Pop Culture's Bad Girls & Nasty Women

The word “bad” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “not of the expected or requisite quality; poor, worthless, deficient, inferior.” This is, of course, the general sense of “bad” we use to describe things that are unpleasant or otherwise wrong. In its slang, use, however, the term has less often been pejorative than congratulatory: being “bad,” in this sense, is not wrong but transgressive and exciting. The OED notes that the slang version of bad is a “general term of approbation: good, excellent, impressive, especially stylish or attractive.” A related use of “bad” derives initially, like so much slang, from African-American culture and refers to a person who is “dangerous or menacing to a degree which inspires awe and admiration.” 

These latter two slang definitions should be familiar to us, for they have long pervadedour pop culture imaginary. The 1980s, for instance, marked a particularly good time to be “bad.” 1982 saw the release of the well-known song “Bad to the Bone,” each verse testifying to the manly prowess of a self-fashioned lothario. “And when I walk the streets/Kings and Queens step aside/Every woman I meet/They all stay satisfied,”  one verse reads, before the repeated chorus comes in “I’m here to tell ya honey/That I’m bad to the bone.” Only five years later Michael Jackson struck a similar chord with his hit “Bad” (from the album of the same name). This song, too, celebrates machismo, though in a slightly different sense, as the lyrics testify to the singer’s toughness. “Your butt is mine/Gonna tell you right,” it opens. In an imagined verbal sparring match, the singer baits his opponent: “Your talk is cheap/You’re not a man/You’re throwing stones/To hide your hands.” If the interpolator is derided for his implicit femininity– the taunt of “not being a man” –  then the speaker’s refrain that he is, by contrast, “bad” has an explicitly masculine overtone.

As these two examples begin to attest, the ability to be “bad” in the best possible sense has been the prerogative of men. A cursory search of movie titles with the word “bad” in it yields further evidence. We find “bad” most frequently, though not solely, deployed in connection with men. There is “Bad Boys” (1983), the more well-known 1995 movie of the same name and its 2003 sequel, “Bad Santa,” “Bad Boy Bubby,” “Good Boy, Bad Boy,” and others. That these titular men often screw up or break the law is a demonstration not of their failings but of their coolness; many of these men, as well, are handsome and virile. After all, as the cliché goes, all women love a bad boy. Or else, as in the movie “Superbad,” the male protagonists’ bad behavior is a source of comedy. Far from being cause for censure, men’s bad behavior – especially that which conforms to ideals of heteronormative masculinity – has been venerated.

Of course, women have not often or universally been granted the same liberty to be bad. It is not news that women’s bad behavior has historically been punished. And women of color, doubly so. Women, after all, bear the curse of “Eve”; they have been burned at the stake for untoward behavior designated “witchcraft”; and they have borne the scarlet letter, ostracized for being whores rather than virgins. To enumerate the many instances of women’s bad behavior and its damning repercussions would be impossible. Suffice to say, however, that the routine condemnation of women’s shortcomings is a far cry from the frequent celebration of men’s indiscretions. I want to suggest, however, that there is a paradigm shift occurring in contemporary culture, one which seeks to recuperate women’s “bad” behavior and make it a cause equally worthy of recognition and celebration. Increasingly, women are reclaiming terms like “bad” as a form of personal and then inevitably political resistance. I’ll offer a few brief examples.

The first is Roxane Gay’s powerful 2014 book Bad Feminist. A feminist scholar, writer, and Purdue University professor, Gay is a leading voice in the contemporary intersectional feminist movement. Her books document the real and fictional lives of women – some of them as her most recent book attests, “difficult” – and details everything from identity politics, to television, to reflections on teaching. Her use of the epithet “bad” in her most well-known book is a testament to the shift I want to describe. Here’s what she says about being a “bad feminist” in the introductory essay to that collection:

I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain…interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect […] [I am] a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.

I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal.

Crucially, Gay’s manifesto grants license to be “bad.” For Gay being “bad” is both an intellectual and an embodied matter; it is an acknowledgement of the chasm between theoretical idealism and lived experience. Being “bad” to Gay means embracing the ways in which she does not and, in part, refuses to meet an ideal. And just as boys have long been rewarded for their “bad,” aggressively heteronormative behaviors, Gay gives us permission to indulge in our most stereotypical gendered behaviors, despite fully acknowledging that these are often socially constructed norms detrimental to women. 

