Finding good in bad girls

Everyone from Anne Boleyn to Kate Middleton is supposed to have used their wiles to get ahead. But, argues Harriet Walker, the tactic should be understood rather than condemned

From Donna Summer to Dante, everybody loves a "bad girl". She is a social construct that runs the cultural gamut from classical to cartoonish and back again, wearing only high heels and a smirk. She is literary artifice and historical fact combined; she is both retrograde and modern, a product of the patriarchy and yet empowered; she is every man's worst nightmare and his best daydream too. No plot is complete without her, no soap opera or great tragedy doesn't boast a brace. We are a society obsessed with bad girls, and we always have been.

But what's the allure of this mythical creature? There's no specific definition – it's a catch-all phrase which scoops up sulky teens and hard-faced ballbusters alike – but we all have a vision of what it means to be a bad girl. It goes something along the lines of Bettie Page in an Eighties power suit, teamed with Wonder Woman boots and wielding a bazooka – that is to say, a hybridised version of any given cliché of female independence. So far, so foggy.

The bad girl, and all her attendant archetypal baggage, has however become less of a personage and more a mental motif in the latterday power struggle between men and women. American psychiatrist Carole Lieberman has recently published a self-help book, entitled Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets, which argues that a bad girl mentality is something we could all use to our advantage – even if we're undeniably good girls.

"Kate Middleton is the quintessential example of a good girl who used bad girl strategies to win the heart of her prince," she explains. "When she was rated two out of ten by the boys in her class, she did a total makeover to make herself more appealing. Later, she strutted down the runway of her college fashion show in 'the dress' that got Prince William to stop thinking of her merely as a friend, and to fall head over heels for her."

A case of "ask not what you can do for yourself, but what a bad girl can do for you", perhaps. "I am not trying to turn good girls into bad girls," clarifies Lieberman, whose penchant for flowers, hearts and all things pink marks her clearly as one of the former. "I am trying to help good girls discover the secrets that bad girlsuse to win men's hearts."

Surely this is a regressive game to play in an age where men and women have assumed supposed parity; doesn't this speaks to the outmoded necessity of women using their wiles to get ahead, rather than their brains? Nowadays, we don't need these sorts of strategies.

But a brief look at the history of the bad girl reveals it to be a term applied to any women who has ever taken control of her own life. Cleopatra, for instance, or Middleton's predecessor Anne Boleyn – two women who got to the top using the only weapon in their arsenal, their sexuality.

"Anne Boleyn is remembered by her contemporaries as someone with the beast in view," says Nicola Shulman, author of Graven with Diamonds: the Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt. "She grew up in the French court and had wonderful French manners – she could write poetry, sing, dance and she was witty. And she clearly had phenomenal brains. She wasn't just worked from behind by her family. Anne Boleyn was the engine of her own destiny."

Shulman quotes contemporary evidence that Boleyn set out to become notorious and get noticed by persuading Wyatt, one of the era's most glamorous courtiers, to fall in love with her. "If the cool person is in love with you, you get the attention," continues Shulman. Boleyn also played the court's rumour mill of gossip and mischevious ditties like a pro and acted a part – she had to do so, in order to keep the King's attention for seven years. "In one poem, Wyatt refers to a new girlfriend and an old one with a system of opposites: one a simple, country girl; the other rather contrived." Boleyn created a persona for herself in order to win the throne, Shulman suggests.

Almost 500 years later, the contemporary assumption is not so different with Kate Middleton. There are those who suggest she has been trained by her mother from an early age, schooled correctly and sent to the same university as Prince William to "catch" the future king. There is no proof in any of it, needless to say, but it goes to show the consensus that women who end up with the man of their dreams cannot possibly have managed it without some sort of strategy. When Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden married Daniel Westling, her personal trainer, last year there was no suggestion that he had fooled, beguiled or enticed her into wedlock. Nor was there when Guy Ritchie married his teen crush Madonna, or Chris Martin bagged Gwyneth Paltrow, having adored her from afar for many years. This, then, forms the basis of the bad girl: she is a woman who gets what she wants.

"There are fictional bad girls like Becky Sharp, Odette de Crécy and Jessica Rabbit," says Jonathan Beckman, assistant editor at Literary Review, "but there also wannabe bad girls, like Emma Bovary. The difference is that successful bad girls are able to manipulate their sexuality for social advantage, and drag easy beguiled men down while hauling themselves up; while the wannabes have a naive belief that they can expres their sexuality without any consequences. Bad girls normally turn out to be bad for men."

