“Eliza has no use for that foolish romantic tradition that all women love to be mastered, if not actually bullied and beaten. ‘When you go to your woman,’ says Nietzsche, ‘take your whip with you’… But to admire a strong person and to live under that person’s thumb are two different things.”
George Bernard Shaw, on his protagonist in the sequel to Pygmalion
The narrative of resistance and domination in relationships has been the recourse of storytellers since pre-Christian times, with the same lurid, visceral quality evident in Greek myth as in the modern trend of disturbingly violent porn. Yet these primal, animalistic tropes of female subjugation now exist in a ‘civilised’ society, whose vernacular is one of #TimesUp, sex positivity and high-street feminism. The image of man as vessel of brute, primitive physicality has proved more appealing than ever in the modern age, persisting from Stanley Kowalski to Christian Grey, but it has been coloured by changing attitudes to violence against women in the last 50 years.
Enter the f-boy, a more sophisticated cousin who doesn’t rely on brute force to subjugate women, and who seeks the challenge of emotional as well as physical conquest. Outwardly a paragon of refinement and civilisation, the f-boy is in fact a repackaging of age-old misogynist attitudes, enacted in the psychological rather than physical realm. Despite increased visibility around gaslighting and coercive control in the modern day, literature suggests that the danger of this mental domination has been understood for centuries. Epochs pass, empires rise and crumble, but, like the cockroach, the f-boy has persisted through it all.
Urban Dictionary defines the f-boy as “a boy who plays with girls’ feelings and will do or say anything they want to hear to have sex with them… they hurt many girls.” The term lacks a non-explicit synonym which can impart the bitterness and derision of a word invented by girls, for girls, to curse a man who has toyed with their emotions. English critic JC Hawley’s concept of the ‘sacred’ in the untranslatable offers an interesting perspective on the untouchable vulgarity of this recently conceived term, fiercely claimed and defended by the female voice: since it loses its meaning with censorship, the word cannot be fully detached from its original emotional context and an equivalent ‘f-girl’ just hasn’t caught on.
Pseudo-intellectuals on Tumblr have long pointed to Zeus as ‘the OG f-boy’. This claim has some merit, as his conquests bridge the archetypes of primitive violator and smooth-talking seducer, but it falters with the recollection that he is a serial rapist and abductor. Although an emotional element might be seen in professions of love to his victims, his conquests rely on force rather than charm. Despite a f-boyish propensity for serial cheating and hollow promises, Zeus is overwhelmingly a force of crude, physical domination. Another favourite, Hamlet, equally fails to make the cut: for leaning too far in the other direction. While his interactions with Ophelia – and their ultimate result – are textbook f-boy, he is too emotional, too sensitive; the true f-boy uses, discards, and emerges unscathed, while Hamlet inflicts collateral emotional damage as part of his own breakdown. Too depressed and unstable to execute a conventional, f-boy ruination, Hamlet might instead be compared to modern ‘sadbois’ whose emotional issues harm their partners in a less calculated manner.
But Hamlet does embody a crucial tenet of f-boy ideology: a disdain for women, and an urge to harm them. He targets Ophelia not as a casual sexual conquest, but as an expression of his desire to punish his mother and women in general. This fundamental misogyny is key to the emotionally detached, callous f-boy who we know and love today, and to his illustrious history of fetishized female exploitation.
Exploitation is the modern face of the primitive, ravishing impulse, where the gestures of violation and domination apparent in Zeus’s rapes are mirrored through structures of ‘civilised’ society. Rejection and repression of such behaviour on the superficial level only serves to heighten the fetish around the unviolated and ‘good’ epitomised by the rural maiden. The age-old lust for innocence and vulnerability is demonstrated by the relish with which medieval soldiers write of attacking convents.
The first English pornographic novel is the story of such a maiden, whose sexual appeal survived well into 1748 and beyond. 14-year-old orphan Fanny Hill is tricked into working in a brothel – in modern parlance, she is a victim of child sex trafficking – yet she emerges as relatively empowered for a woman in an 18th century novel. Her sexual deviance is a source of pleasure rather than shame, and she ends up living a life of wealth and contentment with her loving husband and children. While Cleland’s novel is the product of exploitative attitudes, not least in its voyeuristic nature, at least its author does not revel in inflicting suffering on his creation.
The same cannot be said of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, due partly to its morally constrained Victorian context, which ensures that although its heroine is admiringly portrayed, she is doomed to a tragic fate. Hardy expands the rural maiden trope into a ‘Wessex Eve’ making Tess a pagan-Biblical sacrificial victim upon whom he inflicts constant suffering. Men, of course, are a major instrument of this. The introduction of Angel Clare provides one of the most resonant depictions of the f-boy state of mind in classic literature:
“This white shape stood apart by the hedge alone. From her position he knew it to be the pretty maiden with whom he had not danced. Trifling as the matter was, he yet instinctively felt that she was hurt by his oversight. He wished that he had asked her; he wished that he had inquired her name. She was so modest, so expressive, she had looked so soft in her thin white gown that he felt he had acted stupidly.