Though undoubtedly personal, Gay’s credo speaks to a certain generational – and perhaps particularly millennial – ethos. Consider that a slew of recent television shows and movies, especially those spearheaded by women, take up Gay’s “bad feminist” mantle. The zeitgeist HBO show Girls – which Gay rightly criticizes for its lack of diversity in her own book – actually falls in line with much of what Gay herself espouses. Its protagonist Hannah Horvath, who might well (as she claims) “be the voice of [her] generation” is deeply flawed both in terms of her personality and, as society would have it, according to her looks. She is exasperatingly blind to her privilege and mired in an infuriating narcissism. She is overweight, has OCD, dates all of the wrong guys – including a few “bad boys” – and makes impulsive decisions. The list goes on. Her three privileged, white best friends are all equally subject to bad decisions and bad behavior. Yet whatever shortcomings the character, the show and its creator, Lena Dunham, herself has – and they are multiple – Hannah and, by proxy, Dunham embraces all of this messiness and celebrates it in a way that has in fact been groundbreaking in changing the cultural conversation. Like Gay, the show often rejects being placed on a feminist pedestal. If it sometimes portrays its grievous lack of perspective, it nonetheless cultivates sympathy for its characters in a way that not only allows us, as an audience, to identify similar flaws within ourselves but to understand that if we are “bad” or at least imperfect, we are not less worthy of attention and humanity.

Other shows have certainly followed suit, offering comedic send-ups of women’s “bad” behavior. Comedy Central has been a particularly prolific source of such material with stars like Sarah Silverman and more recently Amy Schumer, whose full-length movie bears the indicative title “Trainwreck,” and through shows like “Broad City.” “Broad City,” written by Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson and produced by SNL alum Amy Poehler, centers on two women in their twenties who are sexually promiscuous, frequently indulge in marijuana, fail to hold down steady jobs, and generally have a sense of joie de vivre incompatible with real world demands. A quick Wikipedia overview of the show notes that the two women “experience adventures of carelessness and frivolity in New York City,” while pursuing “relentless hedonism” and “schemes.” Part parody, part ode to the millennials just trying to make it in the big city, its lead characters are “failures” by any standard measure and yet they, too, are unabashed, unapologetic feminists. Their refusal to conform to social expectations is not only intentionally funny but, again, it occasions our empathy. We root for them. We see these problematic but complex women as arbiters of what feminism can, in that overused phrased, “look like.” As TV critic Alessandra Stanley writes of the show, “it’s the self-degradation that gives it feminist cachet […] That was not imaginable in earlier eras of television. The most successful sitcom heroines were plucky strivers, and the comedy lay in the pratfalls they took to achieve their goals.”

But even plucky strivers today are allowed to have their “bad” moments. As a final example, the 2016 comedy “Bad Moms,” starring Mila Kunis, centers on a hardworking career woman struggling to keep up with the demands of being an attentive, “good” mom. The show trades in stereotypes, from Kunis’ character striving to achieve that illustrious, misguided goal of“having it all” to the yoga-loving, expertly coiffed stay-at-home mom. Despite its reliance on these tropes, however, the show chastises a real phenomenon of so-called “mommy-shaming” and, more broadly, an internet culture that both sets impossible standards for motherhood and quickly derides those who fail to live up to them. It takes to task an entrenched, sexist narrative about what makes a “good” mother and chooses instead to laud those women who are trying and often failing to do their best. It lauds those mothers who are sometimes selfish or look after their own needs or reject some hypothetical archetype.

Though such brief synopses cannot give full account to this contemporary trend (one thinks, for instance, of Rachel Bloom's excellent CW Show "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), it offers a glimpse into the way women today more than ever seem to want and need to reclaim those designations that have been used derisively against them –  like “bad,” or “difficult” (as the title of Gay's latest book asserts) – in order to afford themselves a cultural currency traditionally enjoyed by men. And as always, such representations in pop culture matter. In all of these examples, “to be bad” is ultimately to fail to accommodate the proscriptive demands of a culture – whether it be a certain strain of feminism or a patriarchal ideal of women’s roles as workers, wives or mothers. It is a reminder that perfect women are no doubt only the stuff of Pygmalion myths. And it is, finally, a political rallying cry.

