I recently watched a “reality” show called “The Bad Girls Club” and was saddened to see what has lately become of the Bad Girl brand. The show devotes itself to a lot of scantily clad, cranky harlots who do nothing but party and fight with each other, trying to scratch each other’s eyes out with press-on nails. It seems modern day slut culture has totally co-opted Bad Girls, and it made me ache for young women today and the tepid model for misbehavior they are being given.
I came of age in a time when the term “Bad Girl” connoted rebellion and iconoclasm, independent thinking and free-spiritedness. Bad Girls were badass, and that gave us our power. Not that the term “Bad Girl” hasn’t always had a patronizing, pejorative twang. It’s always been one part “You go, Girl!” and two parts, “You’re a slut.” But nevertheless, Bad Girls and Party Girls have gotten all shuffled together into the same deck of pornographic playing cards. Bad Girls were the ones who blew off the party to smoke a joint outside. We did all kinds of stuff with guys, and not just it. We were accomplices, we were troublemakers, we were always dressed inappropriately for whatever occasion, and likely to cause a scene. Okay sure, we were also on the easy side, but sex was conducted in the spirit of “fuck you”—not “fuck me.”
I feel I should at this point offer my Bad Girl bonafides, so you can be sure you’re in the hands of a seasoned pro.
In my 47 checkered years on earth, I have engaged in just about every kind of Bad Girlery you can imagine:
Premarital and adulterous sex, of course. Smoking, drinking, drugging, cursing, necking, heavy petting, hooky, hickey, almost-turned-a-tricky, eye-rolling, bird-flipping, shit-flipping, cow-tipping, tripping, mashing, flashing, reputation-trashing, trespassing, shoplifting, re-gifting, mooning, booing, lying, spying, fake-crying, hair-dying, fake-ID-buying, tagging, bagging, sarcasm, orgasm, party-crashing, dine-and-dashing, dirtbikes/roadbikes/grassbikes, drink spikes, one-nights, cheating, speeding, pussy-eating, two-timing, one-lining, line-snorting, sheet-shorting, and aborting.
Oh, and taxi dancing.
Like all Bad Girls, I started out as a Good Girl. What happened? I was torn from the breast young, I was spanked. I was humped by a Spaniel and groped by a camp counselor. But more than anything, I think it’s because my parents had an epic, toxic divorce when I was twelve. I learned that love was a shuck just as I hit willowy, blonde puberty in Manhattan in the late 1970’s. It was the summer of Taxi Driver and I was a dead ringer for Jodie Foster. I was jailbait and unsupervised and the world came on to me fast.
New York in 1976 was Ground Zero for sex. Women were freshly liberated and on the pill, the Stonewall Riots brought out the gays, no-fault divorce was sweeping the nation and people were getting it on. Nobody was worried about genital herpes or G-spots. Hang-ups were hung up, swingers swung, and platonic relationships were in retreat at Plato’s Retreat. AYDS was a diet candy. Everybody was doing it, even my parents—just not with each other.
My dad cheated on my mom in London with a chippie who worked for Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Mom called him a cab. They both wrote thinly veiled novels about it all and made me and my younger sister choose opposite sides of the split.
Pop was more inconvenienced by the divorce than he was heart-broken. He adjusted his aviator frames, combed out his mustache and went out and swung. My father was Mr. Goodbar, mowing down liberated ladies like a John Deere in deep wheat. “I once had sex with three different women in one day,” he bragged to me not long ago.
While my father notched conquests on his water bedpost, my mother took up with Daniel, my friend Gemma’s dad. In today’s terminology, Gemma was my tweenage bestie, and our two families were not just close, our brownstones shared a front stoop. Gemma and I lived at each other’s houses practicing our Bad Girl moves together at the age of 11. We stole and smoked our first cigarettes and made prank calls and reenacted scenes from The Three Musketeers (but dirty) in my bedroom on sleepovers. We stole a condom out of my father’s drawer and stuffed it full of newspaper in an attempt to understand the mystery of the penis. The day Mom and Daniel told us they were moving in together was the last time I saw Gemma. She never spoke to me again.
Alone and frightened in my broken, atheist, culturally enriched home, I had nowhere to turn for answers but to literature. That is how I came across a copy of “Fear of Flying” while prowling my mother’s bookshelves. The cover showed a woman’s breasts exploding from a tight shirt as her zipper was being slowly run southward by a male hand. I felt a spasm of prurient curiosity. I hid the book under my purple sweatshirt and, alone in my room, discovered the “Zipless Fuck” in breathless surprise. It embodied all the sophistication, mystery and emotional remove that I dreamed of at twelve.
