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.

Sep 1, 2010

13 comments · Add Yours

This is GORGEOUS! Thank you!


I am one of those men who has eschewed the ideal ‘gender roles’, exploring me for who I am and not what everyone around me wants me to be. I was raised in a fairly rigid faith, and still call myself spiritual, but am now about as unorthodox as you can be.

I often do follow the rules as I know them, but find I chaff when put in a situation where the rules are holding up something I feel is corrupt, and often speak out against them, getting tossed back in that bin of ‘bad’ as I’m not willing to just let things go I find wrong.

I think everyone needs to push themselves to their limits, even if their limits conform to the norm, as its only at the edges we begin to understand who we really are.


Would you please, please stop writing such deeply engaging posts? I very nearly missed picking my daughter up at the bus because I was so engrossed in this one. ;)

As a girl myself and a mom to a precocious 6 1/2 year-old daughter, the ideas you present here reach out and grab me. I write a column for BabyCenter’s MOMformation blog (http://blogs.babycenter.com/author/jlee19/) all about raising girls, and the more I get into it, the more I realize just how complicated it is to be a girl. The dichotomy of society’s expectations is astounding and seriously confusing … even for a grown woman, never mind a little girl.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and these great resources. You’ve given me many “sparks” for future posts on the world of girls and inspired me to start thinking about setting my own bad girl loose on the world. Life is short, right?


Beautiful posting that I shall spread far and wide, hoping that it helps to encourage you to continue pursuing this rich theme!!

Edges are where all the innovation and creativity concentrates but, in order for them to transform the core, it is important to make certain that they are not simply fringes, doomed to remain peripheral to mainstream life. I develop this distinction here: http://blogs.hbr.org/bigshift/2010/03/three-ways-to-distinguish-an-e.html


As Meatloaf once sang, ‘Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere’


I’ve always liked that line, e.lee :)

I’m father of a 10 year old daughter who is starting to approach what I think of as the ‘socialisation of females’ age, where something makes her decide that fitting in is more important than being her; I’m dreading the day she decides she doesn’t want to play with HTML, that she doesn’t want to watch wildlife documentaries, the day she decides she has to be dumb to be a good girl.

Her mother and I have done our best to give her the strength of will and spiritual strength needed to, if necessary, stand on her own. We already know she has a strong will :) But I also want her to understand that names, ranging from stinky to slut, ARE just labels, usually with no real meaning. I have faith that she will do the right thing throughout her life, but after reading these two articles of yours (this one and the ‘write like a bad girl one’), is it wrong for a father to hope his daughter becomes a bad girl ?




Reviving Ophelia was written by Mary Pipher.
Heard her speak — great author — so please note.


Thanks, will change that immediately.


I was just thinking about the gender divide in relation to fear: I’ve heard too many women talk about what they’re afraid of, what they get other people to do because it scares them, and the reaction is to commiserate rather than encourage them to power through it. On the one hand, it’s good to be able to express your feelings openly, but on the other hand, I don’t want to role model someone who, say, doesn’t take out the trash because of the scary spiders.

I don’t want to tell anyone they should feel no fear or when it’s appropriate. But it’s one place where I see boys getting messages that empower them: you can do it even if you’re afraid, you’ll get less afraid with experience, mature/capable/independent people go ahead and do this. For whom is it socially acceptable to let fear stop them?

(So I would argue also that it’s not just fearless writing that’s interesting but feel-the-fear-and-do-it-anyway writing. And in this era of change, admit that you were afraid and tell us how you got past it.)


I think you’re dead-on. I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately; I’ve been battling some of my own. Fearless isn’t ‘fearless’ if you don’t feel fear at all. The thing is, like you said, to recognize that just because you’re scared is *not* a reason to back away from something that you want or need to do. Someone gave me some great advice last year (although I wish it had been ten or fifteen years ago), which has colored the decisions I’ve made ever since: the decisions you make out of fear are the decisions that you’ll regret the most. Fear is just a feeling. It’s not necessarily connected to reality.

And we’re so crippled by our fear of social disapproval…This was brought home to me by a guy who said, The problem is that women care too much when people call them a bitch. They get hurt by it. Guys call other guys names all the time, and they just don’t give a damn.

I wonder if that’s why the majority of big-name, six-income bloggers tend to be male? Putting yourself out there on the ‘Net invites all kinds of venom & attack once you start drawing any kind of decent audience. Because you only succeed if you have a clear and distinct point of view that draws people to you, which means it will also draw detractors, haters, people who disagree with what you’re doing and are only too happy to throw mud at you. Granted, I think people go after women in a different way than they do men, but it’s still pretty nasty. Maybe men have been better trained, conditioned, to handle the backlash.


Everyone saw me as a good girl in school. For example in one of my classes when everyone was done with working the teacher would let us turn on the radio so someone put on hard rock and I started to sing along with the words because I really loved that song. The person who turned the radio on turned to me and said “Meredith! You listen to this kind of music??” my reply was “what else would I listen to??” after that the ‘outcasts'[in my opinion the only cool ones out there] asked me to join them more often. Still everyone thought I was a good girl and had no opinions and didn’t think for myself. [by the way I have blonde hair and blue eyes] so I went out to make a point to the students and to the teachers I was NOT a quiet, silent, easygoing, nobody! I was myself and I knew what I wanted who I was where I was going! It made me stand out in the room, I would being tarot decks to class and happily announce my beliefs [wiccan] and dye my hair different colors just so people wouldn’t put me in to the “Normal” group. I now realize it was kind of silly but at that time I couldn’t stand being thought of as a ‘Good girl’ it just pissed me off! I honestly dont know why I wrote so much to this post but I had something to say being put into certain ‘good-bad’ groups can change a person and make them push themselves to be noticed by the people that they want to be noticed by. In my case it was the ‘bad’ kids I wanted as my friends and I made it happen. Luckily I was still a good kid I just made people realize I was NOT the blonde airhead cheerleader type and I never EVER would be.


I’ve recently started doing a lot of Vinyasa power yoga, and I’m appalled by how often women yoga teachers (the ones at fitness centers, at least) say things like “Now, I know you have all these really negative thoughts in your head, and are afraid to try new things, and blah blah blah,” and I think “Are they out of their minds?” I come into class wanting to push to my limits and totally explore physical sensations of breathing and stretching and developing strength. When they start harping in hushed, sanctimonious tones, about how, of course, all we women must be timid and terrified of failure if we try to put our feet in new position it communicates an expectation that most women are wimps.


I love this! The bad girl in me is far more creative than the good girl in me. My late grandfather was fascinated with birth order psychology, and he said that being a “people pleaser” is often a defining trait of an oldest child. Yes, I work hard to please people: colleagues, clients, friends, etc. But the results are more interesting when I am taking more of a risk with my words. I came across your blog today and this is my first comment. Subscribing now! Keep up the good work :)


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