Indeed during the 2016 election, the move to reclaim language for its liberating potential reached an apotheosis when Donald Trump, in the second presidential debate, called opponent Hillary Clinton a “Nasty Woman.” This insult was no longer just directed at one woman but at all women who had been demeaned, condescended to, overlooked or mocked for their ambition and competence. It was for many an intimately felt remark and, as a result, became a near-immediate viral sensation, as people flooded to social media and even capitalized, quite literally, on the phrase (through t-shirts, mugs, and other paraphernalia) to declare their “Nasty Woman” status and thus to proclaim their solidarity. The phrase became a repudiation of the terms that are meant to degrade us and a celebration of the ways in which we have both lived, thrived, sometimes failed but inevitably endured. To be sure, the same momentum behind the phrase catalyzed the women’s marches around the country at the dawn of Trump’s presidency. Most importantly, for many women, especially those born after the height of the second-wave movement, this marked a watershed moment in our contemporary feminist history. It was a incredibly forceful reminder, once more, that “the personal” is always and still “political.” Finally, it was not just a call to attend more carefully to language but a trenchant, necessary reminder about the incomparable reclamatory power that language alone can have. It was a reminder, as Adrienne Rich writes in her stunning poem “Diving Into the Wreck,” that “The words are purposes. The words are maps.” That we must go “to see the damage that was done” and find “the treasures that prevail.”




Trump's Victory & Transgender Illegibility

Like many, I’ve struggled to make sense of Trump’s victory. I have read and rationalized, cried and determinedly continued on. The day after the election, I was with group of smart young women attempting to reconcile ourselves to Hillary Clinton’s loss. How do we better understand the forces at play? How do we organize as women and intersectional feminists? These were conversations we, along with many others across the nation, had. One question in particular remained: when will we see a woman shatter that “highest and hardest” glass ceiling (as Clinton put it in her stunning concession speech)? And who will it be?

There has already been speculation: Elizabeth Warren? Michelle Obama? Do any of these women stand a chance? None of us can know. But one of the women I was with at this gathering, whose thoughtfulness I greatly admire, raised an important point: Michelle Obama has something that neither Clinton nor Warren has: clearly legible femininity.

For eight years, we have been conditioned to see Michelle Obama not just as First Lady but as a devoted wife and mother. A recent movie even depicted Michelle and Barack Obama’s love story, folding Mrs. Obama’s life neatly into the “marriage plot” narrative we expect of women, even those whose professional successes (like hers) have been exceptional. We have admired her toned physique; her arms, though “strong,” have never been viewed as un-ladylike. We have lauded her fashion choices, which have inevitably erred on the side of traditionally feminine looks: skirts and dresses. Her recent shoot in Vogue is a testament to her conventional womanly beauty. So, too, and in a much more egregious way are recent comments a West Virginia mayor made about her. Though I will not repeat them here, it is noteworthy that in addition to her race, the comments made explicit reference to her gender: “in heels.”

Compare this to our national image of Clinton (and to a lesser extent, Warren). Though Clinton has devoted her life to women and children’s causes, her image has never been a clearly maternal one. To much national outrage, she rejected the image of herself as nurturing, domestic housewife by refusing to “stay home and bake cookies.” Perhaps this is why her appeals to her status as a “grandmother” throughout the campaign never landed with the force she desired. In addition, her husband’s dalliances have cast a long shadow of doubt on her role as wife, dismantling our expectations of the “happily ever after” that should have followed the fulfillment of her own marriage plot. Not least of all her fashion choices, voice, and appearance have been the subject of unending scrutiny. Unlike Michelle Obama, who has favored dresses and skirts, Clinton’s signature is her pantsuits. She is considered “shrill” and, worse, “aggressive.” She is seen as ambitious and power hungry. She is, in sum, derided for being decidedly un-feminine.

Importantly, however, Clinton is never quite viewed as a thoroughly masculine figure. Instead, she seems to be a woman – literally and figuratively – in the trappings of a man, embodying a sort of transgressive drag. She represents an androgyny that is anathema to a large swath of the population. Her gender performance is not clearly ascribable to the categories of “man” or “woman.” Clinton occupies some nebulous, unacceptable space between. She debunks our understanding that gender is a stable entity and so stokes our most entrenched societal fear: that of the ‘Other’ we cannot fully know or place.

