The idea of the ‘bad girl’

Dorothy Bottrell, The University of Sydney

Emily Maguire, Princesses and Pornstars: Sex, Power, Identity, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008 (256 pp). ISBN 9-78192135-131-0 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

Meda Chesney-Lind and Katherine Irwin, Beyond Bad Girls: Gender, Violence and Hype, Routledge, New York, 2007 (235 pp). ISBN 0-41594-828-2 (paperback) RRP $53.60.

The idea of the ‘bad girl’ has long been linked to deviance, particularly criminal and ‘unacceptable’ sexual behaviour. Embedded in a diversity of discourses, popular culture, rules and systems that regulate people’s behaviour, the ‘bad girl’ plays counterpoint to the idealised ‘good girl’. Many archetypes have defined ‘appropriate’ gender roles, domains and behaviour for young women, centred on a feminine ideal. To avoid being labelled, girls have had to negotiate carefully the double binds governing their sexuality and behaviour over generations (Lees 1993). Early feminist scholarship identified such regulation as integral to women’s inequality in public and private worlds.

As feminists challenged narrow conceptions of ‘women’s place’, dichotomies like the homemaker/paid worker were broken down. Girls now have the advantages of education and career paths, and are expected to be present in political and public worlds. ‘Can-do’ girls (Harris 2004) have confidently entered traditional masculine domains and secured new ‘places’ through their own achievements. However, since women have begun to break gendered traditions by achieving, depictions of ‘ladettes’, ‘party girls’, ‘mean girls’ and ‘violent girls’ have emerged. These images imply that girls are pushing the boundaries for equality in dangerous ways.

Feminist perspectives and the role of the media and popular culture in perpetuating the ‘good’ and ‘bad girl’ dichotomy are taken up in different ways in two new books. In Princesses and Pornstars, Sydney writer Emily Maguire asks what it means to be a young woman in the ‘apparently “post-feminist” twenty-first century’ (p. 2). Drawing on personal experience, and analysis of media commentary and popular culture, she makes a ‘call to arms’ to her generation, men as well as women, to recognise feminism’s enduring importance. Her central argument is that despite achievements of second wave feminism women and girls are:

still judged first on how well we conform to gendered norms that were already looking tattered in 1955. Back then, the value of a woman was determined by her sexual behaviour, function and fecundity. As it was, so it remains (p. 2).

Though broad ranging in her critique of how gendered stereotypes limit women’s choices, Maguire’s central motif is the persistence of the ‘Virgin/Whore’ dichotomy delimiting women’s sexual freedom.

Maguire makes a ‘call to arms’ to her generation, men as well as women.

Maguire’s attack on the public shaming of women who enjoy sex begins with her own teenage experience of being labelled a ‘slut’: ‘When I started being a slut I was fourteen years old and was still a virgin. Slut status did not depend on having sex but on people thinking that you did’ (p. 15). Moreover, sexual behaviour is judged in ways that see girls’ desire as illegitimate. Drawing many examples from American and Australian media and social commentary, Maguire condemns representations of celebrity ‘party girls’ as self-demeaning in flaunting their promiscuity. Writing off the shallowness of celebrity culture is one thing, she says, but ‘slut-shaming’ is a problem when it is essentially condemning all women who have lots of lovers—while maintaining a stunning silence about similar behaviour in their male partners. ‘Out of control’ female sexual behaviour is depicted in the media as indicating low self-esteem or psychiatric problems or used to justify calls to abstinence by the chastity movement, reworked by Elizabeth Sandovaal in USA Today as a ‘Neo-feminist’ option. Maguire demolishes an array of assumptions running through such commentary, including female sexuality as ‘a limited resource’ (p. 22), likened to either ‘a battery (can only be used so many times before it runs out) or a car (value decreases with use)’ (p. 23). She argues that the commodification of women’s sexuality and romance repackages the ‘nice girls/sluts’ dichotomy, in which normal healthy women do not need to enjoy sex because it is love that will bring happiness. If women do not buy in they ‘end up stigmatized or pitied’:

In article after article in major newspapers from around the world, teenage girls and young women are referred to in terms that reinforce tired, damaging stereotypes. Either they’re fragile and in need of protection or they’re wild and slutty. They’re princesses or pornstars (p. 64).