It wasn’t long before I was peeling my Gloria Vanderbilts off in front of Neighbor Boy, who was a year ahead of me at school. His mom caught us, scandal ensued, and thus it was that “Erika is a HOAR” was scratched on a stall door in the girls’ bathroom at school. I read the epithet sitting on the pot, praying that I would get my period—not because I was worried I was pregnant (that would come later), but because I hadn’t yet reached puberty and I needed my body to catch up to my reputation.
The classic bad girl is the catholic school Girl gone wrong. While you really can’t beat repression-meets-rebellion-in-a-pleated-mini-skirt for sheer iconic appeal, I would argue that the Atheist Bad Girl, in her ripped jeans and shit-kickers, is a far more compelling creature. Catholic Bad Girls have a lot of obvious stuff to rebel against, whereas the Godless must draw their angst from a more mutable source. We confront the existential question, “if no one is watching, then what is the point of being good?” Like Algebra, virtue seemed to me to lack practical applications.
Alone in a world that offers no identifiable moral superstructure, “badness” can root tenaciously in the grout of a girls’ soul and briskly come to flower. As an Atheist Bad Girl, I didn’t just need to break rules, I found I wanted to make my own.
Badness for me was a means to a lofty end. my mandate was to live a life of romance and adventure, then turn the raw stuff of unfettered experience into an epic love story in which the very mysteries of the universe would be revealed. By 14, I could see that my virginity was holding up the works. So I tossed it off to a cute, available boy poetically named Adam, then got to work looking for a man big enough to keep me company on the vast, lonely wash of my soul. Little did I know it would take thirty years to find that man.
But you’ve got to start somewhere, and the cigarettes I smoked with Gemma were the gateway to everything else. Next came pot, then some light shoplifting, then truancy and sex. Some indiscreet diary-keeping led to my mother’s discovery of my wicked ways, which ultimately led, as it so often does for the over-privileged Bad Girl, to banishment in boarding school.
The school I wound up in wasn’t your typical ivied, repressive, knee-socks-and-blazers prep school. Buxton was an alternative, co-educational hippie school housed on an old summer estate in the Berkshires. At Buxton girls chewed tobacco and guys wore skirts. There were no “rules” at Buxton, only “customs” which I got right to work breaking my freshman year. I wiretapped faculty meetings, embraced Anarchist politics, fucked boys in the tall grass and wandered alone in the woods, my head stuffed full of Anne Sexton and D.H. Lawrence, imagining myself the mysterious heroine of a Peter Weir film.
Bad Girling is a cinematic calling, it’s a destiny best suited to those with a sense of destiny. I was raised to believe I would have a starring role on life’s stage. As the daughter of a film critic and a novelist, both with epic senses of themselves, I felt genetically called to narrative. A high-drama lifestyle was crucial if I was going to cull material and shape it into my own Homeric saga later on. I may not have had God or family, but I had something even better—the Audience. I never wrote in my journal without the thought that some day it would be published and read. I never was alone without imagining a camera somewhere capturing my every haunted expression. It was my duty to make my story a good one, and so I gorged myself on experience. I was high-minded and full of shit and suffered from grandiosity and low self-esteem in equal measure.
In the spring of my senior year of high school I pulled the ultimate Bad Girl move—I had an affair with a married teacher and got kicked out of boarding school. I was an A student with nearly four months to fill before I matriculated at Sarah Lawrence College in September. My father was so angry he couldn’t talk to me without spitting on me, so I flew to my mother who was living on Cape Cod with Daniel. There I discovered I was but a casting from my mother’s own Bad Girl mold—she confessed she herself once had a passionate affair with her own married teacher while at Sarah Lawrence. My mother knew firsthand the stormy cliff on which I stood. She didn’t have a spare bedroom for me though, so I joined my teacher in Vermont.
That summer was bliss. I lived in sin, I was the object both of desire and gossip, and I was a social outcast. I had reached the exalted Bad Girl status of being “the other woman” and I got my man. Moreover, I loved that man ferociously and I lived that summer high on his cologne. I wanted little more than to watch him shave every morning. After six weeks the teacher called my father from a pay phone and asked him to come and get me. I never saw or spoke to the teacher again.
Bad Girls don’t exist in a vacuum. We all start out as good girls. But for some reason, we realize the Good Girl is unlovable, so we get all bad n’ shit so nobody will think we care. But of course, inside, we want love with a fury that would immolate most men. Molten with heartbreak, I realized I had to get rid of the Bad Girl if I wanted to survive myself.
I locked that Bad Girl up in the dungeon of my heart, and I moved to Los Angeles to reinvent myself as a Good Girl. I achieved this transformation via the sanctity of marriage and motherhood. I found a kind, respectable man who I didn’t love so much so that it hurt, and I married him. We had two lovely daughters and made a comfortable home for them together. I lived a double life.
