The Curse of the Good Girl

I just finished reading The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence by Rachel Simmons.  (And I have a totally different cover than that; why?)  I have not read her first book, Odd Girl Out (which I’m sure also has a colon and a subtitle) but I probably will.

I found the both illuminating and resonant; I myself have suffered (and continue to suffer) from The Curse of trying to be a Good Girl.  In fact, I found Simmons at her most insightful when she was showing how the same impulses that dictated that teenage girls do things like decide that a friend is mad at them because she didn’t wave in the hallway are very much present in adult women who run around trying to please co-workers and families without revealing their own needs.  And I found the most daunting advice in the book the directive to shed one’s own Good Girl (Mother/Wife) in order to teach one’s daughter to be Real rather than Good. I don’t want to make this blog my personal psychotherapy space, so I’ll leave it there.  I just want to make clear that, despite my criticisms, this book hit home.

As frequently happens to me, I was expecting a sociological perspective on Good Girl culture and what creates it, and instead I got a parenting guide about how to deal with one’s own daughter’s relationship to being a Good Girl.  I experienced the same thing with Queen Bees and Wannabes  by Rosalind Wiseman.  On the one hand, that’s not really a criticism of the books themselves.  Just because I prefer sociological perspectives to more how-to parenting books doesn’t mean the authors are responsible for my misconceptions.

On the other hand, my main issue with this book was its rather shallow (I felt) treatment of the sociological implications of this.  It asks parents (and, let’s be serious, by ‘parents’ I mostly mean mothers, even in a book filled with feminist ideals like this one) to train their particular daughters not to be Good but to be Real instead, without seriously addressing that parents are not the only – and by the teen years, not even the loudest – influences on a child.  It personalizes a social problem, and that, to me, is the opposite of how any problem with regards to child-rearing (or anything at all) should be addressed.  For one thing, it places even more stress on parents-I-mean-mothers.  We need more messages that say, “Parents/Mothers cannot do everything on their own, they are not exclusively responsible for everything that ever happens to their child,” not more books telling mothers the 453rd way they’re fucking up their child and how to not do so.  For another, it lets the social influences on these girls off the hook.  What about talking to us about literature and pop culture that shows girls being Real and being rewarded?  What about talking to us about effective ways to talk back to media?  What about reforms in the workplace such that Good Girls don’t continue to lose out on opportunities and Real Girls don’t get labeled “bitch” and also lose out on opportunities?

Simmons does acknowledge that the girls will be able to see that Good Girls are frequently rewarded and Real Girls are frequently punished, but I think she doesn’t go far enough.  There have been studies (and, if Google could read my mind better, I’d go find them) that show that women who, for instance, negotiate for a raise in the way that men feel comfortable doing are NOT perceived the same way as their male counterparts and are, in fact, less likely to get that raise.  On a more immediate level, many teenage girls will pay social penalties for being “Real,” and the parent that doesn’t acknowledge that is being naive and possibly making him/herself an object of mistrust.  It works the same way as if you try to insist to your child that one whiff of marijuana will certainly and irrevocably destroy their lives, because they can see for themselves that that’s not necessarily true.

Simmons encourages mothers to discuss the difference between “normal” and “right” – like, it was once “normal” to segregate schools, but it wasn’t “right,” or it is currently “normal” not to allow two people of the same sex to marry but it’s not “right.”  And that’s great – but it would be ludicrous to counsel a same-sex couple to, say, live like married people in defiance of what’s “normal” without also addressing the need for people – gay, straight, etc. – to campaign actively for the laws on the federal and state levels to change.  I’m not saying this is exactly the same – Good Girl rules are (mostly) not written into law, after all.  But it seems to put more weight on the victims of such culture, which, Simmons acknowledges, include mothers as well as daughters.  I wish she had put a little less influence on “Here’s how to help your daughter resist this,” and more on “Here’s what needs to change in the broader culture to ameliorate the pressure of this.”

