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POL—The Lovable Bad Guy

This post is the third in a series about my memoir, Paris on Less Than $10,000 a Day. Some of these posts will be about the craft of writing and others will be about the content of the book—everything from fashion and French things to body image and substance abuse.

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Back in 1995, I took a few classes at Santa Monica College to fulfill my basic requirements. At the front of my Physical Geography class sat a beautiful young woman who was frequently absent. I later learned from a friend of hers that the reason she often skipped class was that she had bruises on her face from her boyfriend hitting her.

In 2000 I had the idea to publish a book of interviews with models and other fashion industry professionals. I interviewed 20 models and 10 agents and photographers. I was surprised to learn how many of those models (all but one of the models I interviewed was female) had supported their boyfriends during the years that they modeled, and how many of those boyfriends has been verbally, if not physically, abusive.

Last month I saw An Education, a movie starring Carey Mulligan as an intelligent and beautiful, but naïve, British high school student, and Peter Sarsgaard as her good-for-nothing but charming and charismatic boyfriend twice her age.

When I was modeling in Paris, I dated an up-and-coming French actor named “Alain,” who was nearly double my age. Like Sarsgaard’s character, David, he was funny, clever, and charismatic. Like David, he loved adventure and breaking the rules. Like David, he loved the expensive things in life and didn’t hesitate to steal to get them. Like David, he was unfaithful. Like David, he was abusive.

And I, like Mulligan’s character, Jenny, was charmed by Alain. I was smitten by his cleverness, his humor, his good taste, his wit. Like Jenny, I was willing to overlook his minor transgressions, like the times he stole the cashmere sweaters/knives/binoculars from the department store. I thought it was charming that he jumped the turnstiles at the métro, that he refused to pay his electricity bill, and that he earned his living placing bets at the track. I looked the other way when there was evidence that he was cheating. I ignored the fact that he lied about his age. I forgave him when he punched me in the mouth and split my lip.

Wha? Wha? Wha? “Go see An Education” I want to say, because Lynn Barber, the author of the book on which the film was based, and Nick Hornby, the author of the screenplay, explain so well how a naïve young girl of 18 could fall for a deceitful, good-for-nothing 30-something playboy. For starters, 1) He he’s a good liar, good at hiding the truth and good at creating false realities. 2) Once involved, the 18-year-old girl wants to believe those false realities, doesn’t want to give it all up. 3) Compared to the honest, serious boys back home (in Jenny’s case, an awkward schoolmate named Graham), Playboy is extremely alluring. He’s fun, he’s adventurous, he’s confident, he’s older, he can show the 18-year-old a whole world she didn’t know existed—a world in which she goes on glamorous trips, sips cocktails and smokes cigarettes, and parties in little black dresses instead of spending her Friday nights with her schoolgirl friends studying for exams. My modeling life wasn’t much more glamorous than Jenny’s. Except for the occasional nightclub outing, I spent most of my evenings in the model’s apartment reading books and eating vegetables with rice and pasta—until glamorous Playboy came along and wined and dined me—said, “Get dressed, we’re going out” and fed me champagne, oysters and profiteroles at La Coupole, Les Deux Magots, and La Tour d’Argent. He showed me Normandy, Brittany, Bordeaux, and Provence. He dazzled me with Florence, Venice, and Elba. He introduced me to Cassavetes and Drouot-Richelieu. He taught me the difference between foie gras and rilettes. He dressed well and told very funny jokes.

We’re all familiar with the charming bad guy—Tony Soprano is the perfect example. He’s a horrific man. He murders people in cold blood (remember the guy who’s head he smashed with his foot, afterward pulling the guy’s tooth out of his sock? He cheats on his wife (with hookers, strippers, and car saleswomen), and yet we love him. Why? Because he is charming and funny and smart. Because he is human, and we see ourselves in him—like the time he weighed himself, then stepped off the scale and took his shoes off and weighed himself again. We can all relate to that. Another lovable bad guy? Dexter. He also kills people, then dismembers them and disappears them without any tinge of remorse. He cheats, too (Lyla). So why do we like him? He’s charming, he’s funny, he’s smart, and he has a code. Tony Soprano has a code, too-the code of the Mob. Another likable “bad” guy—Don Draper. He doesn’t kill people, but he cheats, he lies, he’s arrogant, and he’s living under a false identity. And yet we love him. Why? He’s confident, he’s intelligent, he’s ambitious, and he’s charming. He’s going to win in life, and we like to vote for winners. Alain was going to win in life, too, even if he had to stand on someone else’s head to do it.

