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A shout out to the bad girls

They speak up and speak out. They don’t always do what they’re told — or what’s expected

Elayne Clift writes about women, politics, and social issues. Her latest book and first novel, Hester’s Daughters, based on The Scarlet Letter, was published in 2012.

Saxtons River

It seems that bad girls are back. Not only that, they’re big.

For starters, there’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the bane of Wall Street bankers; Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who has been known to wear T-shirts claiming “Lucky for me he’s an ass man!” after losing both legs in combat; and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay woman to serve in Congress.

A few years ago several books celebrated bad girls, including Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, edited by Ellen Sussman. Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History by Laurel Ulrich, a runaway bestseller, even gave rise to a now iconic slogan.

Some of my favorite novels are about bad girls.

There was Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, of course, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, in which the protagonist, Edna, gives up her secure middle-class life because, like Bovary, she can no longer survive a loveless marriage, the ennui of noblesse oblige, or an existence in which nothing meaningful ever happens.

In Ibsen’s classic A Doll’s House, there’s Nora, who breaks out of her child-wife existence. What about Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? She refuses to conform to social expectations for an 18th-century young woman of marriageable age because she doesn’t believe in the conventions of her day.

And dare I forget to mention my favorite bad girl and literary muse: Hester Prynne, of The Scarlet Letter fame?

Imagine having an out-of-wedlock child in Puritan New England, fathered by none other than the local clergyman!

Then there are the bad girls who write bad thoughts or foster bad ideas or whose female characters are bad, at least by patriarchal standards.

Think of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her pals, who wrote furious, articulate, reasoned treatises in favor of bad women who wanted to vote. Or Virginia Woolf, whose essays, letters, and diary entries focused on gender-based injustices or on the daily lives of women.

There’s Colette, Marguerite Duras, and Erica Jong, who all wrote about steamy sex. And those diarists and memoirists like Maya Angelou and May Sarton, who did what poet Muriel Rukeyser challenged all women to do: tell the truth about their lives.

Speaking of poets, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds are among the bad girls. They aired their dirty laundry in public and opened a floodgate of 20th-century truth-telling along with Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olsen, and Grace Paley.

Oh, Lord, so many splendid bad girls! A veritable feast of Blah Blah Sisterhood!

* * *

So what drives the image and the actions of the bad girl?

From a traditionally patriarchal perspective, it’s not hard to figure out. Bad girls are unafraid to exercise their power, and that’s scary. Joyfully claiming their sexuality, they negotiate sex and sometimes “just say no.”

They speak up and speak out. They don’t always do what they’re told — or what’s expected. They shake up the status quo. (Think of it — voting women who could make a difference!)

Educated women are sure to be uppity and unite, especially if they are economically independent.

The same holds true for why bad girls behave as they do.

They might be wicked, ambitious, funny, admirable, or brave; they might be from different generations or cultures, But they have this in common: They refuse to let society inhibit their imaginations, opportunities, or goals.

They will not be controlled, in body or spirit. They might suffer, but they never yield to forces trying to contain them. They deny dependency, suffocation, boredom, smallness.

As Emma Bovary realized before her revolt, “A man is free, at least. Free to range the passions and the world, to surmount obstacles, to taste the rarest of pleasures. Whereas a woman is continually thwarted.”

What bad girls seek is the freedom to be, to act, to create, to go forth and experience the world. Who among us doesn’t share that longing?

* * *

Bad girls refuse to be thwarted or diminished. Their appetite for life is large, and they are not ashamed to feed the hunger. Their answer to Freud’s question — “What do women want?” — is simple. They want it all, and they are willing to take risks to get as much of it as they can.

So they can sometimes be outrageous, but they are also admirable and often enviable. Their essential nature is writ large upon the tablet of history and literature, and whether we like it or not, they have taught us all a thing or two.

So do yourself a favor: Find a bad girl to hang out with occasionally. You never know what you might learn, and you could be surprised at how much fun it is being that risqué.

As one of the world’s best bad girls, Mae West, said, just “keep cool and collect.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #197 (Wednesday, April 3, 2013).

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