However, it could not be helped, and turning, and bending himself to a rapid walk, he dismissed the subject from his mind.”
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Hardy both criticises and perpetuates the fetish for the virginal and vulnerable by martyring Tess to the sexual appetites of his male characters. While Tess is physically violated, her true ruin is emotional: Hardy loads her with assault, trauma, the loss of a child, and, most sorely, moral punishment due to the men who have mistreated her. Although Angel’s moral development makes him too complex for a characterisation as mere f-boy, he shares key traits, such as hypocritical disgust at Tess’s impurity – despite his own sexual experience – and ultimate exemption from punishment. Tess pays the ultimate price for the wrongs which he has committed against her, but Angel gets off scot-free, with an invitation to marry her sister thrown in.
Hardy uses the emotionally manipulative powers of the f-boy to transfer society’s sins onto a female scapegoat who expunges them in death. This is part of a familiar pattern of women being used by men as a means to sin or redemption. The joy of Western authors in punishing women for their mistreatment by men is paralleled only by punishing mistreatment of men; female characters are condemned for being victimised by f-boys, and for daring to reject them.
Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind and Rawdon Crawley of Vanity Fair are examples of that rare and mythical being: the f-boy tamed. Pining for another (more boring) man, Scarlett O’Hara tolerates Rhett for a time and then progresses into deliberate cruelty; their relationship goes from toxic to beyond dysfunctional, until he physically subjugates her in a drunken confrontation that retorts to the language of the brutal-primal and the rape.
“She screamed, stifled against him (…) Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast. For the first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her.”
Rawdon Crawley, Gone with the Wind
Rhett exemplifies the typical f-boy combination of intense psychosexual impact with intense emotional risk – but he also subjugates himself to the increasingly dominant, masculine Scarlett. Beginning as a girlish Southern belle, she becomes defender of the homestead, murdering a male attacker and refusing to mother her children, leaving Rhett to fill this domestic role. However, she is cursed for her refusal to submit to her husband, and conventional femininity, with perpetually unrequited love, first for her cousin’s husband and eventually for Rhett, whose assault makes her appreciate him at last.
Similarly, while Vanity Fair’s Rawdon seems initially f-boy-esque, he ultimately serves to highlight his wife’s masculinity, proving that the truest f-boy of them all is his spouse Becky herself. She manipulates men and women alike in an unflappable, calculated manner, with the further outrage of violating ‘girl code’; she too rejects her child, leaving her moustachioed soldier husband in the maternal role. And while Thackeray emphasises the turn of Fortune’s wheel – rewarding Becky’s vice while the soppy Emmy is stranded on the moral high ground – Becky’s f-boyism does not extend to the benefit of escaping punishment, and like Scarlett, she meets an unhappy, manless end.
The Snapchat Casanovas of today are the product of centuries of ‘civilisation’: a turn against the overtly forceful man-beast of antiquity, against violence, against women, against ‘the institution of the patriarchy’. But the same hypocrisy Thackeray mocks in Georgian society is present in the modern age: the rejection of such attitudes in polite society does not remove them from the human psyche and the gulf between civilised ‘propriety’ and its convoluted and two-faced fetishization remain. The dichotomy between accepted ‘progressive’ values and the sexual taboo of breaking them is as evident today as in the days of Fanny Hill. And sex itself has been civilised, brought above board: women now claim to be empowered because they can choose subjugation. This is epitomised by the mass appeal of BDSM, evident in the racks of collar necklaces and ‘daddy’ shirts on sale at Forever 21. But how much agency do teenage girls really have in this choice when they’ve grown up in a culture of hypersexualisation, 50 Shades, and influencer as career aspiration?
In an age where the battle of the sexes has moved from the physical to the psychological plane, one would do well to turn to DH Lawrence’s illustration of the entanglement of mind and body in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. “A woman had to yield to (a man) what he wanted, or like a child he would turn nasty and flounce away… but a woman could yield to a man without yielding her free, inner self” – aware of her role in sex as “a passive, consenting thing, like a physical slave”, his protagonist refuses to relinquish mental autonomy: revealing “everything about (herself)” to a partner would be a “bore”, a “disease”. Confidence in one’s own mental faculties is the best defence against the trademark mind-games of the f-boy, and it is increasingly relevant in helping women to recognise when casual philandering crosses the line into emotional abuse.