By Aditya Paruchuri (2020)
The Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group
By far the most popular Goodreads group for fans of the bad boy trope in romance fiction, Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group provides an open community for readers interested in the subgenre to mingle in various forums that serve diverse interests, all the while emulating the taboo atmosphere that the subgenre emits (“Dangerous Hero”). The name choice is almost paradoxical. While part of the group name, Addict Support, implies that the group’s purpose is to gradually eradicate a pervasive and harmful problem, the group actually fosters readers’ existing interests in the subgenre. There is, however, a thread dedicated to those who are truly seeking help to combat their addiction to dangerous heroes, but the vast majority of the group seeks to grow readers’ pre-existing interests in the subgenre, rather than subduing them. Becoming acquainted with the group’s purpose and its origin is quite a journey, one that requires us to understand the raw interests of its individual constituents and piece them together where they overlap and–most importantly–how they contribute to nurturing readers’ interests in the subgenre. Looking more closely at it, it is clear that the group was founded to empower women to freely express and cultivate both their sexual and non-sexual fantasies and everything in between.
Introduction to Goodreads
Goodreads was created in early 2007 by now married couple Elizabeth Khuri Chandler and Otis Chandler, who envisioned a platform in which readers could recommend books to others while also giving priority to existing relationships between friends and relatives (“Elizabeth Khuri Chandler Tells”). The website eventually turned into a community that allows readers to sympathize, disapprove of, be moved by, or scorn at fellow readers who experience their favorite books in different ways. Goodreads has grown tremendously to accommodate various groups that encompass countless genres (e.g. New Adult), subgenres, tropes, authors, and more, including the highly popular Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group.
What is the Bad Boy Trope?
While there isn’t a single agreed-upon definition of the bad boy trope, there are a few attributes that many authors agree on. Kat Brzozowski of Swoon Reads suggests that every bad boy hero must have a “magnetic pull” that makes readers fall for him, as well as have a hidden side of them that an author can “unleash” through utilization of the female protagonist. Brzozowski also asserts that the bad boy character must have enough “bad-ness” in him that readers can sympathize with him without seeing right through him. She uses a humorous example that “we won’t be at all surprised when Mr. Mean is volunteering at an animal shelter by page 50.” Lastly, she says that the bad boy can’t be too bad, as he still needs to be loved by the readers by the end of the book. This means that, despite having many flaws, the bad boy has some, powerful redeeming qualities that make readers sympathize with him (“Brzozowski”).
Before even reading any of the group’s content, one can notice that the group’s accessories–the profile picture and cover photo–reflect its name, at least on the surface. Headlining the group is a cover photo of four broad-shouldered, muscular alpha males. Three of them are donning either a leather jacket, a tattoo, or a sword. In the top-right corner of the cover is a full moon, which is commonly associated with the vampire trope (“How Is Moon Connected”). Turning to the profile photo, we notice a single, well-built white male who fits all the stereotypes of a bad boy and more–abs popping out, Hercules-like upper body and arms, chiseled face, tattoos, spiked bracelets and a spiked collar, and a silver chain wrapped around his forearm (“Dangerous Hero”). Clearly it appears that the creators of the group had some preconceived notions of the bad boy trope. It could also be possible that the images were updated sometime midway through the group’s existence, once the collective interests of its members became more clear? Unfortunately, my initial attempt to contact the group’s founder to inquire more about this was left unanswered. But either way, it continues to play on existing stereotypes of the bad boy character–that he has extraordinary sex appeal and raw, yet dormant strength. However, is there more to the dangerous hero trope than just physical sex appeal? To find out, let’s dig into what some of the group’s earliest members have to say.
The Group’s Origins
The group was assembled on January 27, 2010, almost precisely three years after Goodreads was launched, by three moderators. By the end of the year, the group had amassed 456 members in total. To date, the group boasts approximately 5,800 members and is now ranked as the 94th most popular group on Goodreads by member count out of the 700,000+ groups that are currently available (“Goodreads API, “Popular Groups (Page 5)”). The first, and one of the most active threads in the group, Introductions, was created by the first member of the group, Danielle The Book Huntress, to gauge readers’ motives for joining. “Please introduce yourself. Name? Why did you join? Who is your dangerous hero(es)? Why do you like dangerous heroes? (“Danielle”)” The first post in the history of the group is composed solely of these four questions and an abrupt request for members to introduce themselves. Posing these questions as the first contribution immediately gives way for its members to start shaping the group’s collective interests and its long term vision. Centered around the individual member, the group seeks to establish its position in the community by being user-driven, feeding off of readers’ interests in the dangerous hero to sustain itself.