So when I hear the stories of the beautiful young woman in my Geography class, about the models I interviewed, and about the woman in An Education, I nod because I can understand how someone who is attractive and intelligent could fall for a guy like that. They tend to be overachievers, eager to please and eager to succeed. They may be perfectionists, and often they are likely bored with their lives and attracted to adventure. But how do I get that across? How do I show how Younger Meghan could fall for a guy like Alain, and stick with him for four years, without looking like a loser? And how do I make Alain sufficiently charming that the reader will understand why Young Meghan stayed with him for so long? I think the former problem is the most challenging—understanding the psychology behind the attraction of Meghan/Jenny to Alain/David. I’m looking forward to reading An Education once it arrives in the mail, and I hope it will provide some insight!

7 comments to POL—The Lovable Bad Guy

  • I too have been in an abusive relationship–after years of therapy, I came to understand that it all boiled down to my own low self esteem. I was smart, I was charming, I was so many things, but I never thought I was good enough. I was my own worst critic (something I imagine wouldn't be foreign to models who are criticized all day long–it's only a matter of time before it can sink into a psyche). So when the man in my life started verbally abusing me and criticizing me, it didn't take much for me to believe him, or to accept it, because it wasnt any worse than what i was already telling myself.

  • I haven't been a relationship like that, but I've done a lot of research on the subject for my book. And I know a few of them. They are charming. They are smart and good looking and can make you feel wonderful. It is the way they lure you, trick you, and seduce you. They are very good at it, and most of the women, and men, they are attracted to are completely outmatched. Those, sadly, are just the sort they are looking for.

  • This is such a good post Meghan. As you know, I am dealing with this same theme in my novel and I have had a very difficult time communicating the why. What I get from a lot of critiques is WHY is she (the character) standing for such treatment? Why would ANYONE stand for it? Readers can't believe it and they dislike my character as a result. The novel really deals with the inner workings of why anyone stands for it, but it took me a long time to get to that realization. Although I didn't have an abusive playboy boyfriend, I have certainly fallen under the charms of such men and then asked myself WHY WHY WHY later on when I had my wits back. For me, it was self-esteem and naivety. For my character, it's self esteem and selfishness.

    I'll definitely read An Education too. Thanks for this.

  • Wow… Yeah, like Sierra said, great post.

    I don't have an easy answer to your question, but I think… Well, I suspect that you're going to have to do it by making us fall in love with him too. Show us his charm before you show us his bite. Most young women don't fall in love with losers or cheaters — they fall in love with guys who they LATER find out are losers and cheaters. I think your audience has to do the same.

    But if you can write the evolution of that relationship half as well as you wrote this post, you'll be fine. 🙂

  • Oh, wow. Good post, Meghan! I think the answer to the bad boy question is simple: on some level, the bad boy gives us something we desperately need. Something we need so badly, we forgive all the other crap because we think whatever bad stuff he does, it's worth it. Whether he makes you feel special, sophisticated, beautiful, smart, whatever. It's like he has some special key that unlocks something in us, and we'll do anything to keep him around just to have access to his transforming magic. You put up with the lows because you want the high he provides. Ultimately –and weirdly– it's selfishness that makes us stick to these guys. Hey, at least that's what my therapist told me. 🙂

  • Thanks everyone for the great feedback!

    Jade – I think you're absolutely right that it's all about low self-esteem. It doesn't matter what good qualities you've got. If you don't believe you have them, then you may as well not. And very good point that the modeling itself may have been the cause of the low self-esteem. I met "Alain" two years after I arrived in Paris.

    Judith – it sounds like you know this topic very well! I'd love to hear more about it from you.

    Sierra and Kristen – I'm intrigued by the selfishness part. How/why does selfishness make women stick with the bad guys?

    Kristan – I think you're absolutely right that the key is to make the reader fall in love with Alain – and stay in love with him for a while – before showing his negative side. And not to let too much time pass between showing his negative side and leaving him, so I don't try the reader's patience.

  • I love the other comments here, they're so intriguing.

    To comment on the selfishness thing, for my character specifically, it was about refusing to see her own problems that led to the realization that the man was an ass. She was being selfish in refusing to look at her problems.

    For myself, I'd say that if the guy makes you feel good, and you know you're excited by the attention–yet you're SMART–so you know that he's bad news. You stay because you're excited by the attention, but it's a selfish excitement.

    Does that make sense?