By Hannah Burfield
The phrase ‘men written by women’ can be found across social media – from Twitter to TikTok – but what does it really mean, and why is it such a startling concept?
Nowadays we receive endless pressure to have that perfect online presence, with curated themed posts on Instagram and thousands of views and likes to be won on TikTok in the participation of arguably damaging trends. But our societal desire for perfection doesn’t stop there: it is transcribed identically in our writing and, more specifically still, the writing of women.
Searching ‘men written by women’ on Google produces the definition : ‘an expression meaning to say that a man is truly a good person’, or fictional characters who ‘actually correspond to the female (or anyone’s) expectations.’ From this we can see the subtle implications that men in real life fail to fulfil expectations and are not inherently ‘good’ people. Whilst I think this is slightly too harsh of a critique on the male gender in full, it is true that looking at fictional male characters can have damaging consequences on women’s romantic relationships. Confronted by a reality that vastly differs from the fictional ideals, or rather fantasies, that have been fabricated in the media, it is understandable why women feel misguided.
If you’ve ever read a romance book written by a woman, chances are you have been attracted to the main male character. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone as countless women attest to feeling a sense of attraction to fictional male characters that have been constructed by female authors. These men tend to have similar characteristics throughout the history of literature. Often they are narcissistic, arrogant, have a brooding nature, are emotionally complex and, if we are talking extreme cliches than it’s worth mentioning the classic leather jacket – black, of course. Irresistible, isn’t it?
Yet, whilst this trope appears harmless and confined to the contents of novels, it poses a threat to real relationships by tarnishing young female’s perspectives on how men should truly behave in hetero-normative relationships. In particular, this can have injurious influences on young girls who find it difficult to distinguish between the fictional world and reality.
With apps such as TikTok – including features that filter media which isn’t relevant to us, whilst simultaneously forcing us to consume specific content – it can become impossible to escape certain perpetuated stereotypes and ideas. We are a generation which can be easily influenced by our socials and the current trends that have captured the attention of thousands, if not millions, of young, impressionable individuals. Our fascination for shows which feature attractive, complex male characters can create an obsession which we can rapidly become incapable of resisting.
The origins of this trope can arguably be traced back to Jane Austen with her construction of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice – with the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie adaptation becoming many young girls comfort film after watching it for the first time. Yet, beneath the veneer of Victorian elegance and class, there is a potentially more cynical reality.
Whilst Mr Darcy is not wholly evil and throughout the novel the reader realizes he is really a sensitive character with a unique soft spot for Elizabeth Bennet, it is impossible to deny that his initial behaviour was inexcusable. He calls her ‘tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me’. Yet, just a few chapters later, he has completely changed his tune and is now irreversibly in love with her and practically begging her to dance with him. It is important that we don’t get swept up in Jane Austen’s flare for the romance and instead focus on how it perpetuates the idea that men who treat a woman poorly are secretly attracted to them. This is something women are all too familiar with and are indoctrinated to believe from a young age, when we were told the boys who bullied us on the playground (and from whom many women’s insecurities stem from) were attempting to express their emotions in the only way they could.
As readers, we can’t deny that we like characters who change. There is something inexplicably romantic about the transformation of a bad boy. We relish clear character development, but especially if this transformation is driven by his undying, passionate love for a good girl who has been drawn to the dark side. The most compelling male characters are the ones that are the most complex. What we really adore in a bad boy is the obvious arc that he needs to go through; we are aware of his flaws (some worse than others), but we can also see a trace of potential for redemption. It is, in fact, this hint at redemption that hooks us in and makes it difficult for us to abandon the character, no matter how morally questionable their actions.
Although we acknowledge that he may be ‘bad’, instead of being appalled by this, we yearn to discover what made him so disagreeable; if we know the cause, we can surely find a cure.
Maybe a bad boy is appealing just because he's "forbidden" – a story that has aged like fine wine throughout the centuries: most notably seen in Shakespeare’s beloved Romeo and Juliet. From the forbidden young lover’s across the Montagues and Capulets to the dangerous bad boy, we are unable to resist our temptations or heed warnings from loved ones. Our attraction is undeniably augmented by his outrageously wild life, which is completely different from our own comfort zone. The lives of ‘men written by women’ can provide us with a world that, as a reader, we may otherwise have been oblivious to. We embrace and encourage this form of escapism. They add excitement and thrill to our lives, that we can sometimes perceive as too mundane and repetitive.
‘Men written by women’ can vary across different forms of media, but the fundamental reality is that bad is interesting, whilst good is boring. We are attracted if they are haunted, conflicted, and maybe even cruel at times, but is this applicable to real life? Is the idea that the ‘good guy’ is always boring true?
Despite many women swooning over the bad boy that they read, most females exclaim that this particular type of male should be seen as a guilty pleasure; something that is solely reserved for fictional stories. For many women, there are clear boundaries between fiction and real life, with a real ‘bad boy’ enough to make them run for the hills. But this reaction is sadly not universal. Time and time again, we see younger women finding it increasingly difficult to navigate the murky waters of what should be the difference between two very distinct categories, heavily impacting their views of dating.
Our obvious confusion therefore begs one very important question. Does engaging with this content render us fundamentally bad feminists? Surely it’s counterintuitive to associate with a trope that is frequently derogatory, and which relies on men assuming control over women, right?
I would argue not.
The fact that women recognise the toxic traits in these fictional males is a really positive reality. It shows that women have the ability to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Subsequently, women will be able to apply this to their own relationships with men and rapidly shut down any questionable behaviour as soon as they see the first red flag.
As with social media in general, our attraction towards ‘men written by women’ needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Perhaps it’s best for all if we allow these characters to remain eternally enclosed in the covers of our books instead of making appearances in real life.
Photo credit: Scott Broome