Unpacking the Introductions
From the fifty responses on the first page alone, one can decipher several recurring themes that, when sewn together, display a vibrant thirst for dangerous heroes that immediately attempts to tear down the taboo nature of the collective interest while also nourishing the remnants. The first response to Danielle’s question emits a sense of unyielding attraction towards the bad boy hero. Mar replies saying “the darker and more dangerous, the better the loving” and acknowledges that they are “a sucker for the bad, bad ole’ boys” (“Mar”). Such a juxtaposition gives rise to many questions as to the correlation between a man’s brutality and his affection. But the more interesting part of the response is the disconnect between “dark” and “dangerous.” In contrast to the word “dangerous,” darkness has a lot more to unpack in its connotations. Dark characters are those who are enigmatic, unpredictable, or mysterious, none of which are necessarily dangerous in nature. As a result, dark characters make for interesting characters in novels, but are hard to find in real life, as many of the group members suggest. The Goodreads group allows readers to share their conceptions of the dark character archetype, as well as books that epitomize the dark hero, thus checking multiple boxes on many readers’ list for what they want to see in a captivating story.
“sexy and manly”
Amongst other early comments, there is a noticeable appreciation of the bad boy’s association with physical attractiveness. Tennille’s comment, for example, expresses her interest in dangerous heroes because they are “sexy and manly,” and she even states that she is unable to pick her favorite dangerous hero because they are “all sooo HOT” (“Tennille”). Her comment is one of many others that implies that sexual appeal of bad boys is certainly a dominant factor in luring women to the bad boy trope. But sex isn’t everything, but it is something to keep in mind when considering that this is a community that nurtures, in part, women’s sexual fantasies. But it still isn’t everything.
We want what we can’t have.
It is not uncommon for people to crave what they cannot have in real life. Professor Maryanne Fisher at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada argues that this is one of the biggest reasons women read romance fiction in the first place (“Fisher”). For some women in the Goodreads community, reading about dangerous heroes gives them a way to temporarily trade their current relationship for a fantasy that they find to be unachievable in real life. One married group member describes her pleasure in the subgenre as the equivalent of “window shopping… in stores [she] probably wouldn’t actually buy anything from” (“Cindy”). Another married commenter states that she is “married to a very good boy, so these bad boys allow [her] to live out some fantasies” (“Stephanie”). These comments contribute to the normalization of the bad boy craving as a getaway from real life, for the trope is framed in a way that makes the dangerous hero appear almost intangible and unachievable, but imaginable. From this, we can tell that the group serves as a safe space for women to reveal their fantasies that contrast with their real lives. They allow women to escape their current reality, whether it be an existing relationship or no relationship.
Just because women seek romance novel bad boys as a source of escaping reality doesn’t necessarily mean they are unsatisfied with their existing relationships; and it certainly doesn’t insinuate that their desire to escape reality through fiction is a permanent feeling and transcends into their real life relationships. In Fisher’s article “How Much Do Romance Novels Reflect Women’s Desires,” she asserts that what women desire in their fantasies doesn’t necessarily translate to what is ideal in real life. She breaks down this concept by offering a metaphor of a child learning a new skill. She offers that “all children start off drawing people with a big circle head with long stick legs – is it because they see people in this way? No! It is because they lack the skill to adequately recreate what they see” (“Fisher”). Women’s conceptions of relationships are constantly evolving, even when they’re already in existing relationships. In this way, the Dangerous Hero group allows women to share their own fantasies and gain from others’ to satisfy a forever-evolving lust for the ideal hero that they can’t have in real life.
In the Goodreads group, there is a noticeable attraction towards masculinity, strength, and sexual dominance amongst its members. However, some women see this as an opportunity to take the reins and control the fury of their men. This is reflected in quite a few of the introduction posts. Aimee describes her interest in dangerous heroes as fulfilling her desire in “taming (…) the savage beast” (“Aimee”). Like a lion in a cage and a whip in her hand, the perception of dangerous men as tameable and only women being capable of controlling them strives to disrupt gender stereotypes by creating male heroes that are dependent on the heroine, rather than the other way around. Another user, Zeek, says that she desires a “man stronger than [her], and [she’s] pretty strong & independent [herself],” adding that an alpha male isn’t a “stupid bully jock,” but someone who is “quiet and confident and doesn’t need to throw his weight around to oooze authority” (“Zeek”). Her comment, along with Aimee’s, suggests that it is strong men that need strong women, but strong women desire strong men. This need-want relationship produces a powerful, mutual dynamic that disestablishes gender norms. The stronger the woman, the greater her desire for a strong man.