Images in ‘princess culture’ may appear antithetical to those in mainstream pop music where explicit lyrics and pelvic thrusts in video clips are claimed to represent female empowerment. But Maguire suggests that the ‘music video “ho” is the ideological twin of the tea-making, polite small-talking, pink Chanel-suit-wearing modern-day princess’ (p. 39). These are cultural reinventions of the enduring message that being a woman is about catering to men’s desires. She cites Ariel Levy’s (2005) analysis of ‘raunch culture’ as caricaturing both women’s sexuality as performance and feminist concepts of liberation and empowerment. Maguire agrees that the uptake of G-strings, pole dancing, and Brazilian waxes presents women, ‘in Levy’s words, as “ornamental entertainment” rather than “partners in wildness”’ (p. 49). However, she challenges the view that raunch is a problem of women’s own self-objectification, arguing that it parallels the ‘modesty’ argument for covering up and staying chaste:

Raunch culture and the modesty movement are two sides of the same coin. Both see women primarily in terms of their attractiveness and availability. Both are ultimately conservative worldviews: they not only cast women as objects of men’s gaze and judgement, they also assume that women should care what that judgement is, and dress and act accordingly (p. 61).

That pornography has gained substantial mainstream acceptance is a significant difference in the cultural worlds of young women now compared with the past. Women make up a third of all porn users and porn is generally seen as an enhancing and destigmatising sexual pleasure (p.140). Debates about pornography continue to polarise feminists, so it is not surprising that Maguire’s position is ambivalent. On the one hand she sums up what she finds online—infantalisation of women as fantasy pets and portrayals of women enduring painful and humiliating sex—as blatant misogyny. On the other hand, she argues that pornography is not inherently degrading and, like other resources for women’s fantasy and pleasure, is a matter of personal choice. However, she advocates for alternative forms to shift the preoccupation with women as merely bodies for men’s sexual gratification. Citing Kath Albury’s (2003) research, she suggests that consumers demand ethical pornography. Exemplars by feminist erotic film-makers break down the stereotypes, providing equal interest in male and female characters, portrayal of safe sex and broadening the scope of women’s sexual expression.

Debates about pornography continue to polarise feminists.

Throughout the book, the issue of personal choice is problematic. Maguire’s critique of sexist cultural and social processes is implicitly a critique of certain kinds of personal choices—those which reinforce patriarchal notions of desire. But she is not suggesting that women are victims or dupes: ‘If we say that the sexually expressive woman is only playing up to men’s desires, then we deny that women have desires and expressions of their own, and that sometimes these coincide with mainstream versions of sexuality’ (p. 62). Thus, she is exhorting readers to question personal choices and how they are made. Maguire wants freedom of sexual expression without the judgements that reduce complex people to their sexuality alone or that reduce women’s enjoyment of sex to pathology or immorality. More realistic and relevant sex education for young people is one focus for change along with many ‘larger cultural patterns’ from corporate dress codes to cosmetic surgery, from sexual violence and heterosexim to politicians’ interest in ‘the occupancy rates of our wombs’.

Questioning cultural stereotypes of gender is central to Maguire’s feminism; she wants us to get beyond these toward ‘creating a society where we can think of ourselves in terms of character rather than gender’ (p. 13). Ultimately, however, her desire to accommodate individual preferences and different kinds of feminisms provides no ground beyond personal choice for distinguishing between, for instance, ultra conservative ‘neo-feminisms’ and more radical positions. Thinking of people in terms of character erases the significance of race, class and other social cleavages that ‘difference feminism’ highlighted. Feminism as individualism provides little recognition of how individual privilege or disadvantage differentiates access to equality.

Feminist criminologists Meda Chesney-Lind and Katherine Irwin agree with many of Maguire’s arguments about the constraints gendered norms place on all girls. Their analysis in Beyond Bad Girls, however, emphasises the significance of race and class in the experience of girls and, specifically, of young offenders. The book is a response to the flood of media commentary and mass market monographs on girls’ increasing crime and violence. In the early 1990s this commentary focused on urban gangs, shifting to the ‘mean girl’ at the turn of the century and, more recently, to the ‘violent’ girl.

In their interviews and focus groups, Chesney-Lind and Irwin found that young women recognised ‘mean girls’ in their experience of growing up. Most recalled being bullied by other girls and its painful and lingering effects. However, in retrospect the girls also contextualised the taunts and exclusions about looks, clothes and ex/boyfriends, and abrupt rejection by ‘best friends’ within the many other concerns and interests they had as girls. And alongside the meanness of some girls, they spoke about friendships with other girls that they valued highly and which were often long-lasting. The practical resourcefulness of girls in finding new friends, mixing in different peer groups, and pursuing their own interests in and out of school is overlooked in the ‘mean girls’ discourse. Instead this discourse seems preoccupied with analysing rejected girls’ loss of self-esteem and self-destructive behaviours.

