Pop Music’s ‘Good Girls’ Complex


It seems I can’t turn on the radio anymore without being subjected to a song about a “good girl.”

This trope, of course, is nothing new. The virgin-whore dichotomy has been around forever—Eve, of course, being the original “bad girl.” Her agency was so dangerous that it caused the fall of man. And both the New and Old Testaments are full of these treacherous and tainted women: Jezebel, Salomé, Rahab, Mary Magdalene, and a host of other colorful harlots, whores, and femme fatales who contrasted starkly against all the pious saints and the pure and virginal mother of Jesus.

These distinctions have been replicated and perpetuated in literature, religion, art, and countless forms of media throughout history. Obviously, the idea of women being either “good” or “bad” is deeply entrenched in our collective psyche. My traditional Catholic upbringing, for instance, had me foolishly believing that the Virgen de Guadalupe was the ideal woman, while those who had sex before marriage were immoral floozies. It’s taken me over a decade of feminist scholarship to undo all of these hangups, so I’m not naive enough to think that we should have erased this binary by now.

What’s puzzled me recently, however, is what feels like a sudden upsurge in these very conservative attitudes in pop music, this backwards glorification of “nice” and “chaste” young women. It seems like every other musician is putting these imaginary girls on a pedestal.

Take these lyrics in “Bound 2” by Kanye West, for example: “Close your eyes and let the word paint a thousand pictures. One good girl is worth a thousand bitches.” Here he is implying that only good girls are of any value, while “bitches” are disposable.

Drake expresses a similar attitude in his collaboration with Beyoncé in the song “Mine”: “This is a song for the good girl. And I still keep it hood, still treat you like I should.” Again, only these ideal women will be treated with respect. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, founder of the blog Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, points out that several of Drake’s songs are fixated on the dichotomy, particularly those about developing romantic feelings for strippers. This causes him anxiety because these women have already been “used.”

A few additional examples:

“I know you want it. You’re a good girl. Can’t let it get past me. You’re far from plastic.” —“Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke

“I stood right by the tracks, your face in a locket. Good girls, hopeful they’ll be and long they will wait.” —”Sad Beautiful Tragic” by Taylor Swift.

According to these songs and countless others, “bad girls”—that is, women who enjoy and express their sexuality—are not worthy of protection or dignity. This music paints women as one-dimensional. Unfortunately, some people may not understand that the kind of “good” women in these songs don’t actually exist.

Rihanna, for instance, fulfills expectations of Black sexuality in her song “Bad” featuring Wale: “I never made love, no I never did it, but I sure know how to fuck I’ll be your bad girl. I’ll prove it to you. I can’t promise that I’ll be good to you.” And then: “She don’t catch feelings she too busy catching G5. She no saint, ‘cept Saint Laurent.” Though rejecting the stifling “good girl” identity and deciding to be sexually assertive can be liberating, the problem lies in equating this kind of sexuality with badness. Why do we have to choose one identity over another?

Contrast Rihanna’s bad girl image against the iconic “good girl” Taylor Swift who has manipulated this identity to sell records. “It is nothing new for male record execs to wanna vamp up a little girl. It’s a way easier sell,” teen star Debbie Gibson said in a 2010 article about Taylor Swift. Because Swift is white, executives are able to manufacture this image of purity. There’s a reason the has never been a Black equivalent of Taylor Swift, the “wholesome girl next door.”

The “Blurred Lines” video makes this good-bad racial distinction as well. For example, when Thicke sings, “OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you. But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature” the camera is focused on the only Black woman in the video. And when TI raps, “Yeah, I had a bitch, but she ain’t bad as you. So hit me up when you pass through,” most of his attention is directed at her as well. And while all three of the women are touched and treated as objects, it seems as though the men are most aggressive toward the Black woman. The way in which they pull on her pony tail suggests that she is an object to be dominated.

With the influence of feminism, the sexual revolution, and various other social advances, shouldn’t we have evolved a little more by now?

