In defense of Rory/Jess and the girls who love Bad Boys
Every once in a while, someone on the internet decides to talk about Gilmore Girls. And inevitably, talk will turn to Rory’s boyfriends, someone will shit on Jess, and someone else will show up to defend him, and the same ship war starts up, constant as ever. Dean vs. Jess vs. Logan vs. whoever. I don’t really care about that. I’m not interested in defending Jess Mariano as a character. But I will defend Rory’s interest in him. And what I want to talk about is what Jess meant to Rory, what Bad Boys mean to girls.
Here is the trope: Girl wants the Bad Boy, even though he is Bad For Her, even though there is another Good Boy who wants her and would be better for her. And this trope, alone among all the conventions of fiction, is a Bad Thing. What’s wrong with these girls, that they like these jerks? Girls fantasizing about being a loner’s only exception, girls fantasizing that they could change a boy for the better, girls who like being treated badly. Girls as masochists. Why can’t they dream within their own self-interest? Girls who are stupid, who don’t understand the real world, who don’t understand themselves, who certainly don’t understand men.
The fandom conversation always seems to be about which of the boys is “good” for Rory. Defending their traits and actions, discussing their every word and possible intent. Who treated her right or wrong, who was treated badly by her and thus is justified in his actions. Which boy is good enough to deserve her. Very rarely does anyone get into what Rory wants. That’s never the point.
Gif credit: scotallison
W: But that’s the idea, I guess: the nerd is the guy who was Right For You All Along. Give nerds a chance! That’s the constant refrain, culturally speaking.
S: And the corollary of that is “you don’t know what’s good for you,” with “you” being “women.”
W: Exactly, because these women don’t have the agency or intelligence to know what they need or want. The nerd has to tell them.
- The Sexual and Racial Politics of Nerd Culture: A Dialogue
Girls are taught early and often to be afraid: afraid of walking home alone, afraid of being alone with the wrong boy, afraid of doing anything that might provoke, that might entice, that might provide some justification. And this first fear becomes muddled with another fear: 1.) be afraid, because you’re a girl and easier to harm, and: 2.) be afraid, because it’s selfish to take risks. How often are we guilted out of doing something because it’s perceived as dangerous? Don’t travel alone, don’t leave with strangers, don’t go out without a plan. Think of how your mom would feel, if anything happened to you? Think of how this would affect your family, your friends? You know the risks, why would you be so stupid? Make yourself smaller, make sure you behave, make sure you put others’ feelings before your own, don’t make people angry, don’t take risks with yourself, be good. And then here is this boy who isn’t afraid, who takes risks, who says what he means and doesn’t worry who he offends, who rides a motorcycle and sleeps under the stars and doesn’t sweat a little trouble. And just once, you want to be stupid. Just once, you want to feel like you could do anything, be anyone, live for truth and beauty and pure feeling, like in all those novels you read about boys who come of age with some big adventure. To live in the real world, the ones boys get to roam free in. Maybe with him, you could be free, too. Or at least as close to free as a girl can get.
Boys come of age to find themselves, girls come of age to find romance. It’s not like you’re allowed out on your own.
The teen years are a time of exploration and growth, a time for questioning the authority figures in your life and trying to detangle your own beliefs and dreams from those of your parents and friends. The Bad Boy is the romantic manifestation of this: he is that road trip everyone’s telling you is too dangerous to take, he is the part of town you shouldn’t go to, the movies your mom doesn’t want you to watch, he is the thrill of danger. He is possibility. The unknown road.
Jess brings drama to Rory’s life, and maybe we’re supposed to take this as a bad thing, but—it’s much better TV. And even in real life—who doesn’t love a little drama? Especially when you’re a teenager, and are naturally dramatic anyway: everything you feel is extremely high or extremely low, your emotions are constantly in overdrive. You want someone who knows what it’s like to feel consumed by your own emotions, or at least, you want someone who will consume you back.
When I watch Rory and Jess’s early interactions, I’m taken back to my own high school years, to the thrill of disobedience. Jess convinces Rory to go out and get ice cream when they should be studying, to drive around to nowhere when it’s gotten too late, to sneak behind her boyfriend’s back, to lie to her mom and meet him at the gas station. Do you remember how exciting those kinds of small rebellion were, when you’d spent your entire life watched over by parents and teachers and rules? When being out alone at night was a thrill?
What exactly is the poisonous part of this fantasy that makes it unhealthy for girls to idolize? That Jess is charming, that he knows how to flirt? That he’s a secret you could keep, all to yourself, that he’s hot and well-read and a little rough around the edges? That he doesn’t want to get to know your mother?
“Or maybe just I get this sense when people talk about women having fantasy lives– especially fantasies that involve romance or sex / especially when the women are young, are girls– that what’s behind what they’re saying is the idea that no matter what the fantasy is, it’s the wrong one. That having a fantasy in and of itself is childish and either damaging or evidence that you are damaged. Straight men’s fantasies get packaged into art, and called culture, or turned into kink and called porn. Straight women’s fantasies are evidence that we’re girls, that we’re frigid, that we’re scared of something. Why doesn’t anyone believe that we’re just daydreaming about the same impossible things everyone wants?”
- Zan Romanoff on One Direction fandom
Rory’s first boyfriend, the nice guy Dean, is content to spend their date nights hanging out with Rory’s mom on their couch. He and Rory barely ever make out or get more physical than a peck on the lips. Girls learn sexuality as an object, they exist to be looked at, acted upon. The only action they get to take is whether they allow a thing to happen or not. They get no say in the thing itself, no control when or where it’s offered. Teen boys have a multitude of movies and books about jerking off, making out, losing their v-cards, dealing with the desires of their bodies. We don’t give those stories to girls. The story we do give them is Jess. The Bad Boy. The one who kisses you the way you imagine it should be: with intensity, focus, the kind who knows what he’s doing. Lying in the dark, blood hot, you want these things with no understanding of how they would even go. No one’s ever given you the words.
The Bad Boy has had sex, probably, or at least knows something about it. He wants to have sex with you. You are the girl, you are the gatekeeper, there is only one action available to you: do you let him or not? You imagine it like the kissing: you don’t know what there is to want, but he must. Someone must know about this. This must be what boys learn out there, in the real world.
If you can’t take the lead, maybe the next best thing is somebody who leads you where you want to go.
Gif credit: quevinmchale
Whenever I see someone in fandom or media handwringing over how damaging the Bad Boy trope is for girls, how bad Jess was for Rory, how bad Logan was for Veronica, Chuck was for Blair — when J.K. Rowling chastises her fans for romanticizing Draco — I want to say this: There is no excuse for bad male behavior, for controlling and abusive relationships, and I too wish our fiction would give these girls more options. But the world we live in still takes a deeply patriarchal view of female adolescence, and we cannot blame girls for dreaming within the confines we give them. For the Mr. Rochesters, the Derek Hales, the Edward Cullens, the Jess Marianos, and all the other dark leather-clad boys that girls dream of: complex and exciting and secretly soft of heart. Someone to dream about breaking the rules with.
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