“well-behaved women seldom make history”: redefining what it means to be bad
I posed topless for a female photographer who specializes in boudoir. I’m lying on the bed in a man’s velvet smoking jacket, hair blown across my face. I look at the camera. It’s a beautiful portrait (the photographer is very talented) and I’m proud of it. It reminds me slightly of Manet’s Olympia. That painting caused a scandal at the time (1863) — not because the subject was nude — but because of how she stares at the viewer instead of looking away demurely.
It’s that act of shameless eye contact that makes her – according to the moral dictates of the era — truly “bad”.
I once said to someone, “I don’t know if I’m a good girl with a bad streak, or a bad girl with a good streak.” But I was being ironic. My real point was that, like any other woman (or man), I am both and neither.
In fact, it’s kind of amazing to me that the good girl/bad girl dichotomy still exists. It came up again when movie star Reese Witherspoon accepted an award on television and took her speech as an opportunity to slam other, younger women for being “bad”.
“I understand that it’s cool to be bad, I get it,” she said, in that tone of false camaraderie women sometimes use before they slip in the knife. “But it’s possible to make it in Hollywood without being on a reality show….And when I was coming up, a sex tape was something you hid under your bed…And when you take naked pictures of yourself, you hide your face! Hide your face!” She finished off by declaring that she was going to try to make it “cool” to be a “good girl”.
But imagine this:
Instead of criticizing the same young women for the same things that everybody else is already criticizing them for, she could have slammed reality shows for their misogynist (and monotonous) depiction of women.
She could have criticized the kind of media that turns a girl like Paris Hilton into a celebrity in the first place.
She could have pointed out how advertising – which is so very everywhere that we no longer notice it as we’re breathing it in – co-opts rebellion and sells it back to girls in the “you’ve come a long way, baby” pseudo-liberation supposedly found in a package of cigarettes.
She could have criticized a culture that trains girls to define themselves by their sexual appeal only to punish them for it.
She could have echoed Laurel Ulrich’s famous comment that “well-behaved women seldom make history” and pointed out that ‘bad’ doesn’t have to mean shallow and self-destructive. It can mean cutting against the traditional good-girl dictates of passive and pretty and pleasing and quiet. It can mean speaking up against the status quo, the double standard, the beauty myth. It can mean rejecting the idea that your moral nature depends not on what you do, but on what you don’t do (have sex).
It can mean revolution not rebellion.
She could have said: If you’re going to be ‘bad’, make it MEAN SOMETHING…other than self-sabotage.
Recently I was struck by two different dialogues on Facebook. One was about Charlie Sheen. The other was about Britney Spears. A man posted a status update about going to Sheen’s show, and the thread discussed how smart and funny and talented Sheen is and that despite the controversy and general hubbub, “he’s fine, he’s okay” and “a brilliant marketer” and “totally knows what he’s doing”.
Meanwhile, I’d posted a link to a Britney Spears video on my own Facebook page, partly because I’m fascinated by the way people react to her.
Britney immediately came under fire for being “a poor role model” to young girls everywhere.
No “brilliant marketer” comments for her.
Both Sheen and Spears have a noted history of drug use. Both are sexy and openly sexual. Both are, or have been, at the top of their professions. Both have undergone episodes of bizarre, even tragic behavior that is suggestive of addiction and mental illness.
Yet in the buzz around Charlie Sheen at the height of his notoriety, what I didn’t hear was anything about how he serves as a poor role model for boys.
This is interesting to me, because – unlike Britney, at least to my knowledge – Sheen has a documented history of domestic abuse.
As in: he hits women.
Let me repeat that: he freaking shot the woman.
But this is no big deal. It gets glossed over. Whenever I brought it up – in person or online – people would lift their virtual shoulders in a virtual shrug and move on.
(Possibly because the women involved were so easily characterized as ‘bad’ girls.
Which in the end comes down to this: slut.
Which means: vile and disposable.)
In comparison to Sheen, Britney did reveal her belly button at a young age.
And that, of course, is a threat to civilization as we know it.
Spears is held up as a “poor role model” because we can perceive her as trashy and slutty and “asking for it”. Once you reduce a girl to her sexuality – and god knows that never ever happens in this culture – she becomes less than human, so you no longer have to treat her as a human. Which means the Charlie Sheens of the world – rich, powerful, white – can do with them as they please. If the girls get, you know, a little bit shot — well, it’s their own damn fault. That’s the message that some boys are absorbing from Sheen’s treatment of women and our celebration of him. That attitude, I suspect, will prove more dangerous to girls than any of Britney’s outfits or dance moves or little-girl singing voice.
There’s some irony in the fact that, like Britney, Reese Witherspoon got pregnant at a young age – but unlike Britney, who was married, Reese conceived out of wedlock and had a shotgun wedding.
Also, she said “motherfucker” on stage.
Also, she is still young — and divorced.
Also, she’s an actress (which used to be synonymous with prostitute).
Not so long ago, these things would have pegged her as morally defective. She wouldn’t technically qualify as a “good girl” (which means she’s probably “cooler” than she gives herself credit for).
