03/06/2012 06:31 pm ET Updated May 06, 2012

From Twilight to Chris Brown: The (Almost) Final Word on the Allure of the Bad Boy

Before watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I thought I'd relate to it mostly because it is set in my city of Toronto. (Many movies are shot here, but this is one of the few that doesn't pretend it's not.) Afterwards, however, I was a little more impressed than I'd expected. Not because of the many OMG-that's-Michael-Cera-at-Bathurst-station-I-was-just-there-twenty-minutes-ago! moments -- but because of a character named Gideon.

Let me explain. (Spoilers follow.) The movie, based on Bryan Lee O'Malley's subtly insightful comic of the same name, centers around a young bass player, Scott Pilgrim, who is vying for the attention of the mysterious new girl in town, Ramona Flowers. And it works: she likes him back. But to truly win her he must battle a league of her seven evil exes, all of whom want to kill him. This goes reasonably well. Most of Ramona's exes -- the exotic Indian guy, the chiseled jock actor, the also-bassist who is more successful and plays better, the conscientious vegan, and even a woman -- turn out to be no match for Scott Pilgrim.

But Gideon, the final ex, presents quite the challenge. He is the successful, wealthy owner of a prominent Toronto club. He is taller, better looking, and even offers Scott's band a record contract, leaving his friends fawning over him. He skillfully feigns kindness, acceptance, and generosity, an act readily transparent to everyone except Ramona.

Sure enough, after six strenuous battles that nearly kill him, Ramona resignedly informs Scott that she is leaving him to go back to Gideon. She acknowledges she broke up with Gideon because he ignored her during their relationship -- but she Just. Can't. Get. Him. Out. Of. Her. Head. Literally, actually. You see, Gideon has implanted a microchip in the back of Ramona's neck, with which he continues to control her. Even after she's moved on.

Notably, Scott's roommate calls Gideon the "perfect asshole," and when breaking up with him, Ramona calls Scott "the nicest guy I ever dated." Have a drink if you can see where I'm going with this.

Here's the thing: I believe that ultimately, healthy women with good self-esteem will want to be with good, decent men. I really do.

But this can be a hard argument to make when there are countless young men out there thinking, Wow, Rihanna is beautiful, talented, successful, wealthy, independent, and could probably have any guy she wants -- so why is she going back to Chris Brown? There's got to be something about that guy.

I have to confess, I've thought the same thing myself. Men like Brown are simply fascinating and intriguing to me -- not because I condone their behavior, but because I recognize it.

One of the smartest and most insightful women I know -- who worked with domestic violence victims herself -- once tearfully confided to me that her ex-boyfriend would often force himself on her even when she resisted. She knew it was assault, but couldn't admit it to herself in the moment. I listened to her talk about him for hours, and he didn't exactly sound like a great guy to me. But today she's dating him again, and I don't know what to think. Now he fascinates me.

I wish that were one of the exceptions, and in a way, it may be. I understand how conflating the phenomenon of "bad boy" appeal with abuse victims returning to their abusers may seem like a stretch. But I insist that they are separate manifestations of the same underlying dynamic, falling at different points along the same continuum.

This particular facet of human sexual attraction is a subject of meticulous study and exploration right now. There are cognitive psychologists at NYU trying to understand the minds of men like self-proclaimed narcissist and "professional asshole" Tucker Max. Don Draper, the chain-smoking, drinking, philandering, lying, mistress-addicted, manipulative, emotionally stunted lead character of the show Mad Men, is so universally irresistible to the show's female audience that even feminists are scratching their heads trying to decrypt the nature of their attraction to him. (Interestingly, of the team of nine writers that brings his misogynistic and attractive character to life, seven are women.) Our culture reveres men like James Bond and Mick Jagger, and now a whole new generation is being raised to the Twilight series, featuring a passive, docile heroine whose love interest literally started out threatening to kill her and drink her blood -- but instead fell in love with her. Their erratic romance eerily fulfills many of the National Domestic Violence hotline's criteria for an abusive relationship.

