For every fated romance and one true pairing, there are the runner-ups who burn brightly and fade away—they’re not necessarily bad guys, but they’re not the right guy. The wrong love interest helps crystallize what the heroine really needs in a partner, rather than what society has told her she should want. Here’s our take on what we learn from the five types of male love interests who don’t stick around, and why sometimes fantasies should stay fantasies.
Who are the ones you meet before the one? For every fated romance and one true pairing, there are the runner-ups who burn brightly and fade away —they’re not necessarily bad guys, but they’re not the right guy. In romantic stories about straight women, there are five main types of red herring male love interests–and each represents a particular type of guy to be wary of, with a good reason he’s not Mr. Right.
But these guys do fulfill an important role; they’re plot devices that help push our heroine toward who she really wants. Red herring love interests often correspond to well-trodden fantasies of what the perfect relationship looks like. The problem is that when that fantasy becomes a reality, it never quite lives up to expectations. So the wrong love interest helps crystallize what the heroine really needs in a partner, rather than what society has told her she should want. Here’s our take on what we learn from the five types of male love interests who don’t stick around, and why sometimes fantasies should stay fantasies.
CHAPTER ONE: THE RICH GUY
A rich boyfriend is set up as a cheat code for life. He elevates you to a new social status, gets you into the best bars and clubs, takes you on the fanciest holidays, and treats you like a princess. However, what the rich guy onscreen often teaches us is that money isn’t everything, and definitely shouldn’t be the foundational aspect of a relationship. In a number of stories, we see how wealth has the power to get people interested. In Friends, the extreme wealth of Monica’s flirtatious customer Pete Becker pushes her to overcome her initial lack of interest in him. When he’s just the flirty customer, Monica rebuffs his advances. But after she learns how rich he is–and he bombards her with expensive gestures–she gives him a chance and actively tries to develop an attraction for him. Eventually, she does feel something for him–something she probably would never have discovered if Pete weren’t rich, in which case Monica likely would have trusted her gut and not dated him at all.
Monica: “He has everything, plus he actually has everything.”
- Friends: Season 3, Episode 19
Still, in the end, Pete’s successful-businessman tendency to throw himself into risky, all-consuming ventures until he dominates makes him a poor match for Monica. And in a number of stories where the rich-guy suitor charms a more regular girl, you get a sense that the culture clash in these pairings is too big.
There’s also often a sense of entitlement that comes with wealth, which is never attractive. In Titanic, Rose abandons her high society fiance Cal for the poor artist Jack. Cal may have the money and the status to give her the perfect-seeming life, but it’s like he sees Rose as property, rather than as a person. And in Reality Bites, Lelaina faces a similar decision: between the bohemian musician Troy and the corporate TV executive Michael. Michael may be able to help her onto a fast track to being a successful filmmaker, but Lelaina wants to be an artist, while Michael is purely driven by commerce. So it’s Troy who really shares her values. Still, it’s not always an easy journey to reject the considerable appeal of the red-herring Rich Guy, with all the luxury and potential shortcuts he represents. And there are plenty of real-life examples of how that appeal can be seriously powerful–and, sometimes, dangerous. The documentary The Tinder Swindler chronicles how conman Simon Leviev convinced women to fall in love with him and take out loans for him, in large part by making them think he was a glamorous billionaire. The initial seduction of The Tinder Swindler’s apparent wealth seemed to blind women to who he really was.
Often onscreen rich guy narratives feel like cinderella stories, so it makes sense that a variation on the rich guy is the Dreamy British guy who feels like some throwback member of the landed gentry (or at least has the cute accent). But outside of a few escapist examples that lean into the fairy tale [The Christmas Prince], stories featuring the rich guy tend to reveal that this fantasy is superficial and too good to be true. In reality, if the heroine wants to stay with this guy, she usually has to change who she is.
The Bad Boy
Fun, sexy and often clever, the Bad Boy seems irresistible. He lives life with an infectious playfulness that makes the heroine feel alive. And while she can see that he’s not ideal relationship material in some ways, she convinces herself she can fix him.
Eventually, though, she’s confronted with the proof that she’s ignoring far too many red flags. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, bad boy Daniel Cleaver–who’s himself based on Pride and Prejudice’s bad boy Mr. Wickham–seems a lot more exciting than stuffy, reserved Mark Darcy. But the problem with the Bad Boy is that he doesn’t have good values–he’s often after money, fun and easy life. So he’s not going to be loyal to the heroin if someone richer, or hotter comes along. And since he doesn’t fully appreciate the heroine’s true worth, he’s not worthy of her.
The Nice Guy
There’s nothing wrong with the nice guy. But does that make him Mr. Right?