“Even in ages of less equality, being good included self-sufficiency, but the presence of women in the workplace has created a backlash against women’s ability to ‘take care of themselves’ because it so resembles independence,” says feminist poet and non-fiction writer Carmen Giménez Smith. “The conundrum girls face today is shaped, in part, by pink princess culture: how good can they be, how chaste and passive, as it’s these characteristics that land the prince in the Disneyfied landscape of heroines.”

Perhaps this is the precise reason the “good girl” has become so popular. As women gain more advances, society develops new ways to subjugate them. In this case, pop music has resurrected the virgin-whore concept and put it in a new package.

“Before there were Jezebels, and now you have a baby mama or a video model,” Evette Dionne, fashion editor at LoveBrownSugar.com, told RH Reality Check. “There is a particular influx of songs, but I don’t think it’s new. We’re just getting a lot of it at once.”

Dionne, who has written extensively about feminism, race, and hip hop for many major publications, also reminds us of the prevalence and cultivation of this binary during times of slavery: Once Black women were brought to the United States as slaves, she says, slave owners created the idea that this population was somehow hypersexual. It was a way to rationalize sexually terrorizing them; the slave owners needed this contrast to the “pure” and “virginal” white women. “Their deviant sexuality was a way to justify their behavior,” Dionne says.

Our culture has always stereotyped Black women as dangerous in our country. “The portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype,” writes David Pilgrim, professor of sociology at Ferris State University, for the Jim Crow Museum for Racist Memorabilia. “Historically, white women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty—even sexual purity, but black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory.”

The racial implications in the good-bad girl dichotomy still endure. In many ways, attitudes toward Black women have not changed much since the Antebellum South. Blackness is still equated with sexual deviancy and whiteness is still equated with purity.

Gumbs puts this paradigm in an economic perspective: “It’s a way of reaffirming what’s valuable and how they [women] can be used for patriarchy. It’s really about how our reproductive organs can be used by other people. This is an idea that’s been perpetuated through colonization and slavery. Women of color are useful in terms of providing pleasure.”

Dionne believes that the contemporary “good girl” is white, middle-class, from a two-parent home, heterosexual, not sexually promiscuous, and packaged in a way that appeals to men.

Suzanne Enck, assistant professor at the University of North Texas, has a similar definition. “A good girl is a white, pure, virginal girl who is sexy but doesn’t enjoy sex.” she told RH Reality Check. Historically, “Historically, Black women never had access to good girl status.”

Dionne offers the example of Miley Cyrus’ infamous twerking on the MTV Music Awards. Cyrus was righfully lambasted for appropriating Black culture and treating Black women’s bodies as props. But Dionne also points out that while Cyrus’ performance was broadcasted around the world, Black video models are often censored and subjected to backlash. The hip-hop models featured in Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video, she points out, were criticized in Clutch Magazine, as “oversexed objects.” Black Entertainment Television (BET) refused to air “Tip Drill” before 2 a.m. The sexuality of Black women continues to be threatening.

Some scholars, however, believe the “good girl” identity is no longer as sexually stifling as it once was. Robin James, associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, whose work focuses on music and feminist and critical race theories, believes that this changed in the past five years or so. “I think that post-Kesha, we sort of expect good girls to be wild enough in the right way,” she said. While the category is still oppressive, James says it’s not just a sexual identity anymore, but rather about middle-class white women “having it all.” Like the other scholars, however, she also believes that the notion implies whiteness.

Enck believes these rigid ideas can be dangerous, “because it allows us to say that those are the women who don’t deserve help.” In an article she co-wrote with Blake A. McDaniel titled “Playing With Fire: Cycles of Domestic Violence in Eminem and Rihanna’s ‘Love the Way You Lie,'” she references a survey commissioned by the Girl Scouts of the USA and Buzz Marketing Group, which found that 45 percent of teen girls believed that Rihanna could have provoked Chris Brown to abuse her, and 33 percent blamed both Rihanna and Chris Brown for the violence.

These binaries are not simply false, but incredibly harmful, because they help perpetuate and justify violence against women. These rigid distinctions encourage people to dehumanize those who don’t fit into the ideal mold.

