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.”