Often, the Nice Guy is a phase the heroine goes through after she’s been knocked down and needs to be built up. He reminds her what it’s like to be treated with respect. If the rich guy shows the heroine the stars, then the nice guy brings her back down to earth. In Sex and the City, Carrie falls for nice guy Aidan after growing weary of being taken for granted by unavailable rich guy Big. Aidan acts like a perfect partner to Carrie. Still, while Aidan’s more humble, DIY, All-American life is charming, attractive and sexy,
it’s not who Carrie is So as things get more serious, Carrie freaks out and sabotages the relationship
In New Girl, Cece also starts dating a nice guy, Robby, after she’s feeling burned by her breakup with Schmidt (and her previous history of dating attractive but very not-nice guys). So she’s drawn to average-seeming Robby for his decency. This isn’t enough to mean that Robby is Cece’s true match. But in the end, seeing Cece with Robbie actually helps her real love, Schmidt, better understand what’s important to Cece and stop viewing her as an unattainable prize to be won.
Grey’s Anatomy’s Meredith Grey has her own nice guy conundrum too with the vet Finn, who’s kinder and less arrogant than her main love interest, Derek. But, ultimately, the spark that’s there with her and Derek isn’t with her and Finn. In recent years, there are more and more examples of the faux-Nice Guy (as we’ve discussed in our Nice Guy video) - but even when he’s the real thing, the lesson of the Nice Guy phase is often that niceness isn’t enough on its own. Rather, it should be a baseline within a relationship where there’s more in common.
In Gilmore Girls, Rory actually starts out with the Nice Guy boyfriend, Dean–but as her world gets bigger, she needs a partner who shares more of her intellectual interests or ambitions. So sometimes the heroine just outgrows the nice guy. While she doesn’t want to hurt someone who’s only ever treated her well, ultimately his niceness and her sense of obligation aren’t enough to mean they should end up together.
The Hot Guy
So, most of the guys film and TV heroines end up choosing are pretty hot…but sometimes, they’re really hot. While the nice guys and rich guys may look, for a minute, like potential long-term options, the Hot Guy often feels from the start like a short-term solution.
The driving force in these relationships is, invariably, sex. And sometimes this is important. In Friends, Rachel’s first relationship after jilting Barry at the altar is with the rugged, passionate Italian Paolo. Pre-Paolo, it looks like Ross and Rachel could get together sooner, but that would mean Rachel moving on from one long-term relationship to another without time to breathe in between. So as much as Ross hates Paolo, the fling probably helped Ross by giving Rachel that space to re-center.
Rachel: “That Paolo thing was barely a relationship, all it really was was meaningless, animal sex.”
- Friends: Season 2, Episode 18
Sometimes there’s a sense that the Hot Guy is too hot, and so too good to be true. In 30 Rock, Liz’s neighbor Drew feels like the perfect guy, but he lives in a bubble created by his hotness. Since everyone has always been far too nice to him, he’s like a child who barely knows how to live in the real world. Occasionally the Hot Guy surprises the woman with hidden depth–like when Samantha on Sex and the City expects Smith to just be a stereotypical “himbo” Hot Guy, but falls for him when he turns out to be a deep, Nice person. Still, the Hot Guy can more often be disappointingly superficial (which makes sense given that people tend to value him for his looks). In Insecure, when Issa matches with hot Felix on Tinder, he turns out to be pretty mean and critical–so he doesn’t even deliver that good time she was looking for.
The Perfect on Paper Guy
The Perfect on Paper Guy can be rich, hot, nice, exciting, or all of the above. He’s the guy who has every item on the heroine’s checklist. And if you just look at the facts, he’s probably more perfect for her than the One. But there’s some ineffable reason why the One is her true match instead. In Sleepless in Seattle, Annie feels crazy for risking her relationship with her lovely fiancé Walter to pursue a spark with a guy she heard on the radio, yet in the end that instinct is driving her to the person she’s really meant to be with. Frozen plays with the Perfect-on-Paper love interest–and the Dreamy Rich Guy fantasy–by having Anna fall for Prince Hans, a guy who seems the picture of the classic Prince Charming but is actually a devious schemer. Like the Tinder Swindler, Hans is playing the part he knows Anna will find dashing so that he can use her for his own ends. So in the end, this plot reveals that Anna’s initial ideas about her ideal partner were naive and superficial, and that made her vulnerable to manipulation.
Walter: “ I don’t want to be someone that you or anybody else settles for.”
Anne: “Walter, I don’t deserve you.”
- Sleepless in Seattle
Often the Rich Guy, Bad Boy, Nice Guy, Hot Guy or Perfect on Paper Guy draws the heroine’s interest immediately. He’s clearly attractive and seems wonderful in theory. By contrast, “The One” might be someone unassuming, who doesn’t seem so exciting or perfect at first, and probably doesn’t fit the heroine’s romantic expectations. Fantasies can be valuable, and maybe the One does turn out to be successful, gorgeous or generally wonderful. But ultimately, real relationships are far more complex and unexplainable than whatever theoretical ideas we start out with about what we’re looking for. Sometimes real love doesn’t. make sense on paper, but does in person—and that’s more exciting and interesting than any fantasy could ever be.