Oscar Pistorius appears for his bail hearing in the Pretoria Magistrate Court on February 20, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. Photo: Gallo Images
Some years ago, a friend confessed to me that she had a raging lady boner for Pete Doherty, lead singer of Babyshambles and a man so unholy that if you turned your bathroom lights out, stood in front of the mirror and whispered his name three times he would likely appear and immediately infect you with the kind of airborne disease bred in government testing facilities simply by breathing on you.
It’s fair to say that I didn’t understand her crush (and I have a less than stellar track record myself, having once fallen so desperately in love with Bart Simpson that I wrote a fan letter to Nancy Cartwright asking her to be my penpal and Best Friend, and then again with my year 10 English teacher who had a daily habit of wearing knee socks and sandals.) But while Pete Doherty’s descent from charming young English lad to Walking Sebaceous Cyst shouldn’t go unacknowledged, lusting after him is unlikely a symptom of anything other than spectacularly bad taste and a disregard for the cleanliness of your sheets.
Other trends in celebrity fandom are more worrying. Last week, Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey wrote about a new group of Bad Boy devotees going by the name ‘Pistorians’. The group (which appears to be largely made up of women) are vehemently committed to Oscar Pistorius, the South African Olympian currently awaiting trial for the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Answering to the defence that Pistorius mistook Steenkamp for an intruder (in a locked bathroom) and fired three shots at her, one woman tweeted, “Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather my boyfriend didn’t allow a perceived intruder to enter the house unchallenged.” As Egan Morrissey wrote, “In this scenario, she is likening herself to Steenkamp—who is dead. She would rather be dead than admit that, at the very least, Pistorius was too quick to pull the trigger. I wouldn't call that "old-fashioned." I'd call it illogical.”
A picture taken on January 26, 2013 shows Olympian sprinter Oscar Pistorius posing next to his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at Melrose Arch in Johannesburg. Photo: AFP
On the other hand, it’s difficult to know how large the Pistorian ‘community’ really is. A search of the #pistorian hashtag seems to reveal the same Twitter handles popping up over and over. Rather than being a gang of groupies to rival that of Team Breezy (the collective noun used by fans of Chris Brown to refer to themselves), the Pistorians appear to be one of those things that were noticed in an ephemeral moment on Twitter and are now being projected as something much more significant than what they really are, which is a tiny collection of people, mostly women, exhibiting the classic signs of Reverse Damselling. While trying to make Pistorians ‘happen’ might be ill conceived, it’s the driving concept of this Reverse Damselling that perhaps deserves greater scrutiny.
The classic trope of the damsel in distress relies on women being rescued from some form of oppression or danger by a noble Knight or Prince. After scaling the tower/slaying the dragon/killing the witch/waking the poisoned damsel with True Love’s Kiss, the hero and his lady ride off into their happily ever after to presumably sing songs with birds every day, kiss chastely behind tapestries and defy all realistic notions of working relationships.
Reverse Damselling relies equally on nauseating gender stereotypes of disempowerment and passivity. But this time it positions women in the role of saviour to men who, rather than being trapped by a physical force, are imprisoned by the Rubik’s cube of their unresolved emotions.
There’s certainly been no shortage of women in history with a hard on for the Bad Boy. Mostly, this manifests in harmless ways. Lusting after Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club, say, or daydreaming about sparring verbally with James Spader and then slathering his body in ice cream. Maybe, like me, you find yourself indulging in sexual fantasies about holding Tim Riggins while he cries. The possibilities are endless.
But occasionally this urge to offer salvation to the troubled young male troubadours who strum on our heartstrings expresses itself in more sinister ways. Team Breezy, for example, refuses to acknowledge Brown’s 2009 attack on Rihanna as an act of wilful harm and violence. To the thousands of folks (mostly of the lady persuasion) for whom Team Breezy isn’t a hobby but a lifestyle, Rihanna was complicit in her attack. It takes two to tango; she must have provoked him; she’s bad news and she’s just trying to ruin Breezy’s life. In Team Breezy’s eyes, Brown is a passionate, sensitive soul who simply needs the right kind of woman to understand his needs and eventually tame him through the sheer force of her love.
After the Grammys in 2012, Buzzfeed collated 25 of the most disturbing Brown related Tweets. (Brown had been invited to perform that year. Presumably Grammy organisers had forgiven him for ruining their 2009 event with his attack on Rihanna; they claimed with no apparent irony that the Grammys had been the real victim.) Women had variously tweeted things like, “I’d let Chris Brown beat me up anytime ;)” and “ok I’m not gonna lie I’d let Chris Brown beat the eff out of me”.
But romantic fandom of the kind offered to Pistorius and even Brown is still usually more than a few steps removed from real life. While it pains me to see women so invested in sub-human pond dwellers like Brown that they believe they would endure (and even enjoy) his particular brand of love to prove their own, the likelihood of that happening outside of their own imaginations is slim.
Consider instead the bizarre world of Serial Killer Groupies. A 2012 article in Psychology Today by Katherine Ramsland profiled just some of the women across America who’ve either communicated regularly with, engaged in relationships with and sometimes even married violent men serving life sentences or waiting execution on Death Row. Ramsland writes, “Women who have married serial killers have given several different reasons. Some believe they can change a man as cruel and powerful as a serial killer. Others “see” the little boy that the killer once was and seek to nurture him. A few hoped to share in the media spotlight or get a book or movie deal.”
As cynical as the last explanation might be, I’d wager it doesn’t account for anywhere near as much of the reasoning as the first two. More than anything, Reverse Damselling is driven by the desire to succeed where other women have failed. The allure of the Bad Boy hinges on the possibility that redemption can only be delivered by a worthy woman - you. As Leon F. Seltzer wrote, also for Psychology Today, “The fantasy that seems to be operating in such devotees, and that constitutes the plot of virtually all erotic/romantic novels written with women in mind, is that the “misogyny and jerkdom” they might have to battle with in such super-dominant males is only temporary. That it doesn’t really represent the man’s innermost reality. That his violence and lack of tender feelings is only the beginning of the story, and that their unsparing love, affection, and dedication can ultimately transform his character by helping him get in touch with his, well, “inner goo.””
While the thought of Chris Brown’s “inner goo” makes my nether regions want to seal shut in spontaneous protest, the latter part of Seltzer’s analogy does explain why some women may be gearing up to embrace the role of Oscar Pistorius as a brooding hero suddenly forced to make his way in an unforgiving world. The love of a good woman has strong currency in the land of romantic ideation, particularly when it offers one of the few narratives available to women in stories dominated by complicated men. But no matter where it sits on the scale of attraction, whether it’s daydreaming about Will Hunting driving across the country to finally admit that he loves you or marrying Ted Bundy and having a child by him, one has to understand the allure of the Bad Boy as a form of juvenile fantasy with no basis in reality. At some point, every woman has to grow up and realise that violence doesn't equal love, love isn't supposed to be hard and Troy Dyer isn’t an emotionally vulnerable cipher. He’s just a greasy douchebag without a job or an appreciation for bodily hygiene, and he will ruin Lelaina’s life.
Clementine Ford will be one of the panelists participating in a live discussion of Rape Culture at the All About Women Festival on April 7. For more information and to get your ticket, visit The Sydney Opera House.