And this, I think, begins to shed some light on her defeat. There are numbers and figures that can perhaps offer more concrete reasons. But while we can readily blame the Electoral College, low voter turnout, or the women who refused to unite around her, the more sinister antagonists remain our nation’s systemic racism, bigotry, and misogyny. We have not, however, fully considered one such additional antagonist: trans-phobia. I do not presume to conflate Clinton’s situation with that of the transgender community; I recognize that she herself has not had to deal with the devastating terror and repercussions the LGBT+ community has long faced. Nevertheless, I believe our fear and even disgust surrounding her ambiguous gender performance speaks directly to a contemporary moment in which trans visibility and issues are becoming more prominent – and concurrently inciting more hostility –  than ever before.

The 2016 election and Clinton’s candidacy come in the midst of heated debates about the “Bathroom Bill” in North Carolina, which would allow transgender men and women to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity rather than their biological sex. That Clinton should lose the swing state comes as no surprise in hindsight. It comes on the heels of Caitlyn Jenner’s “coming-out” and historic Vanity Fair cover. It comes amidst a slew of television shows celebrating transpeople, including Jenner’s own reality show I Am Cait, MTV’s I am Jazz, and of course Amazon’s Transparent. It comes in a moment when we are (rightly) debating the viability of cis-gender actors playing trans characters. But it also comes, most importantly, in a year riddled by unconscionable (though not new) violence against the transgender community.

At the risk of confusing causation for correlation, I do not wish to suggest that Clinton’s loss was the result of trans-phobia. Rather, I suggest again that Clinton’s loss coincides – and perhaps not incidentally – with a moment in which our nation is being forced to reconcile itself to the “transgender question.” We have historically considered the “race question” (60s), the “woman question” (70s), and the “homosexual question” (80s). We have yet to sufficiently answer any of them. Still, we have superficially assuaged ourselves that these questions have been definitively considered through Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Obergefell v. Hodges. The “transgender question” – almost certainly destined to be the question of the late 10s – has not yet followed suit. It appears poised now to do so, but the road ahead is long. Neither candidate, it is worth noting, made the issue central to the campaign, though Donald Trump himself was asked last April what bathroom at Trump Tower Caitlyn Jenner should use (whichever she feels appropriate, he answered). Whatever lip service Donald Trump offers, trans-phobia endures. And Trump’s victory is a scary prospect for the transgender community and all of those deemed ‘Others’ in our country. There are so many questions that cannot yet be answered. But I am certain, if nothing else, that we must not wait idly by until they are. And let us hope that this month, Transgender Awareness Month, reminds us of the work we have in store.


The Art of Losing

The modern poet Elizabeth Bishop begins her villanelle “One Art”: The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

As Bishop notes, our lives are “filled with the intent” of loss. What I find curious about Bishop’s contention here is that she views loss as deliberate and purposeful, when I think we usually feel like it’s futile, unjust, or, indeed, disastrous.

I recently taught this poem in my intro poetry class. On an online discussion board I required the class to post to weekly, my students clung to this poem, which actually surprised me, as it was the poem I was least invested in for the week. But they offered provocative responses and helped me think more deeply about this work. It has stayed with me. One response that struck me, in fact, was a student’s contention that the poem is comforting. Oddly, I’d never considered that possibility. I’d perhaps too easily read Bishop’s lines as ironic, especially because the end of the poem seems to reify the idea that loss is a disaster when we are forced to come to terms with it:

“—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”

That parenthetical note – the citational force of the memory of a lost love, “the joking voice, a gesture” – was, to me, absolutely heartbreaking. Who hasn’t experienced a moment where the smallest thing – a sound, a word, a place – reminds you, unwittingly, of a person you’ve lost? I read it as devastating intrusion. And yet maybe my student is profoundly right; maybe the comforting thing about the poem is precisely that loss is so universal. More than that, Bishop’s poem builds up to this ultimate loss. She enjoins us to “practice losing farther, losing faster” – from losing “keys” to “cities” to “continents” and then to that ineluctable, but now cruelly absent, “you.” She somehow helps to carefully and almost tenderly prime us for that final, most important of losses. She may even intimate earlier that this loss, no less than losing keys, is something we are made to contend with or, almost impossibly, to “accept.” Though we cannot truly “master” the “art” of losing (as she does drily notes) we learn to reconcile ourselves to it.