“Pop music is what is emulating what’s happening in the world,” said Dionne. She believes this trend is a result of conservatism and the fixation with sexual purity. I agree. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this idea is popular during a time in which abstinence-only education, purity balls, and slut-shaming politicians continue to exist and our reproductive rights are constantly under attack. We know, for instance, that more abortion restrictions were enacted from 2011 to 2013 than in the entire previous decade. I believe the good-bad dichotomy is simply another method to control our bodies and create divisions between us.

While these binaries are deep and feel almost indelible, I hope that we can continue to dismantle them and understand the conditions that allow them to thrive. Pop music is incredibly powerful and in order to combat these sorts of insidious ideas, there needs to be more discourse surrounding it. Our culture dictates the way we perceive ourselves and each other. As Gumbs points out, “If women thought of themselves as inherently valuable, they wouldn’t be preoccupied with being virginal or sexual.” The simple act of loving one’s self can be revolutionary. But if young girls continue to be exposed to these songs, they will learn to be ashamed of their sexuality. These dangerous ideas also perpetuate racism, whether conscious or unconscious, and encourage women and girls to shame one another for choosing to express their sexuality however they wish.

I personally hope that if I one day have a daughter, she will learn to enjoy sex without any apology, and that she will be able to form deep bonds with other women without categorizing them as either good or bad. I hope she never believes that all she has to offer the world is her sexual purity.

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  • http://www.myspace.com/btdsloveshack blazintommyd

    It’s the USA Democratic-republican Party’s promotion of the breeding paradigm. Procreation doesn’t happen every time people have unprotected Heterosex; but generally, given other alternatives, unprotected Hetero sex is the most likely form of human expression to result in procreation. Controlled breeding via monogamy is a function of inheritance under Patriarchy which is a function of private property. Private property and the exploitation thereof is the primary source of Party income, so in order to perpetuate this Party livelihood the Heterosex breeding paradigm is promoted – viz., Heterosex, monogamy, breeding, inheritance, perpetuation. Ceteris Paribus via Matriarchy might be female promiscuity to assure speedy more likely and therefore more efficient procreation The escape is the promotion of other forms of sexual expression via the abolition of censorship and promoting the axiom that “life begins at birth and ends at death”. Procreation is just something that happens in the mix. At this point it’s not longer an imperative if ever it was

  • Defamate

    In regards to black female sexuality being ‘bad’ and white female purity, I would like to recommend this book:

    http://books.google.ca/books/about/Pregnancy_and_Power.html?id=NQzVhWYYO9sC&redir_esc=y

    “”A sweeping chronicle of women’s battles for reproductive freedom throughout American history, Pregnancy and Power explores the many forces—social, racial, economic, and political—that have shaped women’s reproductive lives in the United States.

    Leading historian Rickie Solinger argues that a woman’s control over her body involves much more than the right to choose an abortion. Reproductive politics were at play when slaveholders devised breeding schemes, when the U.S. government took Indian children from their families in the nineteenth century, and when doctors pressed Latina women to be sterilized in the 1970s. Tracing the diverse plot lines of women’s reproductive lives throughout American history, Solinger redefines the idea of reproductive freedom, putting race and class at the center of the effort to control sex and pregnancy in America over time.

    Solinger asks which women have how many children under what circumstances, and shows how reproductive experiences have been encouraged or coerced, rewarded or punished, honored or exploited over the last 250 years. Viewed in this way, the debate over reproductive rights raises questions about access to sex education and prenatal care, about housing laws, about access to citizenship, and about which women lose children to adoption and foster care.

    Pregnancy and Power shows that a complete understanding of reproductive politics must take into account the many players shaping public policy—lawmakers, educators, employers, clergy, physicians—as well as the consequences for women who obey and resist these policies. Tracing the diverse plotlines of women’s reproductive lives throughout American history, Solinger redefines the idea of reproductive freedom, putting race and class at the center of the struggle to control sex and pregnancy in America.””

