.”
When asked if the TV and film industry could be doing more to raise awareness of these types of behaviour, Dr Hertlein responded: “I honestly don’t think it’s an industry issue. I think people, in general, need to make sure that they are seeing the world through an appropriate lens. You need to make sure as an individual that you are taking responsibility for the types of things that you are watching, and acknowledge how that’s impacting your life – if at all.”
Meanwhile, psychologist Dr Kalanit Ben Ari points out: “The problem with pop culture references like this filtering into real-life situations, is that they divide people into good vs bad, in an attempt to categorise them both on and off screen.
“This in itself is damaging, as people are more complicated than that. We have many parts to us as individuals, and on the TV screen, we only see what the directors want us to see and understand, but it is not necessarily the whole story.”
Yes, it is important to tell all manner of stories – that’s how we, as a community, grow and learn. These insights and perspectives help shape society and enrich our understanding of one another. However, when there is a risk that these stories may have a negative impact or risk someone’s wellbeing, that’s when we have a collective responsibility to do more. Just as people buy products recommended on Instagram and they trust the news, they are heavily influenced by TV shows and films. They are not just forms of escapism, they are powerful, consumed by the masses and have the ability to affect change. In which case, there is absolutely a responsibility that comes with that power and the industry needs to ensure that, if they’re putting forward these types of characters and dissecting these sorts of issues, they are safeguarding their audiences and genuinely serving their best interests – as well as keeping them entertained.
GLAMOUR UK has contacted Netflix for comment.