why bad girls get all the best lines


Ten months ago I wrote a post called why you need to write like a bad girl. I was groping towards a connection between ‘badness’, writing, and authenticity. Except I didn’t realize this until I read a book (for a nonfiction project I’m working on) called THE CURSE OF THE GOOD GIRL by Rachel Simmons.

(By the way, from some of the responses I got, it became clear to me that men could relate to that post as well. The details might differ, but the struggle to connect with your creative self, your Voice, your spirit, your essential self, whatever you want to call it, is the same for both sexes. Which is why I think creativity is akin to spirituality and why, although I identify myself as an atheist, I’m on as much of a spiritual quest as anyone. But I digress. For I tend to do that.)

In her research, Simmons asked largely middle-class groups of girls to “describe how society expected a Good Girl to look and act.” A sample response indicated that a “Good Girl” gets good grades and has lots of friends. She’s pretty and kind (and generally blonde and blue-eyed).

She also aims to please (“people pleaser”), toes the line (“no opinions on things”) and doesn’t take risks (“follows the rules”). She denies certain negative emotions, especially anger (“doesn’t get mad”) and fears mistakes and failure (“has to do everything right”).


The Good Girl walked a treacherous line, balancing mixed messages about how far she should go and how strong she should be: she was to be “enthusiastic” while being “quiet”; “smart” with “no opinions on things”; “intelligent” but a “follower”; “popular” but “quiet”. She would be something, but not too much.

Compare that to the girls’ descriptions of “bad girls”.

A Bad Girl is “the picture of female failure, a reckless rejection of femininity, everything a girl was told not to be. She was the odd girl out with a bad reputation, low to no status, and few friends…”

Yet she was also independent and authentic. The Bad Girl was outspoken (“speaks her mind”) and self-possessed (“proud”), a risk taker (“rule breaker”) and critical thinker (“artistic”, “rebel”, “doesn’t care what people think”). She was comfortable being in charge (“center of attention”). But she was nothing if not an outcast, an example to Good Girls of what happened when you strayed from the program. Being Bad was social suicide: a big red F in Girl.

What Simmons doesn’t get into here is that the word ‘bad’, when applied to a girl, also means ‘sexually active’. As Leora Tanenbaum points out, at length and in the incredibly convincing argument that is her book SLUT!: Growing up Female with a Bad Reputation, the word ‘slut’ is a shaming device used by girls (as well as boys) against girls who don’t conform to the feminine ideal, whether or not they’re actually promiscuous (often they aren’t). They might be too physically developed too soon, or the wrong ethnicity, or the wrong class; they might be too rebellious, too much of an outsider, too curious, too experimental; they might be too pretty, too “hot”, too much of a threat in the race for desirable boyfriends (and thus deemed “too conceited” and in need of being cut down). In other words, a slut – a bad girl – defies the Good Girl rule of you will be something, but not too much.

A Bad Girl is too much.

So you police her. You punish her. You reduce her to the essential dirty evil horrible badness of female sexuality (a.k.a. that great threat to Western civilization, responsible for destroying men and laying waste to entire kingdoms since the beginning of time).

I find it interesting, this link between sexuality and voice. Your authentic voice is your creative self: it is you, what you think and how you think and what you believe and how you choose to express those beliefs (through paint or writing or academic work or starting up your own company, whatever medium best engages the innate creative intelligence that moves through you). And while your sexuality doesn’t define you, it also expresses who you are and how you were shaped growing up. Is there anything more personal – and personally revealing – than a sexual fantasy? It’s no coincidence that a great sex scene in a novel is used to develop character:

The uniqueness and beauty of fiction is its ability to enter deep into the individual’s interior world. To shy away from describing sex, which has a significance for most individuals, is to shy away from fully exploring a character. Fearless writing is the only interesting writing. (Sophie Powell, Words Without Borders)

I like that – “fearless writing is the only interesting writing”. I think it’s true. And fearless writing is authentic writing, a direct channel to your essential self. Which is also a sexual self.

You see the problem this poses for the Good Girl.

Female artists of the past tend to be “fallen women” in one way or another: divorced (Edith Wharton, who was actually quite a scandalous writer in her time and not the stuffy bluestocking she’s portrayed as now), bisexual and cross-dressing (George Sand), lesbian (Gertrude Stein), living out of wedlock with a married man (George Eliot).

Says one of the “sluts” in Tanenbaum’s book:

In a sense my reputation was a freeing experience. The reputation put me outside the boundaries of accepted behavour. Once you’re crossed a line or stepped outside of what is accepted, then you have much more freedom to experiment with who you are because you don’t have the same social pressures…You can think of yourself outside the “good girl” roles…and you can find other boundaries for yourself.

In other words, you can’t be freely who you are until you fall to the edges of society as we know it.

Which is why genuine rebellion comes at such a high price. Female rebellion in and of itself doesn’t get celebrated the way white male rebellion does through images of James Dean or Marlon Brando or Jack Kerouac or even a telephone-throwing Russell Crowe. Female rebels – from Janis Joplin to Britney Spears – are put forward more or less as cautionary tales, their lives a succession of pain, failed romances, addiction and self-destruction. We’re more interested in Sylvia Plath’s suicide than her poetry. It is possible to transcend this, of course, but you have to be a brilliant fucking genius, like George Eliot (who became a kind of “honorary man”). Or, hell, Madonna.

Then again, what’s the alternative? To chop off parts of yourself in order to present the perfect social self? (And if you won’t do it yourself, no doubt there are some people in your life who would be happy to do it for you.)

Maybe if enough of us fall to the edges – declare ourselves “fallen” in proud loud voices – then we can start to redefine those edges as a whole new kind of center. This includes men as well as women. So long as men are forced to define themselves against what is “feminine”, they’re just as trapped in their own rigid definitions of who they can and cannot allow themselves to be. I’m not saying you need to go rob a bank or have multiple affairs or pose nude or declare some kind of social revolution (although the latter isn’t such a bad idea…) Putting pen to paper is a revolutionary act in itself, and always has been.

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