On the flip side, many members of the group would also agree that it is possible to simultaneously be a feminist and take a liking to a strong, assertive male protagonist that is opposite a submissive female heroine. In a thread titled “When does dark-and-dangerous go too far?” Jessica says that “to [her], the biggest part of being a feminist is the right to choose. So if someone wants to be submissive whoever they are with that is their choice,” suggesting that a female protagonist who submits herself to a strong hero doesn’t necessarily compromise her feminism, but the other way around (“Jessica”). Another member, Susan, even suggests that being the submissive one in a relationship can be beneficial, as it “can be a tremendous, temporary relief of responsibility” (“Susan (the other Susan)”). To these readers, feminism isn’t about the woman being more dominant in a relationship. It’s about empowering the woman to choose where she fits into the relationship, even if it may be the role of a submissive heroine who serves opposite a physically dominant male hero.
Appeal of the Anti-Hero in Modern Romance
The group has a Themes subcategory that attempts to break down various common sub-tropes within the bad boy trope to better understand why they have become so popular. The earliest thread in the group poses the question “Why are antiheroes so fascinating?” Many of the responses echo the various interests laid out by the commenters in the Introduction thread, but in ways that really work to unpack the highly complex nature of the trope. Member Ridley suggests that romance fiction benefits from heavily flawed, conflicted characters because they tend to have weaknesses that offer opportunities for redemption. She says that “it’s just that much more satisfying to wring good behavior out of someone. If a church group donates to charity, nobody notices. But if the local Hell’s Angels do, everyone takes note” (“Ridley”). This may not be a desire that is unique to romance fiction readers, but it certainly is one that redefines what it means to be good and–more crucially–what it takes to achieve readers’ empathy.
Ilona Andrews is a popular wife-and-husband pseudonym author of the trope for many members of the group. One member, Crystal, gives four reasons for her interest in the author as “one for [her] delectable alpha heroes, two for [her] awesome kick ass heroines, three for [her] awesome world building, and four because anyone who can use fuzzy magical syphilis as a plot point I must bow down too” (“Crystal”). From her appraisal, it appears that Andrews is a highly versatile author, but her representation and understanding of the “alpha herores” is what’s most relevant to this discussion. Andrews calls the heroic concoction of good and bad discussed earlier an “alphahole” trope. She defines a modern alphahole as someone who is:
generally aware he isn’t a good guy. He is, before all else, competent. He excels at his chosen profession, whether it is making billions, being a Duke, or running a ragtag crew of immortal werewolves trying to guard the world from horrible evil. By extension, alphahole is often rich, because he manages his money well. Alphahole delivers. If he invites you to dinner, you can bet your life that he has made a reservation; if your car breaks down, he will either fix it himself (points for additional competence) or make a mechanic appear nearly instantly out of thin air; if a monster is demolishing downtown, alphahole will run toward it; and if a sick child requires rare medicine that isn’t available at any pharmacy nearby, alphahole will find it. Alphahole has no chill and takes no crap.
Because of his superhuman competency, alphahole is often a leader, both admired and sometimes feared by those under his command. He expects to be obeyed. When he isn’t obeyed, he gets put out and forces compliance. He is arrogant and ruthless, sometimes cruel, seemingly unfeeling, and at the onset of the story, he often treats heroine with disdain and attempts to order her around. In most cases, the heroine reacts poorly to his attempts to control her, which puzzles, infuriates, and intrigues him (“Andrews”).
We notice that there’s a subtle contrast between competency and arrogance, which are intertwined to create the notion that the bad boy anti-hero will do anything at his disposal to achieve his goals, whether in his own self-interest or in the self-interest of the heroine. This ruthless aspect of the bad boy protagonist is what establishes him as a part of the trope. Andrews implies that the modern anti-hero normally has some unique trait that assists him in his bad boy endeavors, whether it be a raw talent, a traumatic experience, or loyalty (“Andrews”). This unique trait eventually becomes interwoven with the female protagonist’s own goals, which ultimately results in a mutual understanding of some sort that develops into love.