I know it is not necessarily in the scope of this book, but I do wish that there could be a counterpart to this on what boys are taught to be in terms of Good.  I think they experience some similar pressures, and it would also be interesting to discuss where the differences are and how they work.  I mean, for boys, I know that they aren’t taught to be nice all the time, and that helps them out at work – but it doesn’t help them in personal relationships, which are had with girls who have absorbed some part of Good Girl culture, after all.  And they are taught a specific kind of Nice Guy behavior that, if they believe themselves to be Nice Guys, they can be extremely sensitive about.  And I know plenty of guys for whom being told that anything they’ve ever done is not golden-boy perfect puts them in the same kind of hurt and angry shut-down state that Simmons describes for girls.  So a discussion of that might have been interesting.

I would have also liked a more nuanced discussion of how Good Girl culture applies to nearly all girls, but very unevenly.  I feel like she could have gone deeper to show how some teenage girls feel the pressure in this arena but not that, and so you might miss symptoms of Good Girlness if you only look in a specific area.  And here I will get a teensy bit personal.  I was not (as has been discussed) very popular in middle or high school, so I never had one of those cliques of girls where Julie might be best friends with Margie today but Lilah tomorrow and so Margie is going to go after Lilah and then Gwen will step in with something to say to Julie, blah blah blah.  And to the extent I was, I largely tried to stay out of nonsense like that.  I never behaved, in that way, like a typical teenage girl.  Furthermore, I never worried about whether what I had to say in class was right or interesting or apt to piss someone off, mainly because I was (am) incapable of self-censorship in an academic setting.  Maybe I did piss people off, maybe people did laugh at me, but even if I was aware of it, I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself.  So it might have looked to some like I wasn’t subject to the Good Girl pressure.

But with my friends and family, I was (and am, especially with family) very much a Good Girl.  I put others’ needs before mine and assumed I would be disliked if I didn’t; I still have trouble asserting my own needs because I think that what people like about me is my tendency to take care of others.  And in a lot of ways, it was destructive to me.  I missed out on opportunities I wanted, especially when I couldn’t bring myself to resist even the perception of a parent demand; I gave my friends permission to treat me in a way I didn’t like; and – as Simmons points out – I sometimes denied my friends the opportunity to be closer to me because I wouldn’t make them responsible for what I perceived to be my vulnerabilities.  And these habits stick, although I’m learning to lose some of them some of the time.

So it is important, when thinking about Good Girl culture, to do so in a way that recognizes many different manifestations of it, so that you don’t ignore the girls who need you to notice when they’re getting too Good, especially since they are precisely the girls who won’t want to tell you.  I think Simmons could have been more nuanced about it.  Though she makes gestures towards this understanding, in the end, the teenage girls she depicts sort of blend together in a morass of “Rachel said this about Linda and then Carla said that,” ad nauseum.

It is sometimes shocking to me the degree to which Good Girl culture pervades pop culture; I would think that Real Girls make more interesting characters.  And – while I am aware that we all idealize the pop culture of our own coming-of-age years, I feel like it wasn’t like this then.  We had Buffy and Daria.  Even the girls on Dawson’s Creek at least seemed to struggle with, rather than embody, Good Girl culture.  Whereas, on this week’s episode of Glee (which was execrable, honestly), Mercedes is told that in order to get what she wants, she has to be more demanding and bitchy, so she cartoonishly asks for live puppies with which to dry her hands and other such nonsense, but in the end learns her lesson and demands nothing more than that her friends do what they were going to do anyway.  There was no way for her to be Real; there was only Good and Raging Bitch.  The show in general is severely problematic for girls who want to be Real.  Rachel is certainly Real much of the time, and she went from being a sympathetic if slightly irritating and idiosyncratic character in the first episode, to being a figure deserving of severe bullying even by people she’s supported and defended in the rest of the series.

This will lead me to my next post – look forward to my comparative study of girl culture in Clueless and Mean Girls!  And/or a comparative study of female relationships in Glee, Buffy, and Dawson’s Creek, if I can bring myself to watch Dawson’s Creek ever again.  Or the non-song portions of Glee.

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