In families, boys are still accorded greater freedom.

Interestingly, interviewees’ depictions of mean girls referred to ‘queen bees’, being the ‘odd girl out’ and other characters and images from the best-selling Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons (2002) and Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes (2002), that later became the Hollywood blockbuster Mean Girls. The news stories, talk shows, and magazine articles that followed decried the competitive and manipulative nature of girls, and the way they seek and abuse power. Two particularly influential books in the burgeoning ‘aggressive girls’ literature, Deborah Prothrow-Stith and Howard Spivak’s Sugar and Spice and No Longer Nice: How We Can Stop Girls’ Violence (2005) and James Garbarino’s See Jane Hit: Why Some Girls are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It (2006) prompted a new round of media attention, epitomised in Newsweek’s ‘Bad Girls Go Wild’ (Scelfo 2005).

These books, and the media hype surrounding them, rely on statistics of vastly increased girls’ arrest rates to argue that girls are becoming more violent. These statistics show that the 70 per cent increase in youth arrests for violent offences from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s was followed by a marked decline, a slight rise between 2000 and 2002 and a decline since. However, throughout this period the proportional increase in juvenile arrest rates for girls rose from 23 per cent (1991) to 30.5 per cent (2004). The most significant increases were in arrests for assault.

However, Chesney-Lind and Irwin find that other data sources—self-report studies, victim reports, national and regional surveys and hospitals’ and health departments’ statistics—do not corroborate trends in official statistics nor the claims that girls’ violence is increasing that are based on them. Their alternative account of increasing arrest rates comprises three central arguments: the relabelling of status offences (in the United States these include running away from home, truancy, being beyond parental control, or in moral danger) as violent, with charges often instigated by parents; the ‘rediscovery of girls’ violence’ by schools; and more punitive approaches to fighting or other minor forms of violence, which is sometimes called ‘upcriming’ (p. 29).

This research supports Maguire’s argument that gendered double standards are deeply ingrained. In families, boys are still accorded greater freedom. Parents, and society more broadly, hold different attitudes to boys’ and girls’ sexual behaviour and these attitudes remain the basis for different rules for boys and girls. Parents’ knowledge of the prevalence of alcohol and other drug use by young people, of sexual violence and girls’ victimisation justifies stricter limits on girls’ activities outside the home. The regulation of girls within families is shown, however, to be taking a particularly ominous turn in recent years as parents have resorted to using status offences and assault charges to control their daughters. Though running away is often associated with sexual and physical abuse at home, girls’ out of home placement programs are limited. Thus girls are often left to survive on the streets because they ‘cannot legally go to school, get employment or find housing without risking return’ (p. 85) to their homes. Referring to reviews of thousands of juvenile justice cases, as well as police data on domestic violence, Chesney-Lind and Irwin find that a high percentage of girls’ assault charges are associated with family disputes, serious and trivial, particularly for African-Americans. Young people are more likely to be arrested for domestic violence involving both juveniles and parents; daughters who assault parents are much more likely to be arrested than sons. They conclude that these trends constitute a relabelling of status offences as violent crimes, often resulting in girls’ incarceration.

The ‘problem’ of mean and violent girls is not a case of ‘girls gone wild’.

The tragic and shocking Columbine shootings of 1999 elicited widespread fear of youth violence and intensified action on programs for school safety. The policing of girls’ peer groups emerged as a central strategy in these programs. Chesney-Lind and Irwin trace increasing attention to girls as legislation and school procedures blurred distinctions of bullying, harassment, and violence, and as prevention programs drew heavily on research on girls’ relational (indirect or non-physical) aggression. Though research on relational aggression is inconclusive on the question of harm—and largely silent concerning boys—prevention programs identify behaviours such as rolling one’s eyes at another, spreading hurtful rumours, and group exclusions as forms of bullying in the same category as physical attacks.

Further, awareness campaigns directed at parents have made questionable associations between bullying and criminality. Reporting requirements (legislated or in education policy) and enlisting students in watchdog roles adds to girls’ vulnerability when peer culture traditionally has included a heightened surveillance of girls’ behaviours. Formerly non-serious issues are increasingly scrutinised by students and school authorities alike and in the process ‘we are actually seeking new ways to devalue and demonize girls while also setting into place the need to police their behaviour more assiduously’ (p. 109). The prominence of ‘mean girl’ reports in the media dovetails into parental and school concerns with girls’ behaviour, deflecting attention from social and educational problems confronting girls.