Is the cultural glamorization of dysfunctional males the cause of their allure? Or is it just a reflection of authentic, deeply rooted human behavior?

Well, science says it could be both.

Men with the "dark triad" traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy have significantly higher numbers of sexual partners than their peers. Evolutionary psychologists have long pointed to how these men represented a successful evolutionary reproductive strategy, for reasons that are pretty obvious. At the other end, women consistently seem to demonstrate a preference for more conventionally masculine men during ovulation. Moreover, women with partners who are not classically masculine looking are more likely to fantasize about other men when ovulating compared to women who are already partnered with the manly James Bond types.

And then there is the Byronic hero -- an attractive but dysfunctional male character named for the poet Lord Byron, who was described by his lover Lady Caroline Lamb as "mad, bad and dangerous to know." The Byronic hero predates most modern media, has been a staple in romantic literature for centuries (pick up any romance novel at the supermarket), and represents the idealized image of the subject of female fantasy as much as he shapes it.

But even though there is scientific and historical evidence for these phenomena, it's not as simple as saying that all women like assholes. Peter Jonasan, the University of West Florida psychology professor who published the dark triad study, is careful to note that this does not apply to all women.

Women exhibiting avoidant attachment patterns, low self-esteem, and histories of abuse, sexual trauma, or unstable family backgrounds are more likely to be attracted to men with dark triad characteristics. The stereotypical scenario of the insecure woman with "baggage" or "daddy issues" who opportunistic men frequently view as easy prey is sadly borne out in reality much more than we'd like.

These women, often raised to seek constant approval from certain men in their lives (abusive fathers, manipulative ex-boyfriends), are more likely to look at dysfunctional men as projects to "fix" (just as men often seek out women they can heroically "rescue"). Men who are supportive, accommodating, or appreciative of them just can't present the challenge in the same way. If you had been raised to constantly seek approval, where would it leave you when you finally get it?

Women with these kinds of patriarchal mindsets also find themselves drawn to patriarchal, sexist men. If the relationship lasts, they sometimes have daughters who not only experience these men as their first real male role models, but also see their mothers stick it through with them, reinforcing and perpetuating the cycle. How would a young woman spot a good man when she doesn't even know what one looks like?

When it comes to love and sexual attraction, both men and women are prone to self-deceit. There is a real, gaping dissonance between expressed desires and actual desires: what people say they want and what they really want can be two completely different things, often unbeknownst even to them. Acknowledging and recognizing this dissonance is not only beneficial, but also quite profitable. When the dating site incorporated this insight into its match-generating algorithm, it helped earn its parent company IAC over $400 million.

There are nuances and intricacies in this discussion that extend beyond the hackneyed, oversimplified debates between evolutionary psychologists and gender sociologists that represent it. The Brown/Rihanna saga may be particularly shocking because of the public spotlight and brutal physical violence involved, but remains merely another stark representation of a widely prevalent dynamic that just manifests itself in subtler ways elsewhere.

If we express shock at the Brown/Rihanna collaboration while simultaneously thinking of our cultural and hormonal fascination with Twilight, James Bond, and Don Draper as normal, sexism and patriarchy are here to stay for a very long time -- with both men and women complicit.

This is why it's not just the image of women in the media that needs to change, but that of men as well -- maybe even more urgently. Instead of expressing shock at these stories, it may be more useful to have a diagnostic discussion about why they're not as surprising as they should be. At least as a start.

Many of us have been Scott Pilgrim, and many of us have been Gideon. Some of us (myself included) have been both, depending on the people and circumstances involved. In the end, Scott Pilgrim fights Gideon twice -- first for his love for Ramona, and then for his own self-respect. I'll leave it to you to guess which ultimately makes her mind control chip disappear.

Originally published at The Good Men Project.