But what Witherspoon seemed to be getting at in her declaration of herself as a “good girl” has to do with the idea of exposure. Whether it’s a reality TV show or an unfortunate cell phone picture, a good girl does not show herself to the world in this way — or if she does, she “hides her face”.
She guards her shame.
She never makes eye contact.
A “good” girl is not only virginal – and thus qualifies as morally sound, even if, like Jessica Wakefield in the Sweet Valley High novels, she’s kind of a sociopath – but modest and quiet. She covers up. She is seen – without being seen. She talks in a nice voice and smiles a lot. She’s the angel of the house, and stays in the house, which was the historical point of this exercise in the first place.
She’s not loud or opinionated, she doesn’t rock the boat, and she doesn’t draw attention to herself.
All of this is convenient for others. The funny thing about silence is how it tends to favor the dominating person or group. The dominating narrative, the ruling point of view, becomes a sort of truth by default: what we as a culture assume when we’re given no reason to assume otherwise.
It’s the winners who get to write history, after all. The others are silent or silenced.
Which is not my way of saying that appearing on reality TV isn’t a form of evil in its own right, or that a girl should take provocative pictures of herself and post them on the ‘Net. Neither is power so much as a mistaken idea about power (and perhaps too many shots of tequila): when the culture seems to be urging you in one direction (“it’s cool to be ‘bad'”) and you haven’t had time or experience to learn otherwise.
But there does seem to be a link between sexual expression and self-expression, in that a ‘good’ girl is not in full possession of either. Her body doesn’t belong to her: it ‘belongs’ to her father, to her future husband, to the government that decides if she can have an abortion or the religion that decides if she can use birth control.
Her voice doesn’t fully belong to her either: she has to be careful what she says, and how she says it, and who she might offend.
‘Goodness’, then, seems to involve an amputation of the self. You make yourself ‘good’ to be loved and accepted, and in the process sacrifice your authenticity. You give yourself away until you no longer know who you are – assuming you ever did.
I’m not sure what you actually get for this, in the end.
Fitting in, as the wonderful Brene Brown so astutely points out, is not the same as being accepted for who you are – in fact, the one renders the other impossible. Being trained to please and serve leaves you ripe for exploitation; the inability to assert your boundaries makes you easy to abuse in large and small ways.
“Raising a girl to be ‘nice’,” a therapist – a woman in her sixties, married and with daughters — once remarked to me, “is like sending her out into the world with one hand tied behind her back.” She should know. Many of these women turn up in her Beverly Hills office twenty years later: divorced, discarded, aging, with no ability to support themselves and no sense of who they are at core.
So honestly, in the year 2011, these are a girl’s options? She can be ‘bad’ (and disposable) or ‘good’ (and turned in on herself)?
I would like to think that there’s another option.
Not ‘bad’, maybe, but badass.
As in: you get to declare yourself. You get to express your sexuality any way you choose, whether it’s indulging or abstaining, and you’re responsible about it and willing to risk the emotional consequences. When you want or need to speak up — you speak up. You write or blog or paint or dance or study or put on puppet shows or raise your kids or start up your own company or nonprofit or do some combination thereof. You stand for what you believe in. You know what you believe in – and what you don’t. You own your life. You find your tribe. You look out for yourself (ie: you are ‘selfish’). And when you offend people, as anyone with an opinion is bound to do at some point — when people step into your space just to tell you that you suck — you shrug it off and move on, because you know disapproval won’t kill you.
You nurture the fire at your core.
I’m reading the book GAME FRAME, about the rise of social gaming, and came across the idea of “the magic circle”. The circle is the arena in which the game takes place. You step over some kind of threshold and into another world. You participate in a conflict that you recognize as artificial but, for a space of time, accept as reality. You willingly suspend your disbelief.
It struck me that we move in and out of different kinds of magic circles. There are games, yes, but also movies and theater and television and books. There are relationships that become their own world of intimacy. They form a private reality between you and your partner, in which you might ignore your actual experience to buy into an entrancement (“we are soulmates”) or belief system (“he is better and always right, and I am lesser and always wrong”).
And then there’s a magic circle that has to do with language and perception, with how we create our shared reality. The good girl/bad girl labeling strikes me as one of those. Instead of recognizing a woman as a complex and multi-dimensional being, instead of allowing her the flaws, mistakes and happy accidents that come with the trial-and-error process known as the human condition, we stomp her into a cartoon. We accept an artificial conflict (good girl vs bad girl) and make it important. We place her on a pedestal or in the dirt (or on the pedestal so we can knock her off later). We accept this as real instead of a game we can choose not to play.
You could say, instead: We’re all doing the best we can. We all do stupid things from time to time. But we won’t be distracted by this game of blaming and shaming each other. We’ll look to larger forces.
I like this video by Jeffrey Wright, in which he transfers the “willing suspension of disbelief” from the theater to the developing world, from acting to entrepreneurialism and social change.
With the power of your convictions, he says, with the ability to suspend your disbelief and act in the face of uncertainty, you have the chance to reshape reality.
Like Olympia staring out at the viewer — like Manet breaking the rules to paint her — you can reject the game and make a new one.
You can invent a new truth.
Olympia has come down to us through the ages. She refuses to “hide her face”. She is shamelessly comfortable in her own skin. She exudes a badass presence.
Her critics, now, are dust.
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