The most serious consequence of ‘upcriming’ fights, minor theft, and threatening behaviours in and out of school has been the emergence of clear tracks from school to custody for African-American students, including girls, who make up around half of the female juvenile justice population. Evidence of racialised patterns of juvenile justice involvement includes unequal access to welfare services and treatment programs and differentiated accounts of girls’ offending, for example in probation reports that refer to white girls’ low self-esteem and abandonment and to African American and Latina girls’ lifestyle choices. These patterns parallel the overrepresentation of African-Americans in the adult justice system, which increased its population by more than 600 per cent to the highest rate of incarceration in the world between 1970 and 2003. While relabelling offences, upcriming, and the rediscovery of girls’ violence may account for the upsurge in girls’ arrest rates, Chesney-Lind and Irwin also note increasing use of detention to ‘protect’ girls. With few community-based programs and placements available, detention is often seen as offering greater protection for girls than staying on the streets or returning to high-risk environments.

Girls and young women are being subjected to new forms of discipline.

Chesney-Lind and Irwin make a strong case that the ‘problem’ of mean and violent girls is not a case of ‘girls gone wild’, but rather of unprecedented levels of policing in all its institutional forms. The new narratives have failed to contribute to understanding and addressing the problems of girlhood and instead have ‘generated a new language system to chastise and condemn girls … [handing] girls more bad news about themselves and more reasons to blame the problems of misogyny on other girls rather than pervasive institutional sexism’ (p. 124).

Both books provide evidence of powerful backlashes against feminism and its projects. In different ways, they show how girls and young women are being subjected to new forms of discipline, which are underpinned by ideas of personal choice and responsibility that echo the individualism of neoliberal ideology. This raises a troubling question about the relationship between the feminist ideal that ‘girls can do anything’ and the neoliberal ideal of the free, self-reflexive, responsible individual.

Yet many young women challenge and resist the ways they are represented in media and culture (although these books do not discuss this), and access to ‘can-do’ success is clearly shaped by race and class inequities. Further, there are feminist standpoints that challenge neoliberal individualism. These standpoints emphasise that we need to understand how knowledge and power are related in systematic ways and that expertise and risk management can both mask and expose the particular groups targeted through institutional regulation. This does not, however, mean that we have to give up the emancipatory potential of individualist feminism. Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen (2004) argues that young women are developing a ‘relational individualism’ (p. 25). Embracing individuality and agency can include both pursuing personal interests and social, cultural, and environmental projects that incorporate political and social justice orientations. Negotiating the tensions between desire for unique achievement and for elements of conformity, for autonomy and responsibility to others, may point to new ways of conceptualising the personal as political that better incorporate individuality and difference. The idea that individualism ‘may also become a shared identity, a sort of ‘social skin’ that protects and improves social integration’ (Bjerrum Nielsen 2004, p. 22) supports Maguire’s optimism about change and Chesney-Lind and Irwin’s call for shifting attention to the problems girls face.


Albury, K. 2003, ‘The ethics of porn on the net’, in Remote Control: New Media, New Ethics, eds C. Lumby & E. Probyn, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 196–211.

Bjerrum Nielsen, H. 2004, ‘Noisy girls: New subjectivities and old gender discourses’, Young, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 9–30.

Garbarino, J. 2006, See Jane Hit: Why Some Girls are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It, Penguin Press, New York.

Lees, S. 1993, Sugar and Spice: Sexuality and Adolescent Girls, Penguin, London.

Levy, A. 2005, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Free Press, New York.

Prothrow-Stith, D. & Spivak, H. 2005, Sugar and Spice and No Longer Nice: How We Can Stop Girls’ Violence, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Scelfo, J. 2005, ‘Bad girls go wild’, Newsweek, 13 June, p. 66.

Simmons, R. 2002, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Harcourt, New York.

Wiseman, R. 2002, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence, Crown, New York.

Dr. Dorothy Bottrell is Senior Research Associate in Child and Youth Studies in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney. Her background is in secondary teaching, juvenile justice, and youth work. Identity work, resistances, and resilience are central themes of her research which aims to shift understandings of disadvantaged and marginalised young people away from categories of ‘problem youth’.