Indeed at her very worst, the bad girl becomes the ultimate vision of feminine destruction: witness Fatal Attraction's Alex Forrest or Nicola Six in Martin Amis's London Fields. These are agents of seduction, supreme female tacticians who lay men low with their concerted sexual efforts or withholding techniques. Their victims are rendered incapable of action beyond what the bad girl dictates; they embody real-life male fears of being dominated, as well as some fairly basic masculine psychological tropes, in their shared penchant for sexy underwear, for instance, and their rather light-hearted approach to other women's marriages.

"From a male perspective, bad girls are for sex," says novelist Fay Weldon. "Good girls are for marrying, loving and protecting. And from a female perspective, bad girls like sex and have fun – good girls get married and have kids. And they both agree that bad girls go to bed on the first date; good girls don't."

"While bad girls have different strategies for manipulating nice guys, they share certain alluring traits," explains Carole Lieberman. "Irresistibly exciting, clever, flirtatious and seductive, they make their man feel like the biggest stud on the planet."

Lieberman's book advises a subtle mastering of such techniques in order to get ahead. But the self-conscious mimicry and adolescent pastiche of such caricatured archetypes is precisely the problem with the modern view of the female sexual psyche. Everybody knows at least one such insecure and self-referential woman who defines herself by icons of female sexuality, be it Nicola Six, Anna Karenina or Tess of the D'Urbervilles – all of whom were created by male authors. It happens because, beyond career bitch or blissful mother, there are very few female character roles to choose from. "The point is driven home in the final take of Fatal Attraction," says Susan Faludi in the seminal work Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. "The best single woman is a dead one."

But the next crop of modern young women are seeking inspiration beyond the given archetypes, and it is in this context that Kate Middleton takes on her most interesting aspect. She may not be a role model in the fullest sense, but she is far beyond the "some day my prince will come" mould. "With Prince Charles and Diana, the Palace looked high and low for a virgin," recalls Nicola Shulman. "They were obsessed with virginity, and in Lady Diana Spencer they found the only virgin left in the country." But with Kate Middleton now embodying the type of princess who has had other boyfriends (indeed, she has invited two of them to the wedding on Friday), perhaps the good girl archetype has shifted – and therefore, perhaps, the bad girl has too. Unlike Anne Boleyn and Diana, Princess of Wales, there is no need for a princess to withhold favours or use her sexuality as a weapon – and this should stand as a synecdoche for every other woman too.

When William wanted to sow his wild oats, Kate didn't bitch and moan but rather had her own fun, which got William to run back when he realised he that he could lose her," says Lieberman. This episode in the royal relationship has captured the imagination of everyone from feminists to film-makers, who focus on the three-month-long separation as evidence of Middleton's own kind of rough magic. All it took, it is implied, is a few paparazzi shots of her out of the town, smiling away and wearing a skimpy dress, to bring William to his senses. Presumably though the psychology here is as much that Middleton seemed fine without him, as it was that she appeared scantily clad.

"Maybe bad girls are modern in the sense that their 'bad' actions are a result of growing frustration – and an awareness of that frustration – about the possibility of wielding power," says Beckman. "It is both attractive and worrying for men that bad girls are so gleefully competent. Cleopatra – both the real one and Shakespeare's – was conscious of this, so perhaps it's just more common from the 19th century onwards. But that also means that the era of the bad girl is nearly over: for example, Briony Tallis's sin in Atonement is prudery, not sexuality."

Indeed there has been an overhaul in feminine pop culture identity in recent years, and the bad girl appears to lie at its heart. From 10 years ago, when Britney et al were dressed as schoolgirls and angels, there is now a wave of female artists who translate and transfigure the iconography as a means of being ironic about the system that they themselves are bucking. Rihanna, for instance, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Jessie J. They all exist as hyper-sexualised pop princesses, overt in their references and their sense of their own mischief.

"I definitely want to help and teach little girls whenever I can," declares Rihanna in an interview published in this month's issue of American Vogue. "But then there is a character that I have to play in my videos to tell stories. And a lot of the parts that I play aren't necessarily what I stand for in real life. But it's hard to differentiate that sometimes."

There is of course a difficult equilibrium when women attempt to reclaim supposedly sexist identities for their own use, but the likes of Lady Gaga – who looks grotesque just as often as she may appear gorgeous – are certainly promoting a more fitting modern message in their appropriation of bad girl imagery.

"Feminists compete with men to grab the power that men have," says Lieberman. "The bad girl seduces men to get him to give her what she wants." As with so many arguments predicated on stereotypes, the truth lies somewhere in between – in the words of Donna Summer: "You and me, we are both the same/ but you call yourself by a different name." There may still be self-conscious, stereotypical bad girls in our midst, but the rest of us are not simply waiting for our prince to find us. The modern bad girl crowns herself and she doesn't need a king to help her reign.

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