I found my journal from last summer this morning. I was going through a breakup. In its midst, I read Nora Ephron’s memoir, I Remember Nothing. On the last page of the journal, I scribbled down my favorite lines from the book. The final quote reads: “Here’s the thing about dessert–you want it to last. You want to savor it. Dessert is so delicious. It’s so sweet. It’s so bad for you so much of the time. And, as will all bad things, you want it to last as long as possible.” I had been eating dessert for almost two years. I had been dating a “bad boy.”
The appeal of the “bad boy” is a widespread cultural phenomenon. Take a moment to Google “dating a bad boy,” and hundreds of articles will appear, detailing the dangers and charms of dating so called “bad boys.” Some proffer scientific explanations as to why women are often attracted to men who don’t match their ideals. Others claim daddy issues, ego, or thrill seeking as reasons “nice girls” date “bad boys.”
It isn’t just the media that perpetuates the “bad boy” label. The ease with which my friends and I diagnose the men we date as “good guys” or “bad boys” is telling. In the throes of last year’s toxic relationship, many women in my life commiserated by exclaiming, “We’ve all got one!” It was as if dating someone who made me miserable was a right of passage. The greater my disappointment, the more relatable I became. These same friends hated to see me in pain, and many urged me to leave the relationship, but underneath their concern ran a current of understanding that empathized with the appeal of a “bad boy.”
It’s not that “bad boys” don’t exist. There will always be men (and women), whose behavior errs on the wild side. There will always be people who treat intimacy with flippancy. The man I dated was unattainable, intense, intelligent, and persistent. He didn’t just drive too fast, or sleep too late. He challenged me.
So, why couldn’t I just say that? Why label him a bad boy? Because doing so made him easier to understand. It saved me from the time and self-awareness it would take to parse through the reasons for my attraction, and communicate those reasons to people outside our relationship.
As a society, we are increasingly obsessed with labels and identities. This is the era of Buzzfeed quizzes, Myers-Briggs, and selfies (all of which I unabashedly love). But in our eagerness to brand ourselves, we often end up limiting ourselves. We should allow ourselves the freedom to change, grow and expand. And we should offer that same freedom to the people we date.
Labels are lazy and inaccurate. More than that, they are selfish. Labeling a man as a “bad boy” makes him smaller and more manageable. It provides a framework within which we can move, because a label or diagnostic allows us to understand certain behavior. If he doesn’t communicate well, or if he’s wary to commit, this confirms our label. When he treats us tenderly, or expresses his own desire for consistency or intimacy, we either attribute this unexpected behavior to our own power and beauty, or we dismiss it entirely because it doesn’t fit within the box we have built for him. Either way, we are at the center of this equation. His actions are weighed against our perception of his character, rather than his actual character. We end up forming an entire relationship around presupposition.
This eagerness to diagnose someone goes both ways. As much as I was dating a “bad boy,” he was dating a “nice girl.” On one of the last evenings we spent together, I asked him why he liked me. He responded with an answer I had heard from him many times before. “You’re just a nice girl.” I had always been disappointed by his synopsis of me, and finally said so.
“That feels so flat. Nice is such an empty word to me.”
“You don’t understand. It’s not. You don’t understand how rare a truly nice girl is these days,” he responded.
As I drove home the next morning, I wondered how I could have spent so much time with someone who valued me because I was “nice.” While I have always tried to be a “nice girl” in that I value gracefulness, kindness, and dignity, I also want to be known as so much more. Every time he called me a “nice girl,” I felt smaller. I felt deflated. I am infinitely more than that label. I am so much more than “nice;” just as he was so much more than “bad.” The labels we forced on on one another disabled our ability to know and to be known. They confined us.