"If you're a bit of a bastard, shagging aplenty."
Big crisis! Meg went to see a local theater production of Wuthering Heights and now she has a massive crush on the guy who played Heathcliff. She sent him flowers.
Meg's husband David is understandably peeved.
"Why him?" he wants to know.
"It's nothing serious," I assure him. "The whole thing's just a fantasy."
I happen to know the actor a little — we used to work together — and I can guarantee that he's not Heathcliff in real life. He will never throw Meg over his saddle and sweep her off to the Yorkshire moors.
Since the day I hit puberty, I have always fallen for the bad guy. I know I'm not alone in this.
Dracula is a blood-sucking monster. Captain Hook is a child murderer. Richard the Third is a con artist, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a fascist and Heathcliff is a textbook sadist in top boots and a flouncy shirt. But show me Jason Isaacs or Alan Rickman in full spate and I swoon like an ingenue. Whoever swoons over Jonathan Harker or Edgar Linton? Hardly anybody, I bet.
So why do women like bad and fall for these sexy fiends? Having completed extensive sociological analysis on the topic (read: talked to my friends), I offer the following seven reasons why women like bad guys.
1. Villains are just more fun.
When I was tiny, I used to beg our nanny to act the part of Cinderella so that I could be the wicked stepsisters (both of them). I can still picture her waltzing around the living room with my brother, dishcloth in hand. I never begrudged her the ball or the prince. All I wanted was to be gleefully evil.
2. We like listening to them.
There's an old saying: "Men fall in love with their eyes, women with their ears." As a culture, Americans don't trust men who speak too well. Yet every straight woman I know gets fluttery in the presence of a really eloquent gent.
Bad guys in movies are often played by stage actors with fantastic voices — actors who are not only articulate but are British. For those of us who prefer Benedict Cumberbatch to Brad Pitt, what could be more enticing?
3. We like their outfits.
Romantic baddies dress with panache. They accessorize with swords and leather gloves and other intriguing props. Ninety years ago Rudolph Valentino played the masterful Sheik Ahmed, sporting glamorous eastern attire and eyeliner worthy of Captain Jack Sparrow. Men thought him effeminate. Women strongly disagreed.
Sartorial elegance is just not OK for American heroes. For villains, though, it's almost obligatory. From Monte Cristo to Olaf, show us a count and we'll show you a flamboyantly dressed aristocrat. Think of Dracula and all his pop culture descendants — they just wouldn’t be real vampires if they wandered around in Crocs and baseball caps.
4. They're often blue-blooded.
Barring Prince William and his family, most Americans prefer to pretend that aristocrats don't exist. But how many women do I know whose first love was Jareth the Goblin King? As for the Vicomte de Valmont, well, as Eddie Izzard says, "If you're a bit of a bastard, shagging aplenty."
5. They're classy.
Sensitivity to art, reverence for beauty, the ability to quote Machiavelli in Italian — in Hollywood, at least, these usually signal sinister intentions. Our favorite villains tend to be brainy and sophisticated. Even the ghastly Hannibal Lecter, with his love of Bach and Chateau d'Yquem, has plenty of female fans.
6. They're masculine — but with a twist.
Villains appeal to some of us who yearn for a different brand of maleness than the one prescribed by mainstream America. We’re intrigued by power that comes from wit and intelligence rather than from muscles. (I haven't seen The Avengers, but several friends have reported finding Loki more appealing than the good guys.)
We’re drawn to the elegant, dangerous, articulate nonconformist. Mr. Darcy gone bad. It's something about his ruthless and seemingly effortless competence. His independent thinking, even if it's bonkers, reveals an alluring inner strength.
7. They want what they want.
We like to fantasize about a man desiring us with that level of commitment. Fantasy, though, is exactly what all of this is. We most emphatically do not want psychopaths in our actual lives. As Simone Weil said, "Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring."
David is a sweet guy with a generous spirit and a surreal sense of humor. He doesn’t exude power. He’d probably look a little lost in a tailcoat or a cape. "He's kind of a dork," Meg tells me in confidence (as if I didn’t know).
The thing is, though, with our sweeties in real life? There is absolutely nothing sexier than being dorks together.