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Mr Darcy's Ashes: What Bad Boys in Entertainment Do to Relationships

13/10/2015 11:56 BST | Updated 12/10/2016 10:12 BST

"You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who'd like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them," says Amy Dunne, Gillian Flynn's brilliant anti-heroine in Gone Girl.

Flynn is one of the few novelists who addressed entertainment's obsession with unrealistic characters head on instead of rolling with it. According to Flynn being the Cool Girl, men's ultimate fantasy, means being a "hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she's hosting the world's biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2."

Flynn revealed what we all knew about women on TV, in books, in movies: they are not real. They create false expectations that we look up to (and measure ourselves against) and that men find attractive. Yet, as Gone Girl's advertising strapline reminds us, there are two sides to every story. What happened to entertainment's idea of men?

It all started in 1813, when we fell for the complicated, proud, haughty Mr Darcy and found his game of veiled insults ("Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your circumstances?") and confessions ("You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you") so attractive. Fast forward a few centuries and you'll notice that entertainment's flawed, naughty-but-nice heroes have followed suit.

I grew up with the now cult TV series of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Charmed, both focusing on Cool Girls who kicked ass and ended up falling for the rotten apple of the bunch. Just like many teenagers before me, Buffy's Angel ignited my romantic awakening, and so did Charmed's Cole.

What did they have in common? They weren't as boring as the boys at school: they were flawed, they had a dark past, they challenged the TV heroines every day... But they were ultimately tender, loving, caring.

In the past decade, the naughty/nice binomial has been used and abused in the stories we consume. Take the Twilight saga's repressed vampires who can kill but prefer watching girls when they sleep. Or look at 50 Shades' Mr Grey, who doesn't "make love" but rather "fucks hard"... and then ends up falling for Anastasia Steele so hard that two books and a movie franchise had to follow.

These unrealistic male characters are as damaging to relationship as the Cool Girl is: sometimes, we end up believing they really exist. So we settle down for pale reincarnations of these wasted men, who bear some of their traits, some of their flaws, but who are never the real thing. We want them to love us tender, to fuck us hard, to marry us and never bore us, but they are not real, they don't exist.

Entertainment's obsession with the bad boy brings those of us who are looking for a thrill to try, at least once, to dance with the devil. It makes us settle for the worst, look for challenges in guys who smell like danger rather than in those who can give us a good time without hurting us. The bad boy is the next myth we need to debunk: I can't wait to watch that happen.