Everyone loves a good bad boy. Our media-driven society is obsessed with them, those rebels without causes, those paragons of the uber-masculine and virile. Think Charlie Sheen, George Clooney or Russell Crowe. They challenge society with a sly, charismatic smile. We’re drawn to them. In Restoration drama (late 1600s England), they would be called lovable rogues or rakes, good old troublemakers with the power to charm. Today, the appeal of the bad boy comes from the tempting possibility for danger, adventure and intrigue. Especially if they have the standard bad boy garb like rolled-up T-shirts or tight blue jeans like Patrick Swayze in The Outsiders. Swoon.
But the term “bad boys” is a misnomer. George Clooney and Russell Crowe, though playfully deviant in their own ways, are not boys; they are men. Naturally, “bad boys” sounds less menacing than “bad men,” but classic literature is full of literal bad boys who are actually young enough to be called boys. Reading about their mischief and exploits is as entertaining—if not more so—than reading the latest gossip magazine.
The quintessential bad boy is Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer The rambunctious twelve-year-old orphan not only has a way with the little ladies—gallantly taking a punishing beating for a cutie name Becky—but he knows how to get what he wants. He’s mostly remembered for his sly manipulation of the neighborhood kids, convincing them that whitewashing a huge fence is actually an exclusive and entertaining way to spend your youth—so much so that it’s worth a pretty penny to do so. He also thwarts a murderer, finds golden treasure and has the unique opportunity to go to his own funeral. We can only imagine what kind of life this tween will have once he hits puberty. In fact, Twain, a sort of bad boy of wit himself, is said to have based Tom Sawyer’s antics on his own childhood. Perhaps adventurous, conniving bad boys grow up to be renowned authors of wit and humor.
Of course, not all bad boys have a sweet, charming side. Some bad boys are just plain old bad, and it takes the absence of adult supervision to bring it out. Enter William Lord of the Flies, a novel about a group of British boys marooned on an island following a plane crash that killed all the adults. The boys are left to their own devices for survival, spiraling into factions and behaving like a bunch of armed savage tweens all hopped up on sugar and pig murder. Reading this novel about humanity’s inherent capacity for evil and destruction is certainly not the romp-filled joy ride that Tom Sawyer is. These bad boys kill their peers if they don’t like them! It is more likely that they will end up in juvenile detention facility before they swindle the neighborhood kids in a home beautification project. But therein lies the dichotomy of the “bad boy” convention. You’ve got the good bad and the bad bad, the George Clooneys and the Charlie Sheens, the Tom Sawyers and the British bunch of barbarians. They are both compelling to watch, even if it is a frightening train wreck at times.