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Bad Girls Go Everywhere

“Never laugh at a joke before he does.”

So advised my grandmother. You see, if you laugh at a joke before a guy does, it means you understood the punch line before he did. He might think that you’re smarter than he is. Guys don’t like that at all. So just smile and look pretty and keep that brain locked up, sweetie. If you don’t, then no guy will want you. That’s the theory.

My grandmother grew up in a different time, of course. Women don’t have to play dumb anymore. But some of us still do. Some of us are taught to do it from early childhood. Some of us are pressured to do it in middle school and high school.

That’s part of the tragic and infuriating message of Rachel Simmons’ new book, The Curse of the Good Girl.

Rachel, a Vassar alumna and former Rhodes scholar, is the founder of the Girls Leadership Institute. In her newest book, she examines the destructive stereotype of the “good girl” and how it prevents young women from reaching their potential.

Based on her work with middle school and high school girls, Rachel describes the “good girl:”

The Good Girl walked a treacherous line, balancing mixed messages about how far she should go and how strong she should be: she was to be enthusiastic while being quiet; smart with no opinions on things; intelligent but a follower; popular but quiet. She would be something, but not too much.

Rachel, meet my grandmother.

They both have a point. Rachel is right that if you play dumb, stay quiet when you want to speak, and pretend to be what you’re not, then you’ll be unhappy and unfulfilled. My grandmother is right because even if the culture has changed, male egos haven’t.Β  They’re still as insecure as ever.

Do you want a guy if you have to play dumb to get him? Well, what if the alternative is to be alone? We can talk all day about honesty and authenticity, and how a guy should love you for who you really are. But that word is scary: alone. It certainly scares me.

Simone de Beauvoir nailed it in The Second Sex. We’re supposed to act a certain way because that’s how men like us:

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being, she is simply what man decrees. …. He sets himself up as the essential, as opposed to the other, the inessential, the object.

Minus the philosophical jargon, de Beauvoir basically says that woman is a fashion accessory for the man’s fragile ego and a sex toy to keep him amused in the bedroom. When you come right down to it, that’s what the “good girl” stereotype is all about: Don’t be who you are, be what men want you to be. At least some men. I know quite a few who aren’t like that. Maybe I’m just lucky.

I’m not saying that anyone should play dumb. But it’s not as simple a question as we might think. If you’re a lesbian, or if you can be happy sharing your abode with a dozen cats, then it works out fine. Otherwise, as the saying goes, it’s nice to have a man around the house. At the very least, there are itches that sometimes need to be scratched. I’m not against letting a guy come to my rescue, even if I don’t need to be rescued. It makes him feel good and it saves me some trouble. And I’m not against letting a guy show off his smarts, even if I’m a bit smarter than he is.

Maybe there’s a happy medium somewhere. I hope so. I know that I don’t want to be a “good girl.” Does that make me a “bad girl”?

Well, they say that bad girls go everywhere. This one is going back to school next week. It’ll be good to see my friends again, and I’ve got some great classes. And no worries about guys, except for those occasional itch-scratching encounters with the sturdy lads of UMass or Amherst. πŸ™‚

Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

  1. girlinhat42
    September 4, 2009 at 6:04 am

    This brings up an interesting idea, to me. I hate to use comparisons and strong words, because more often than not it’s an emotional debate tactic, designed to get a reaction out of the audience. Such as calling a woman “man’s sex slave for when he’s bored” sounds powerful, but isn’t totally accurate. Maybe I’m niave, but I like to think that there’s a bit more common decency in people than to think like that. Don’t get me wrong, some people are thick as bricks and will believe that, but those people are the exception to the rule, and don’t exactly apply. I think that normal people (emotionally developed people) don’t think like that.

    Now, onto the point where I do agree with you. There is a push in the world to have women act dumb. There’s an urge to keep men feeling superior and stroke their egos. I’ve heard toned-down versions all my life. Stuff like “laugh at his joke even if he’s not funny” and “fake an orgasm”. Generally, make the guy feel better. That’s all well and good, until you get to things like, “Don’t laugh before him.” My example were more about, “Make him look good” while this is more about “make him look good, in comparison to you.” When anyone is made to look bad so that someone else can look good, there’s a problem. Moreover, there’s an issue about potential. If women are supposed to be demure, unopinionated, and generally lack wordly knowledge, and they act that way, they’re not acting at their full potential. That means there’s potential not being used, manpower untapped (in terms of workforce, not any specific gender), and people who are being oppressed. That’s the powerful word that I usually don’t like to use, oppress. When any person is forced to be less than their able, whether through use of violence, emotional violence, or social tools, then that person is being oppressed.

