The literary world was rocked — ROCKED — this weekend when author Helen Fielding released excerpts from her newest Bridget Jones novel Mad About the Boy to reveal that Mark Darcy — the best/creepiest Colin Firth homage to actually eventually be played by Colin Firth — is now dead.
It's easy to say who cares, but the fact is that lots of people care. Even I care in the way that I went "No!" upon reading the news and then went back to whatever it was that I was thinking about before I read it (bagels, probably). Like it or not, Mark Darcy's dickish-turned-loving behavior to Bridget spoke to a lot of people. Particularly, it spoke to a lot of straight women people. Particularly particularly, it spoke to a lot of straight women people's vaginas.
It's nothing new, of course. Darcy has been making women hot under the corset for centuries — since he was originated in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. If anything, he's the character who launched a thousand characters just like him — stern, stoic men who treat the story's heroine with indifference or disdain until the true reason for his jerkiness is finally revealed. That reason, it turns out, is because he is overwhelmingly in love with her and being a dick is the only way he can contain his feeeeeeeelings. Once that's all out in the open, he stops being an asshole and starts being the romantic he was meant to be all along.
If that explanation was too sloppy/had too many swears in it for you, here's the trope as described by Janice A. Radway in Women Read the Romance: The Interaction of Text and Context:
In conducting an analysis of the plots of the twenty romances listed as "ideal" by the Smithton readers, I was struck by their remarkable similarities in narrative structure. In fact, all twenty of these romances are very tightly organized around the evolving relationship between a single couple composed of a beautiful, de- fiant, and sexually immature woman and a brooding, handsome man who is also curiously capable of soft, gentle gestures.
The...narrative in the twenty romances chronicles the gradual crumbling of barriers between these two individuals who are fearful of being used by the other. As their defenses against emotional response fall away and their sexual passion rises inexorably, the typical narrative plunges on until the climactic point at which the hero treats the heroine to some supreme act of tenderness, and she realizes that his apparent emo- tional indifference was only the mark of his hesitancy about revealing the extent of his love for and dependence upon her.
This narrative is everywhere, particularly in film and literature directed at women. (See Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Dirty Dancing, Love Actually, or Twilight for examples.) A high status man bestows love on low status woman and the pair lives happily ever after, but not before they engage in a good old fashioned hate you-love you back-and-forth.
This is what I like to call the Darcy Complex, mostly because I can't come up with a stock character name quite as catchy as Nathan Rabin's Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But speaking of the MPDG, the Darcy Complex is just the opposite side of the same coin. Whereas a man's female ideal has been painted — in fiction — to be a whimsical flake who exists merely to brighten the life of her male lover, the woman's male ideal — again, IN FICTION — is a brooding hero desires the heroine in spite of public opinion or even his own reservations. Either way, the love interest is somewhat obsessed with the main character and sometimes (See: Wuthering Heights) this is creepier than others.
I understand the appeal of the Darcy trope. In fact, if you pick up my high school copy of Pride and Prejudice and drop it, it will always fall open to the same well-read page — the one containing the passage where Darcy finally confesses his love for Elizabeth, saying, "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you." This line is circled several times in red pen, underscored and, to really drive it home, surrounded by tiny hearts.
Why? Because as a late-blooming, lonely high schooler, the idea that some mysterious, popular, handsome boy might secretly be in love with me was one of the most appealing thoughts in the world (this, I think, is why Twilight is so popular among young girls). As far as fantasies go, it's not too difficult to understand.
Interestingly, in Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, Bridget's new love interest is a 29-year-old named Roxter (that's right: Roxter) who she meets on Twitter. So maybe the scope of love interests for women in mainstream fiction is broadening — though not a lot. Bridget, from what I can tell, is still a white lady who dates white dudes, which is very limited when you compare it to the scope of real life relationships. But does it still say something about a shift in mass appeal? Personally, "a brooding, handsome man who is also curiously capable of soft, gentle gestures" still sounds more appealing than — as The Guardian puts it — a "29-year-old toyboy" who our heroine meets on Twitter, but, hey, as Sly and the Family Stone once put it, different strokes for different folks.