The Appeal of the “Dirtbag”-Boy Look

Getty / Everett Collection and Photo Illustration: Aly Lim

For decades, Hollywood has helped define which men are considered attractive simply by casting the same archetype of a traditionally “hot” person: the chiselled jaw, clear skin, charming smile (see: most everything with Ryan Gosling). We’ve seen it in countless TV shows and movies, further pushing outdated beauty standards to the masses. Lately, though, there has been a shift in the narrative, with the unconventionally attractive, “dirtbag” character – with their unkempt hair and tired skin – getting all the buzz.

Take Carmy (played by Jeremy Allen White) on FX’s “The Bear,” for example. Carmy is a hot mess and has all of the physical characteristics of one: greasy hair, amateur tattoos, and undereye bags from too many sleepless nights. And yet, when the show aired, people collectively swooned over him for weeks. The same goes for Dylan O’Brien’s character Colin in Netflix’s “Not Okay” with his platinum bleach-blonde hair, vape in hand, and bad-boy attitude, as well as “Stranger Things”‘s Billy Hargrove (played by Dacre Montgomery) with his dishevelled curls and leather jacket.

Is the appeal of an intentionally messy look that they promise something unconventional – meaning, you don’t know what you’re going to get? Every film and TV show has a hair and makeup team crafting the looks we see on our screens, but what’s interesting is the audience often finds these characters far more attractive than the creators ever intended. So is there a playbook for creating the perfect “bad-boy” look for TV?

Related: The Tattoo Artist From “The Bear” Reveals His Favorite Carmy Tattoos

With Carmy, “it happened organically,” Ally Vickers, hair department head for “The Bear,” tells POPSUGAR. The show’s makeup department head Ignacia Soto Aguilar seconds this: “What I think is happening is that people are really digging this tortured and passionate character.” The key, then, is to not add too much by the way of over-styling or perfecting. You have to keep the look very raw.

In Carmy’s case, White was barely wearing any makeup on screen. Aguilar wanted him to be as real and authentic as possible. Instead, the show told his story by decorating him with tattoos and fake scars and burn marks. “I wanted the audience to know Carmy before getting to know Carmy just by looking at him – he has such an intensity about him,” says Aguilar.

Vickers adds: “Carmy doesn’t have a lot of time for self-care, so we really wanted to stay away from a typical polished ‘TV look.’ Keeping him super gritty and real was the only path to take to stay true to the story we are telling.”

Arguably the most standout detail of Billy’s look in “Stranger Things” is his hair, and that was inspired by one of the It guys of the ’80s, Brat Pack member Rob Lowe. “That’s exactly the image we were going for with Billy,” says Sarah Hindsgaul, the hair department head for “Stranger Things.” A quick look at Lowe’s character Billy Hicks in “St. Elmo’s Fire” shows that aside from sharing a first name, he wears the same big hair and rugged stylings of your typical hot-mess outsider.

“[Creating this type of look] starts in a very simple way, where you’re just putting the character into a category or stereotype,” says Hindsgaul. “Then you start putting all the details in. Kind of like when you do a painting: you draw an outline first, then start colouring it in, and as you’re colouring it in, it gets more detailed and it becomes alive.” In other words, it happens organically.

“People see the raw appeal in his looks, like a diamond in the rough.”

But what is it about this purposefully “dirty” look that so many people find attractive? “‘Bad Boy’ means different things depending on whom you ask,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, New York City-based neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind. “Typically they are attractive, charismatic, mysterious, won’t commit, and live life on the edge.”

There’s an element of relatability at play here. In many cases, these are what most people would consider good-looking men; however, their looks are downplayed by a lack of grooming. “This makes [them] more relatable,” says Dr Hafeez. “People see the raw appeal in his looks, like a diamond in the rough. For those who are not always dressed in the latest fashions with perfect hair and nails, he is a ‘less threatening’ type to fall for as opposed to a Mr Big type in ‘Sex and the City.'”

Perhaps people find this come-as-you-are, I-woke-up-like-this (but actually) look attractive because it offers a trace of authenticity many people are craving right now. That – or everything just looks better on TV.

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