    ————

    An acquaintance of mine is Puerto Rican. Many years ago, she had an abortion at a clinic that mainly served non-whites. She said there was not a single protestor to be seen. Because the pro-life movement, for the most part, only cares about making more white babies. They aren’t as concerned about the black population (even though they use the ‘black genocide’ as a talking point from time to time).

    • goatini

      Thanks for citing Solinger – I was just re-reading her excellent book, “Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade”, last night and this morning.

  • Emily

    This is why I no longer consider myself a feminist. Why are people so focused on “slut shaming” as a defense for every kind of vile behavior but you yourselves engage in virgin shaming. Sluts are the ones with power in this society, and they have the power to shame virgins and encourage self-hate in people who do not like sex. Virginity is a privilege, and I wish I still was one. I have been hurt so badly and so often for not being able to act “slutty, like those other girls” that I cannot believe no one acknowledges the incredible pressure put on women to be sexual. Your daughter does NOT have to enjoy sex, and she should not be forced to. Until feminists face the fact that lots of women do NOT want sex and should not be shamed into having it against their will, I cannot call myself a feminist. Virgins are not tools of the patriarchy. In fact, I think it’s admirable to stand against the pressure to be the most sexual promiscuous woman at the party. That is what takes real guts, going against the norm. Being sexually active is the status quo.

    • goatini

      Oh dear, what a crybaby bully you you are. You don’t have enough maturity or self-esteem to make and live by your own decisions, so you’ll blame everyone else except yourself. And you apparently choose to surround yourself with people with very poor judgement and similarly low levels of maturity and self-esteem. “Virgin shaming” – what a load of nonsense.

      Sexual pressure has been brought to bear on females since the beginning of time, and things are far BETTER now than they ever have been in that regard – current conditions and their issues notwithstanding. There no longer is a FALSE value attached to virginity. Females don’t go directly from Daddy-owner to Husband-owner any more. Women now can exercise sexual agency over their own lives – to have as much – OR as little – sexual activity as they desire.

      Just about all my friends had already done the deed while still in high school – except for ME. I was the latest one to “join the party” of everyone I knew – I was old enough to drink and vote by the time I did. NOT because I placed some false value on a tag of skin that in no way represented me as a whole person – but because I was determined to make my own choices for myself on when, where, why, how and with whom. NO ONE “shamed” me – though some unpleasant oafs thought I would give in to such nonsense. I never felt one instant of “self-hate” – because I knew my own mind and values.

      I’m almost old enough to be your grandma, Toots. The virgin/slut dichotomy, or as it used to be called, Madonna/whore dichotomy, is far, far older than me, and it IS all a construct of the patriarchy.

    • soccerteesandplaydoh

      I’m sorry for whatever happened to you.

      But I think that being angry at sex-positivity is a misdirection of your resources. Feminism is a big tent and one of its PRIMARY positions is that you have the right to do anything you want with your body, ESPECIALLY including not having sex when you don’t want to, which is called rape.

      It seems clear that some person/s have said some very cruel and hurtful things to you regarding your own choices about your sexuality. I suggest to you however that what they said was not really rooted in feminism.

    • Jennifer Starr

      I’ve been a feminist for quite a number of years, and I don’t recall anyone being encouraged to be promiscuous or being shamed for being a virgin or for not enjoying sex. And I don’t think they should be shamed for that–that is a personal matter and a personal choice. Conversely, I also don’t like when women are shamed for enjoying sex and not being a virgin. I don’t have a problem with virginity and I don’t know of any feminist who does. What I do have a problem with is the idea that remaining a virgin makes someone a ‘good girl’ and choosing to have sex and enjoying it makes someone a ‘bad girl’. I find that notion to be incredibly offensive in so many ways.

  • goatini

    Cue the violins for the nasty slut-shaming bully and tool of the patriarchy who’s here to label free, independent women’s sexual agency and personal autonomy as “vile behavior”. I actually think you’re a regressionist theocratic (probably fundamentalist Catholic) male trying to sell self-loathing misogyny to women in what you assume to be a “female” voice. Because only regressionist males think such nonsense about feminism.