The trouble with the bad boys

I have a problem with liking “the bad boys.” My favorite characters in books and movies are not always the hero.  They are the characters that “get away” with breaking the rules, even though I am particularly fond of actually following the rules (well most of the time…).

However, if I give some thought to the reasons why I like the bad boys, I actually discover that I really don’t like the bad boys. I merely like the notion of the boy/man who challenges authority but only when that authority is proven to be oppressive or tyrannical. That leaves me questioning whether that makes him the bad boy or the good guy, like Robin Hood.  (People write stories trying to answer the question…go figure).

I recently watched the John Wayne classic The Searchers, which is what brought on this strange quandary of mine over the nature of the hero/bad boy. If you haven’t seen The Searchers, and you need to, let me explain a little of the context of John Wayne’s character, Ethan.

Ethan is a man of honor.  He is proud, strong, and loyal.  We would all agree that these are good traits, the mark of a hero.  But Ethan as he claims is a man who is “only good for one oath.”  That oath was made to his country…the Confederate States of America.  His country was beaten, lost, and destroyed.  Ethan has no one to be loyal to or show honor to.  He makes himself to be a law unto himself.  While all the other characters are striving for reunion, family and country, Ethan strives for vengeance and his own self satisfaction.  However, Ethan is still a man whom others look to and in a way trust.  In a fight, Ethan’s commands are obeyed.  Everyone respects him and wishes to assist him, even when his lawless behavior lands him in trouble.

While I was watching this movie I couldn’t help but think of other characters that are like Ethan.  The first one that came to mind was Captain Malcolm Reynolds from the TV series Firefly.  The similarities between Mal and Ethan are staggering.  Mal also fought on the losing side of a battle for independence.  He is a man of honor but not necessarily to any code that most people live by.  He is strong and proud but earns the respect of his crew through acts of valor and justice (even if it’s his own sort of justice). But these are the things that make him likable.  Mal does have honor and valor.  He does have a code which he lives by that protects those under his care and dishes out “bad” things to the “bad” guys. But he is no Captain America.

Mal’s morals and code are rather subjective.  Yet I’d argue that like Ethan they are subjective only at first glance. Mal is consistant in his defense and in how he helps and who he helps.  In the “Train Job” Mal discovers that his crew has stolen much needed medical supplies.  Mal’s response is to return the goods, no question.  It is the right thing to do…even if it puts him and his team in jeopardy.  He has no respect for Innara’s career as companion but he fights a duel with a man who called her a whore. His codes of justice extend to the people who are around him and who immediately affect him.

Both Ethan and Mal, if they weren’t the hero’s of their stories, in their moral context would no undoubtedly be considered bad boys.  Mal particularly, since he’s a thief.  But they are bad boys with honor.

We aren’t thieves; well we are thieves but we aren’t taking what isn’t ours. -Mal “Train Job”

So, are bad boys with honor, still bad boys or does their code of honor and justice redeem them so that we can look at them as heroes?


About LizzyBeth

There is a Story inside of me that I must give a voice. I write so that imagination can take me to Faerie and I can catch a glimpse of the Otherworld and hopefully so will you.

Posted on September 7, 2012, in Heroes, Humor, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Movie Reviews, Rachel Burkholder and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I think America has a serious problem with rebellion. We idealize it, idolize it, praise it, and make our heroes out of it. Of course, it makes sense, since our nation was founded in a rebellion against an oppressive government, but it means many of our young people feel an intense desire to rebel against SOMETHING, because that’s what they’ve learned is good. This leads to the problem of … rebels without causes (gasp!). It is especially troubling among Christians, because we are told in no uncertain terms in the Bible to follow the authorities over us, even if those authorities are wrong. The only time we get to disobey them is if they tell US to do something wrong. But that’s not what we want. We want to be judges. And, while we’re at it, juries and executioners, too.

    • Indeed, Americans have a twisted love for the rebel and we have twisted our understanding of authority too. I think what Christians ought to do is see what the Bible actually has to say about authority and not turn to our founding fathers. Oh, more food for thought. Thanks Colin for your insight.

  2. Interesting thought on The Searchers. Improvident oaths — whether they remain to be kept regardless of the damage keeping them will cause, or have already been irrevocably broken and can no longer be kept, or where keeping them becomes impossible for reasons entirely outside the oath-taker’s control — are a really, really effective means of creating bad boys out of otherwise good men (or Elves). I think of the sons of Feanor in The Silmarillion. Maybe the saddest part of the whole sad tale is at the very end, when Maedhros and Maglor steal the two recovered silmarils, because of their oath. Even Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility — not a bad boy, but he certainly did screw up the story colossally before it even started by his hasty engagement to Lucy Steele.

    • Indeed, it is a powerful theme. It speaks to the human condition, the desire to be honorable and our inability to be so in and of ourselves.

  3. We may have a tendency to like rebels, just because they often have that plucky, charming Robin Hood mien, but even Robin Hood was only an outlaw because he was still serving the rightful ruler, not nasty King John, and he was reinstated as soon as the Lionheart returned. We don’t like the rebel unless he’s rebelling against someone we, too, dislike – very subjective, really.

    Mal is generally likable, but he wouldn’t be nearly the “heroic” rebel to us (at least, I don’t think so) if he was going around sabotaging a good, functioning, well-meaning government that had rightfully quashed an uprising that we couldn’t sympathize with anyway.

    So, do we like him because he’s rebelling against the system or, when it comes down to it, because he helps people who need to be helped and is loyal to characters we have grown to care about? Is it because he’s a rebel or because his sense of honor, however narrowly defined, is worth our respect?

  4. Much is made of Ethan’s sense of honor while equal attention is paid to what is considered his “dark side”- his open, often arrogant, dismissive opinions of those he thinks of as his inferiors -an interesting quality that displays an honesty that all of those around him lack (none of the characters are charitable toward the “injuns”, but only Nathan has the will to cut through all of the bull and say so), but this also colors (favorably) his ability to cut to the center of matters and act on what is important. This is his greatest strength of character, but also his source of tragedy, for he is surrounded by a community of clowns, cowards, hypocrites and slouches all of whom use the man to do their dirty work to obtain the result they desire and then casually brush him aside leaving him to wander the sands in stoic isolation. I wouldn’t regard him as a “bad boy” but the heroic archetype surrounded by an irredeemably craven society.

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