    Then we get to the counter-point, of course. Who is doing the forcing. Social tools have a strange way of only working when you allow them to work. If you decide “I’m going to not let myself be bogged down” then you don’t have to be. There’s plenty of guys out there who’d fall for a smart, opinionated girl. I happen to know a few guys who will only be steady boyfriends with a girl who can argue with them. They won’t take the pushover, act all cuddly and airheaded type.

    So you’re right, there is a problem. The solution just needs to be made obvious, and it is. Women are in power, with husbands (as opposed to single), all the time. It’s not a fast change, mind you, but it is a change that is happening, and that’s progress in my book.

    • Rinth
      September 4, 2009 at 12:20 pm

      Hi, GirlInHat —

      We don’t disagree. There’s one paragraph where I tried to combine Simone de Beauvoir with the “good girl” idea, and maybe I did state that too strongly. Thanks for pointing it out.

      As you say, there are lots of decent guys. I know some of them. And I’m not against giving a little (or faking it πŸ™‚ ) to make someone feel good, whether it’s a guy or not. That’s just being a nice person, not a “good girl.”

      I do wonder about younger girls’ ability, without help, to ignore social pressure. Maybe you were more thoughtful than I was in middle school, but I wasn’t thinking about stereotypes or how I should be my own person. I just wanted to fit in and be liked.

      Anyway, thanks so much for the thoughtful comment!

  2. September 13, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I could write a book. But I’ll try to be succinct. Great blog on a great topic.
    I’ll start by saying that very few things on this planet tick me off as the notion that women need to ‘dumb themselves down’ to attract a man. No offense to your grandmother, or anyone in that generation. Believe me, I’ve heard it plenty myself. And you’re right…that fragile male ego is ever-present.

    Myself, I believe in being yourself and attracting the RIGHT person by being accepted for who you are. I’ve been told I ‘intimidate’ men, and the most cardinal of all sins, Have My Own Opinions (and even express them!) And I have an even more challenging task ahead of me, trying to raise two strong, confident girls to love themselves and be who they are.

    You’re learning that I’m an unapologetic dork, so I don’t mind letting you know that one of the most poignant commentaries on this very topic, to me, is actually Madonna’s song: What it Feels Like for a Girl. For someone like her, who is this icon of independence, confidence, and breaking the mold for women everywhere…to write a song about how we’re all still expected to be cute and vulnerable…really struck a chord with me. Not sure if you’ve heard it or are familiar with the lyrics, but the line that sums it all up says :”When you’re trying hard to be your best…could you be a little less?”

    My answer is…big fat NO πŸ˜‰ Huzzah!

  3. Rinth de Shadley
    September 13, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Hi, Mary! πŸ™‚

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. We all have similar experiences. You’re right about the need to be who we are. If you get a guy who is intimidated by smart women, then you have to spend your whole life trying to prevent him from finding out that you’re one of them. That’s a recipe for unhappiness. Even if it takes longer, it’s better to find a guy who loves the real you.

    Sometimes I wonder how much of it is just kind of play-acting. We let him be the Big Strong Man who solves our problems. He feels good about it, and we get the problems solved. I’m okay with that, as long as no one mistakes it for reality.

    Men do the same thing to us. Do we *really* believe that they don’t know where anything is in the kitchen or how to do a load of laundry? Of course we don’t believe it, but we play along unless it gets to be too much of a nuisance. Even I play that game sometimes. I could probably change a tire if I had to, but I’d much rather have a Big Strong Man take care of it for helpless little me. πŸ™‚

    I know some of Madonna’s songs, of course. She’s a great role model. Of singers from that period, however, I like Joan Jett the best. She’s always gone her own way and to heck with anyone who didn’t like it. I’ll look for that song of Madonna’s though. Thanks!

  4. March 20, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Very interesting topic. I’m too old to care anymore but where do you draw the line? You want your man to feel good about himself but not in control of you.

    Hey, Happy SITS Saturday to you.

    • Rinth de Shadley
      March 20, 2010 at 3:56 pm

      Hi Deborah!

      I believe that the trick is always to let him *believe* he’s in control of you. But you only actually *let* him control you when you want that. πŸ™‚

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