Twenty years of attachment parenting, school volunteering, water-wise gardening and free-range chicken roasting had my inner Bad Girl circling the drain. I tried to ignore her desperate cries for help as I knitted dishrags and chaperoned Girl Scouts. Sometimes I would sneak away to visit her in the basement, and try to perk her up with lap dances or sedate her with OG Kush, but it wasn’t enough. She was dying from neglect and I was moving through my life like a woman doomed. I realized that in trying to be good, I had sacrificed my soul. I was living somebody else’s life, and at 46 years old, I suddenly understood that life was not an open-ended proposition. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to live or die.
Among the slouched, paunchy mid-listers glomming free food in the book festival green room, the Bad Man stood out like a 6’3” golem in a seersucker suit. I knew who he was immediately, of course, not that I had read any of his books. But I knew his famous rap: self-confessed peeper, pervert, truant, miscreant, ex-drug addict, sober alcoholic and twice-divorced serial monogamist. He was part genius, part dipshit and 100% bad, bad, bad.
When he stood up to shake my hand I was surprised by his propriety. He was nervous and seemed oddly vulnerable. His Adam’s apple bobbed over his bowtie. He was a Lutheran Choirboy dressed for church with starched manners and a gaze that could warp steel. My Bad Girl sat up in her cell. She peered out at him through the bars and knew instantly that he was the man she had been looking for all along. He was the one who was going to set her free.
It took two more years before the Bad Girl managed to get a message out to the Bad Man, and when she finally did he immediately busted her out. I tried to stop the whole thing, I swear. I told her she was being selfish and irrational, and she just flipped me off. I told him that I was married, that I had children to protect, that I was middle-aged, miserable, peri-menopausal and unworthy. He said, “Those aren’t soul qualifications.” It turned out he loved both the Bad Girl and the Good Girl in equal measure and he wanted to help me put the two halves of my fractured self back together.
So I left the Good Man for the Bad Man, and simultaneously destroyed the whole Wacky Pack house of cards I had built on a lie about myself I’d made up in a moment of despair twenty years earlier. Friends turned away from me in disapproval and embarrassment.
Bad Girls, it seems, come with an expiration date. A young, single Bad Girl is sparkly and sexy, but past 40 she is camel toe and a smoker’s growl. She’s the cougar, leaning over the bar revealing a crêpey décolletage and dating herself by saying things like “let’s book” as she picks up the check and a sozzled frat boy. A Bad Woman is unseemly.
Only a bad woman would leave a perfectly good man and destroy her family for someone who refers to himself in the third person as “The Demon Dog.” I was not only condemnable by my tawdry actions and dubious choice, but by the era I lived in. A divorcee in 1976 was seen as liberated, but a divorcee in 2009 is just selfish, and an adulteress with children is that most unforgivable of creatures—a bad mother. I became, for the second time in my life, an outcast.
I felt shame, not because of the man I had chosen, but because I had gone and done the one thing I had spent two decades trying to avoid—I had recreated the exact circumstances of my own downfall, for my eldest daughter. At 13 years old, my firstborn was as full of passion and poetry as I was at that age. Her eyeliner started coming on thick, and I smelled cigarette smoke in her hair. I found a pot pipe in her room. I realized my sweet, tenderhearted daughter was going Bad Girl on me.
My daughter doesn’t have to contend with Manhattan in the swinging ’70s as she negotiates the turbulent waters of adolescence—instead she’s got “The Bad Girls Club” culture to contend with, which is worse.
Sex is no longer the bold, brave, independent adventure it was when I first started having it. The party that started in the ’70s has gone on too long and gotten too big. Bad Girls are a dime a dozen, “owning your sexuality” pretty much means giving it away to a culture that insists on sexual conformity from women. The challenge today is to raise a girl so fierce and sure of herself that she can blow off that party to do something better, like live authentically, pursue her interests, speak her mind. As mothers, we’ve got to put the “ass” back into Bad Girls, and raise Badass Girls who so are comfortable with themselves they can ignore all that tired Bad Girl shit.
This is why Bad Girls make such good mothers. We hate the status quo and can inoculate our children against its lamer forces. We have seen and done it all and there’s not one trick in the Bad Girl playbook that I can’t spot at sixty paces. There’s no lying to us or hiding from us. I am very good at busting my little Bad Girl.
When she slips into risky behavior, instead of pushing her away, I have tried to pull her in closer. She has managed to redirect her energy into art, politics, and being herself. We have had tough times together, but the worst, we hope, is over. She has emerged fierce, authentic, happy and healthy.
My daughter is also about to leave for boarding school, and the reflecting plotline of her story gives me the bends sometimes. But I am not sending her away, I am sending her forth, and that makes all the difference. She wanted to go to drama school, and I wanted it for her. I hope she finds her audience, and I hope she finds a different kind of drama than I did. I hope she never feels so unsupervised that she feels completely alone. God may or may not be watching her, but her mother always will be.