Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On good girls (talkin' bout the sad girls--wait, no, hold on)

Okay, so a friend hooked me up with a link to a recent Daily Beast article trumpeting the return of the "good girl." (Her comment: "I was a good girl before it was cool!" Being the Catholic daughter of an Italian-American cop in small-town Massachusetts will do that.) The article starts by mentioning some signs of the raunchification of modern society--cardio-striptease (ugh, so trendy), Heidi Pratt (ugh, so desperate), and Brazilian waxes (ugh--wait, no, ow, but I don't really see the harm with this one. Outside of the pain). And I will say that I've noticed an increase in raunchiness; very young girls are being exposed to blatant sexuality early on, and they're not getting the guidance they need to process it and understand it in the context of their own lives.

The much-welcomed antidote to the pole-spinning, nekkid-self-portrait-snapping Miley Cyruses of the world is, obviously, a young role model who is cool and fashionable and popular without acting sexual beyond her ken. And I'm all for that--not for keeping young girls young, but for allowing them to remain young. I think that Abigail Breslin is cool, Demi Lovato is cute as a two-week-old puppy, and Emma Watson is the kind of girl I'd like to hang out with myself, never mind handing them off to The Boy's nieces as a positive influence.

The thing is, these girls aren't just presented as good influences--they're presented as good girls, or, more specifically, "good girls." In practical terms, "good girls" are girls who live up to societal standards for "good"--they're virgins and they don't drink and they don't do drugs and they go to church. They don't smoke, they don't wear short skirts or a lot of makeup, they don't kiss with tongue--they don't do anything to rebel or threaten or even question the status quo. And maybe that makes them happy, and if it does, yay! It's good to be happy.

But what if that doesn't make them happy? I mean, there was a time in my life when I more or less did all of that, mostly for lack of opportunity more than anything else. I was miserable. It wasn't that any of the trappings of "good girl" directly made me unhappy; it was just that I wasn't happy doing it--none of it was really me. I was also unhappy being a 13-year-old; it's how it works. And now, as a drinking, makeup-wearing, tattooed, body-pierced, er... non-virgin (albeit still a churchgoing non-smoker), I'm ridiculously happy--correlation, sure, not causation, but it's there.

Goodness gracious

The question also arises as to whether one can be a good person without being a "good girl." If you spend your money on body art but make sure to save enough to pay your rent and your taxes? If you wear a lot of makeup but also read to your kids and help them with their homework and watch movies with them and explain the parts they don't understand? If you're a 16-year-old who sneaks cigarettes behind the gym and also gets good grades, acts in school plays, and volunteers at the animal shelter? Hell, if you spend your nights spinning around a pole and your days teaching illiterate adults how to read? The concept of a "good girl" creates a dichotomy where there might otherwise be a continuum.

I'm also kind of bothered by the fact that we tend to look at the "good girl" with an emphasis on girl. Of the 13 girls (women?) noted in the article's photo gallery, only one--Emma Watson--has followed the traditional transition to non-girlhood by going to college. And this is not to say that college is the only way to become an adult, but there has been a debate as to whether the professionally handled, fairly surreal life of a child star brings on adulthood early or actually prolongs childhood. Regardless, most of the others listed aren't old enough to vote, much less engage in any of the drinking and whoring around that generally characterizes a "bad girl"--they're still pretty much sheltered, parent-supervised, sometimes homeschooled, and it's easy to be a "good girl" when you're still a girl.

The article also presents to us Bella Swan, who is, above all, pretend, and it's easy to withstand the pressures of society when you're written that way. (That she's an example of a "good girl" who's also a "total asshole" goes unmentioned in the article.) But of course, we know how I feel about her.

Sweet Jesus

In writer Melissa Meltzer's favor, she acknowledges and even explores the effect "good girl" pressure can have on a girl who may be good but isn't, well, "good." She mentions Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl, who points out that the archetypical "good girl" doesn't realistically exist in real life and that trying and failing to reach that particular star can drown a girl in a sense of failure and constant self-criticism. And then there's the legend that's graced many a t-shirt, bumper sticker, and embroidered throw pillow: "Well-behaved women seldom make history." As with many cliches, it carries a grain of truth; women who stick to the societally approved standard behavior and stifle any urge to step out and do what they feel needs doing generally reinforce, not challenge, the status quo.

The part of the article that really reached me, however, was the brief mention of Carlene Bauer's memoir Not That Kind of Girl. Bauer chronicles her journey from small-town fundamentalist evangelical Christian to New York pseudointellectual hipster to a self-possessed, self-aware, satisfied middle ground. The thing that complicates her journey--and makes it memoir-worthy--is that fact that, as a real person, she found it impossible to be comfortable shoehorned into any of the traditional archetypes. As a fundamentalist Christian, she still couldn't accept their vision of a touchy-feely Jesus over her own concept of a somewhat radical, shit-kicking Messiah. As a hipster Sylvia Plathodist, she felt the odd woman out trying to hang on to that relationship with God in that trendily agnostic environment. It was only when she became confident enough to break through the stereotypes and carve out her own personal niche--faithful if not religious, fun if not wild, rebellious within a reason of her own definition--that she found a comfortable place to land.

Of the book, Meltzer writes:
Her weekends as an undergrad might include hanging out at Tower Records (“Stone cold sober. Fully dressed”), attending a pro-choice march, and still making it to church on Sunday morning. Bauer was able to become the kind of girl who was both rebellious and pious, good and little bit bad. It’s the kind of life you can’t easily label, but hopefully one more girls will consider adopting.


Good grief.

Incidentally, the article defines modesty as the "antithesis of the thong." Not necessarily true. One can be perfectly modest on the outside whilst rocking lacy naughtiness underneath. The antithesis of the thong is bodily comfort in the buttular region.

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