It was with a slightly heavy heart that I began to read The Love Of A Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett, despite its brilliant premise. The book is a collection of short stories that imagine the lives of the women who have fallen in love with history’s most awful, chaotic, terrible men. The reader slips into the minds of women who can’t help but fall for dictators, murderers, rock stars, cheats and manipulators.
I’m very wary of the heart-shaped rose-tinted spectacles society wears when looking back at infamous, awful men, and how these narratives are romanticised, varnished in glamour and nostalgia and intrigue. I’m nervous of how our popular culture has always suggested that there is something inherently romantic about falling in love with someone who will treat you badly – about the terrible myth that love should be an ache, a pain that needs to be processed, endured, leaving behind etches in a tree or lines across a wrist; some sort of scar that qualifies how poignant and true that love was. I loathe that “bad boys” are sexy, dangerous, thrilling, and that their appalling behaviour is a necessary potion to transform you into feeling like a young Claire Danes in angel wings, standing underneath fireworks, volts of electricity running through your awestruck bones.
Most of us have dated one. Not all as awful as Depp, but somewhere on the scale of arseholes dressed up as misunderstood mavericks. The only way I can describe it was feeling like a cat scratching at a door to get let in
So strong is this narrative that it virtually made Johnny Depp completely immune to accusations of domestic violence by his ex-girlfriend. He’s back dressing up as Jack Sparrow; he’s in JK Rowling movies. His name is still mentioned in the same breath as a million Hollywood heartthrobs. We still think of those cheekbones and the wild years and maybe him and Kate Moss in a bed. Maybe he took too many drugs? Maybe he was troubled and jaded? (An essential hallmark for any bad boy.) But these are the qualities that make him a brilliant, talented artist. Whether or not he hit his girlfriend so hard with a phone that it left a phone-shaped mark on her face is irrelevant. And, if anything – not that we’d ever admit it out loud – the violence, the turbulence, the drama only confirms Depp’s wild status. A status that proves unchallengeable.
Most of us have dated one. Not all as awful as Depp, but somewhere on the scale of arseholes dressed up as misunderstood mavericks. The only way I can describe it was feeling like a cat scratching at a door to get let in. When I was let in, I was showered in excitement and trips to palm-tree-lined cities. And then the door would slam. A dark cloud would gather and hover above us. And I just waited until it passed – until the door opened again and I didn’t have to claw for kindness, and then suddenly I was Claire Danes watching fireworks, feeling volts running through my silly, desperate bones. This went on for longer than I’d care to admit. We said goodbye while listening to The Rolling Stones. Could it have been more of a bad-boy-cliché ending?
I’ve also seen these bad boys from a different viewpoint – not the aching, intoxicated girl who didn’t know it was going to be quite this bad, but as the collateral. I’m the daughter of one. The heartbreak is just as brutal, just in a completely different way. There’s no glamour or drama. Just unpaid maintenance fees and the lingering sting of rejection. You are still a cat clawing to get in, but that door was never really open in the first place.
And so, why do we still study these creatures? Why are they subjects of books and films and our imaginations? Why do young women seek them out, like sweet-smelling Impulse and crops tops – believing they are a right of passage, the mark of adulthood, the pinnacle of feeling alive and in love? I guess it’s little wonder that a society dominated by men has constructed a character that allows a man to be truly awful, yet perceived as the anti-hero all women want to have sex with, even against their better judgement, because every fibre in their body inexplicably tells them to do so. Christ, it sounds like a Lynx advert. Yet, as ridiculous as it sounds, there are very real consequences. And, while many brilliant people, such as Laura Bates and the UK charity Tender, are working hard to re-educate young people about what makes a loving, respectful relationship, our society is still sending out a pretty strong message: happily ever after means self-esteem issues, being subject to controlling behaviour and the elevation of arseholes.
Understanding historical figures in the context of their relationship is an interesting conceit for a book. History comes to life when we understand it through the people who lived it. But we’ve trained women to believe that an epic love story is one of desperation and manipulation and scars. And, to me, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than that.