Women can fantasize, romanticize, and read whatever they desire, and Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group empowers them to do it. Nurturing each other’s interests in the bad boy character gives women the confidence to embrace their unique, yet not isolated, interests in the trope. The group is empathetic and accepting of all opinions and goes even further to challenge existing themes and archetypes in romance fiction, even those that already consist of a bad boy hero. It appeals to all types of female romance readers; and the group closely reflects the ever-changing wishes of women in terms of the kinds of men they’d like to see more commonly depicted in contemporary romance fiction.
Aimee. “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group – Introductions/Group Housekeeping: Introductions Showing 1-50 of 2,898.” Goodreads. Goodreads, January 27, 2010. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/280374-introductions#comment_13116761.
Andrews, Ilona. “Release Schedule.” ILONA ANDREWS, February 23, 2016. https://ilona-andrews.com/brief-analysis-of-alphahole-trope-in-romantic-fiction/.
Brzozowski, Kat. “Beneath the Leather Jacket: Writing with the Bad Boy Trope.” Swoon Reads, September 21, 2016. https://www.swoonreads.com/blog/beneath-leather-jacket-writing-bad-boy-trope/.
Cindy. “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group – Introductions/Group Housekeeping: Introductions Showing 1-50 of 2,898.” Goodreads. Goodreads, January 27, 2010. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/280374-introductions#comment_13113496.
Crystal. “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group – Authors Book(s) Discussion: Ilona Andrews Showing 1-29 of 29.” Goodreads. Goodreads, May 12, 2010. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/333500-ilona-andrews#comment_16565593.
Danielle. The Book Huntress (Back to the Books). “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group – Introductions/Group Housekeeping: Introductions Showing 1-50 of 2,898.” Goodreads. Goodreads, January 27, 2010. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/280374-introductions#comment_13113446.
“Elizabeth Khuri Chandler Tells the Origin Story of Goodreads.” Literary Hub, May 17, 2019. https://lithub.com/elizabeth-khuri-chandler-tells-the-origin-story-of-goodreads/.
Fisher, Maryanne. “How Much Do Romance Novels Reflect Women’s Desires?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers. Accessed July 16, 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/loves-evolver/201007/how-much-do-romance-novels-reflect-womens-desires.
Goodreads API. “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group.” https://www.goodreads.com/group/members/29443
“How Is Moon Connected to Werewolves and Vampires?” Astroyogi.com. Astroyogi.com, n.d. https://www.astroyogi.com/articles/how-is-moon-connected-to-werewolves-and-vampires.aspx.
Jessica. “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group – Food for Thought: When Does Dark-and-Dangerous Go Too Far? Showing 1-50 of 54.” Goodreads. Goodreads, May 19, 2014. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1822641-when-does-dark-and-dangerous-go-too-far?comment=98793093#comment_98793093.
Mar. “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group – Introductions/Group Housekeeping: Introductions Showing 1-50 of 2,898.” Goodreads. Goodreads, January 27, 2010. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/280374-introductions#comment_13113483.
“Popular Groups (Page 5).” Goodreads. Goodreads, n.d. https://www.goodreads.com/group/popular?page=5.
Ridley. “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group – Themes: The Appeal of the Antihero Showing 1-19 of 19.” Goodreads. Goodreads, January 27, 2010. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/280442-the-appeal-of-the-antihero#comment_1312622.
Stephanie. “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group – Introductions/Group Housekeeping: Introductions Showing 1-50 of 2,898.” Goodreads. Goodreads, January 27, 2010. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/280374-introductions#comment_13121781.
Susan (the other Susan). “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group – Food for Thought: When Does Dark-and-Dangerous Go Too Far? Showing 1-50 of 54.” Goodreads. Goodreads, May 19, 2014. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1822641-when-does-dark-and-dangerous-go-too-far?comment=98793093#comment_98800649.
Tennille. “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group – Introductions/Group Housekeeping: Introductions Showing 1-50 of 2,898.” Goodreads. Goodreads, January 27, 2010. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/280374-introductions#comment_13113496.
Wendy. “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group – Introductions/Group Housekeeping: Introductions Showing 51-100 of 2,898.” Goodreads. Goodreads, January 28, 2010. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/280374-introductions?page=2#comment_13148377.
Zeek. “Dangerous Hero Addict Support Group – Introductions/Group Housekeeping: Introductions Showing 51-100 of 2,898.” Goodreads. Goodreads, March 19, 2010. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/280374-introductions?page=6#comment_14740843.