Why is a bad girl so often a lost cause, while a bad boy is a hero in the making?

September 21, 2017
Why is a bad girl so often a lost cause, while a bad boy is a hero in the making?
Twinings English BreakfastCarmen - Habanera (Anna Caterina Antonacci, The Royal Opera)

Dear Erica,

Do you think the love of a good woman will transform a man?  Why are there so many tales of the love of a good woman transforming a bad boy to good? Do you think a good man can also change a bad woman to good?

Curious in Coventry.

Dear Curious in Coventry,

In literature, there is nothing more dangerous to a man than a selfish, demanding woman.  From heroines in classical literature, like Undine Spraggs in Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country, to heroines in contemporary novels, like Amy in Gone Girl, the wrong woman leads men to disappointment and despair.  There almost no stories of men who transform bad women into good women.  If anything, these stories highlights the dangers that men face if they fall for a bad woman.  In Gone Girl, Amy’s Medea like manipulations to punish her philandering husband take extreme and psychotic directions.  The beautiful but selfish narcissist, Undine Spraggs, leads to the suicide of one husband, and the financial downfall of another.  Men who fall for a bad woman are often viewed as weak, and overly-sentimental.  The warning is clear.  An unworthy woman will be your downfall.

Women, on the other hand, often reap the benefits of overlooking their lovers faults, and gently leading them on a kinder, nobler path.  In Howard’s End, Margaret Schlegel finds love with Mr. Wilcox, a wealthy but emotionally stunted man who treats his ex-mistress cruelly.  The difference in the way women and men view an unworthy partner is eloquently explained by E.M. Forster.

“When men like us(women), it is for our better qualities, and however tender their liking, we dare not be unworthy of it, or they will quietly let us go.  But unworthiness stimulates woman.  It brings out her deeper nature, for good or for evil.”  Or to be exact, “Pity, if one may generalize, is at the bottom of woman.”

Is that why Jane Eyre returns to Mr. Rochester after he has almost tricked her into bigamy?  When she finds him blind and crippled, she doesn’t leave, but feels more compelled than ever to stay.   The immense popularity of romance novels, like 50 Shades of Grey, in the 21st century indicates that whether we like it or not, we women will always find a man’s “unworthiness” appealing, especially if we are the ones to make them “worthy.”  Men, meanwhile, will “let us go” if we reveal any “unworthiness.”, or as Scarlett O’Hara learns, men will only tolerate a woman behaving badly for so long before they storm out and exclaim, “I don’t give a damn.”