"You're a good girl and you know it," Drake sings in "Hold On, We're Going Home," a track that's been on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 10 weeks. "You're a good girl," croons Robin Thicke in "Blurred Lines." Beyoncé "used to be a good girl," Jay-Z says in this month's Vanity Fair. The problem is, a "good girl" does not exist.
Books can (and have) been written about the virgin/whore dichotomy. Sigmund Freud identified the "Madonna/whore" psychological complex, in which men see women as either pure, saintly creatures or filthy prostitutes. But as we all know, the world is not black and white. Human beings cannot be labeled thusly. Women are complex and multi-faceted individuals, and the concept of a "good girl" is infantalizing and deeply flawed.
Still, "good girl" is a phrase that gets used. Often. A young woman may hear it from her mother, father, aunt, grandmother: "Be a good girl." Usually, it means be quiet, be polite, be well-behaved. In its most insidious context, it means be subservient. Obey. For centuries, women in cultures around the world have been expected to be silent, demure, submissive, deferential, pliable. (In addition to virginal, of course. Not having sex is implied when it comes to being a good girl.)
Rihanna, who signed a six-album record deal when she was 17 years old, titled her third album Good Girl Gone Bad. The implication? That she was no longer the virginal teenager but a grown-up, sex-having woman who does whatever she wants. Which is Bad.
For sale, all across America, are bumper stickers, throw pillows, T-shirts and buttons which read good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere. These words are generally attributed to Mae West, who wrote and acted in plays and films, was unashamed about being sexual and pushed the boundaries of what was considered "decent" in the 20s and 30s. But these days, the phrase — meant to be affirming and empowering to women chafed by the concept of "good girl" — just reinforces the outdated and inaccurate dichotomy.
Still, in the last couple of months, we've had a high-profile male entertainers using the words "good girl." Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" is a yearning to draw out the sexually aggressive side of a "good girl," — he knows she "must want to get nasty," i.e. not be good anymore. Drake's plaintive "you're a good girl and you know it" in "Hold On" is a wish, a plea, for the woman in question to be her true self, which is "good." "You act so different around me," he sighs, as though the lady in question is just pretending to be "bad." When! In fact! A person cannot be good or bad. It doesn't work that way. You can do good things and bad things and think terrible thoughts and do charity work and have selfish days — years — and call your mom all the time and regret the time you were cruel to a boy in fifth grade while rescuing kittens. Layers, shades of gray, complexity. That's just how humans — and women are people! — are.
Here's what Jay Z says (emphasis mine) in the new Vanity Fair:
I asked if he and Beyoncé were dating when they both posed for the group photo for the cover of the 2001 Vanity Fair Music Issue. “No, no, we weren’t,” he said. “We were just beginning to try to date each other.” Try? “Well, you know, you’ve got to try first,” he said. “You got to dazzle … wine and dine.” Did he pursue her? “Of course,” he said. I ask what if he hadn’t been Jay Z—say he was a gas-station attendant and she pulled up … would he have been able to date her? “If I’m as cool as I am, yes,” he said with a laugh. “Of course. But she’s a charming southern girl, you know, she’s not impressed But I would have definitely had to be this cool.” On his latest album, there’s a line: “She was a good girl ’til she knew me.” Is that about Beyoncé? “Yeah,” he said. So, she’s not a good girl anymore? “Nah,” he laughed. “She’s gangsta now.”
He's joking, to some extent, but you can't deny there's a certain glee — from him, from Thicke, from Drake and every man who wants a "lady in the streets and a freak in the sheets" — in labeling, fetishizing and conquering a so-called "good girl." Sorry fellas: They just don't exist.