And we learn to reconcile ourselves to it – gradually, maybe uncomfortably – because “loss,” as Bishop portrays, is incontrovertible. That loss is not just a daily but a necessary experience is a truism, of course, but one delicately crafted in this poem. I don’t mean to suggest that loss isn’t devastating, but we might also imagine, as another student rightly pointed out, that our losses are only attenuated by our gains. Bishop’s own loss produces – (Write it!) – a poem. Formally, the last stanza of the villanelle form she employs (ironically in this case) gains a line [the first 5 stanzas are tercets, the final is a quatrain]. Figuratively but similarly, our own losses create new spaces, produce new situations, and grant us new understandings. Losses, then, are never finalized – they are merely matters of shifting perspective.

I’ve found myself generally contemplating the nature of loss lately. Perhaps, and like last year, as the semester comes to an end, I’m prone to reflection. It seems like I’ve been experiencing and am bracing myself for losses of all different magnitudes. I have to recognize, very, very fortunately, that my losses are not significant ones. Given my own past experiences and an awareness of ones outside my own life, I’m certain of that. But what I have begun to consider is that Bishop gets it exactly right: loss is always registered on a sliding scale. Everyone experiences losses from the most mundane to the most earth-shattering. Even then, however, we carry on, knowing that we can only continue to lose.

At the most trivial level, I recently lost a book. I realize this is an utterly insane thing to write about. But as I’ve been known to literally carry books in my coat pockets, this was startling. I’m sure I left it behind somewhere incidentally – on the T, at a coffee shop. Yet, I very rarely misplace things; admittedly, and I’m not proud of it, I have a tremendous need for control. I was (needlessly) frustrated with myself. But I started to realize that even this loss - trivial and inane as Bishop’s “keys” – might also have “intent.” I may be too eager to read significance into casual signs (English student here), but this exceptionally minor loss shifted my perspective. It was a small reminder to check in with my relentless urge for everything to be perfect all the time (easier said, of course, than done). I needed to remember that losing something, even a bit of control, isn’t always a “disaster.”

Building outward, I’m about to lose a stage in my academic/professional life. I have one more week of class – ever. The end of coursework certainly registers as loss, and I will sorely miss it. Still, I get to embark on an exciting new phase of the PhD journey in which I can really delve into my own literary interests. Simultaneously, I’m about to lose my first class at BU. Teaching my 18 students this semester has been incredible and I’m exceptionally sad to see it end. I knew after my experience at Drexel that I wanted to teach at the college level, but this semester has totally reanimated my passion for what I’ll (with any luck) get to continue to do for a long time. I’m absolutely going to miss my students, each with his or her unique personality, and I’m going to miss the sometimes frustrating but more often than not rewarding feeling I get from interacting with them, learning from them, and hopefully imparting something in turn. Certain classes and students stay with you. But I know, too, that I have more to learn as a teacher and that this loss paves the way for pedagogical improvement and, again, fresh perspective. Luckily, I have a whole new class and a fun new topic (basically, my dream course: contemporary TV meets gender/queer theory) awaiting me this fall. Every loss has its gain. I just have to deal with the transition.

Most significantly, though speaking abstractly, I’ve experienced interpersonal losses – that string of receding “yous” in my memory, as in everyone’s (those joking voices, those gestures that we come to intimately know and love). We are always losing people: colleagues, teachers, friends, parents, significant others, ones who got away. This is, of course, the cumulative effect of Bishop’s verse. We lose people in small ways and in large ones, sometimes piecemeal, sometimes (and often more devastatingly) all at once. I’ve been thinking especially about our contemporary age, one in which connections seem to be too readily created and sustained virtually, where new relationships build haphazardly and sometimes not at all. I think we’re becoming increasingly accustomed to easy losses. I feel, regrettably, like people have become more elusive and personal connections more transient. Sure, there are exceptions and you value and work hard for relationships that are important. But it often seems far easier to lose people than to keep them. And I know from recent conversations with friends that I’m not alone in this sense; at time in our lives when so many of my peers feel, appropriately, “lost,” we may find that these interpersonal losses begin to too rapidly accumulate. They demand, eventually, to be felt. Yet, Bishop is instructive, because she again reminds us that we were and are always going to lose people. In a way, she offers us warning - not that losses become easier but that we might come, through them, to better appreciate what is gone, what we have now, and what we stand to gain.

Perhaps, then, the truly difficult  art to “master” is not that of losing but of embracing loss and, by extension, more clearly recognizing both its definiteness and, ultimately and hopefully, its generative promise. It’s a counterintuitive conclusion, in some ways, to draw from this poem. But maybe that’s the thing: maybe Bishop teaches us, most of all and if anything, that if loss is certainty, we can only learn how to properly let go.