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Thursday, April 18

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Bad boys. In fiction or in life, there's many a woman who thinks she can change a diamond in the rough to a nice guy with an edge. No matter if the man is a future criminal mastermind or a centuries-old vampire or a Casanova, he can be "saved" by showing him the proper kindness.

There's this term. "Woobie." Many of you may remember this word from the 1980s movie Mr. Mom. The younger son, Kenny, has a security blanket that he calls his woobie. In an attempt to break him of this habit, his father solemnly explains, "I understand that you little guys start out with your woobies and you think they're great... and they are, they are terrific. But pretty soon, a woobie isn't enough. You're out on the street trying to score an electric blanket, or maybe a quilt. And the next thing you know, you're strung out on bedspreads."

For certain fans for various television shows, movies or books, woobie means something else entirely. It was popularized by several vocal Smallville viewers who thought all Lex Luthor needed was a good hug. Or something. (A full definition is here.) Plainly put, a "woobie" is an individual who's had an emotionally shattering experience and needs mental support. It helps if this someone is hot and somewhat morally ambiguous, because perhaps by cuddling this person close, the comfort might turn into kissing. At least, that's my interpretation.

More fascinating to me than the phenomenon of infantilizing grown men is how the creators — both the writers and the actors — of these characters choose to counter such interpretations. What happens when an audience emphasizes with the bad boys too much, sometimes even at the expense of the protagonists?

Lex Luthor, Smallville (played by Michael Rosenbaum):
The entire point of this WB series was to show how Clark Kent became Superman and how Lex Luthor turned evil. For the first two years, Lex was written as a young man with a bit of a shady past and a domineering dad. He often remarked that he didn't want to end up like his unscrupulous father, and made a conscious effort to be different. Lex was honest with Clark most of the time, while Clark constantly lied and misled his "best friend." True, Clark was protecting his powers and his family, but still. The audience began to sympathize more with the "villain" than with the future boy in blue and red, or as some called him, the "big dumb alien." The show runners have had years to map out a gradual and realistic turn to the dark side for Lex. However, the writers instead chose to highlight his wicked ways by suddenly revealing halfway through season four that Lex... had one night stands! With several different women! And he gave them diamond earrings afterwards! Send some of that evil my way, why don't you? Clark's pissy reaction to the news that his single, adult friend had sex was hilarious, mostly because he came off as jealous rather than indignant. Michael Rosenbaum often plays a subtle, multifaceted Lex and can step up when required: his portrayal of Lex's psychotic break in season three was damn fine acting. But he doesn't get much to work with most of the time, and it's hard not to relate to Lex when Clark usually approaches him when he's either angry or needs a favor. With friends like that...

Spike, a.k.a. William the Bloody, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (played by James Marsters):
Originally scheduled as a one-shot character, this charismatic vampire ended up taking over the show. As a human, he was a timid poet with serious mother issues; he made up for it by going bad — mostly — after he was turned. Spike started out evil, then got a modification chip planted in his skull. He fell in love with Buffy, and when she came back from the dead they had a seriously twisted relationship. So much so that their sexual encounters often included violence — on her part. This complexity was celebrated by the "redemptionistas." These fans believed that Spike was an exception in the vampire world. Even though he didn't have a soul, he could overcome his true nature by interacting with Buffy and the other characters, and then he would gain his humanity. When the writers discovered that a large section of the audience was identifying more with Spike than with their heroine, they hastily penned a physical confrontation between the two in Buffy's home. Some called it attempted rape, others were convinced that Spike did nothing worse than what Buffy had done to him. Either way, it was a clumsy attempt to remind the audience that Spike was a mean, no-good vampire. When James Marsters spoke of Spike's bad behavior at fan conventions, he angered many fervent Spike defenders. What does an actor know about the role he played for several years, anyway? Spike eventually went to Africa to find a soul and saved the world in the final minutes of the series, earning him a declaration of love from the slayer at last. He was later brought back to life via a magic locket. Yes. I know.

Brian Kinney, Queer as Folk (played by Gale Harold):
Brian is gay Pittsburgh's most notorious rake, sleeping with almost any and every man in his path, sometimes simultaneously. He had a distant father and a cold mother. Brian regularly scoffed at the very notion of commitment, but he kept young lover Justin as close as he could emotionally, which wasn't very. After Brian asked Justin to marry him and bought a country estate complete with stables (yes, really), it looked as if the notorious bachelor had finally accepted true monogamy as his future. SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT KEEP READING UNLESS YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW THE SERIES ENDS. However, Brian and Justin mutually call off the wedding at the rehearsal dinner; Justin knows Brian only proposed because Justin almost died in a bombing. (It's a soap opera, what can I tell you?) They still love each other, but Justin goes to New York to pursue his dream of being an artist. The finale closes with Brian dancing atop a riser in the gay dance club he owns, surrounded by his friends. Justin is noticeably absent. I think this conclusion stays true to Brian's character — his sudden conversion to the "settled down" life never rang true for me — but I know several people who believe this conclusion is a deliberate jab to those who wanted a fairy tale ending for Brian and Justin. The word "conspiracy" has been whispered — and shouted — as a result, and certain Brian/Justin supporters will no doubt be upset that their favorite couple was not together forever as the series winds down.END SPOILERS.

Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter series (played by Tom Felton):
His father is a Death Eater, and he's given the hero nothing but trouble, scorn and, most recently, a broken nose. Yet thousands of readers adore this sneaky Slytherin. Author J.K. Rowling, who is notorious for not clarifying her readers' interpretations on her characters, makes an exception in the case of this evil wizard. In a recent interview, she said, "People have been waxing lyrical [in letters] about Draco Malfoy, and I think that's the only time when it stopped amusing me and started almost worrying me... Draco, who, whatever he looks like, is not a nice man... it is uncomfortable and unhealthy and it actually worried me a little bit, to see young girls swearing undying devotion to this really imperfect character." In the sixth and most recent book, Draco continues his malignant ways in the name of Lord Voldemort; I doubt he will be redeemed in the final installment, especially as his creator specifically reiterated Draco's many faults.

Logan Ecchols, Veronica Mars (played by Jason Dohring):
Logan has plenty of valid excuses for being an asshole: his girlfriend was murdered, his father still beats him with belts, and his mother committed suicide by jumping from a bridge. However, does that give him carte blanche to destroy property, slip his best friend GHB, and organize bum fights between homeless men? All this and he gets the girl, too. (Or does he? The season finale left that door open — literally). The transformation of Logan from snarky jerk to concerned boyfriend was handled fairly well in a completely believable manner, and I am curious to see what happens in the series' sophomore year.

Draco and Logan are still both teenagers, so we can cut them a little more slack. However, Lex, Spike and Brian are all adults — Spike obviously being the oldest — and should be held responsible for their choices and the consequences. I appreciate complex characters; who wants to watch cookie cutter versions of good and evil? It's when ambivalent characters veer from one side to the other in a sort of equivocal whiplash that things get murky. Should group interpretations influence a story or a character, or should the writers ignore such protests?

Oddly enough, the aforementioned actors are considered attractive. (Except, of course, for Tom Felton, who is not yet of age. Get your minds out of the gutter.) Would their questionable behavior be so easily tolerated or explained away if they weren't "hot"? Hmmm. I am in no way immune to the appeal of certain bad boys, believe me, but the last thing I want to do is wrap them in a security blanket. Let go of the woobie.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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