The bolito of being a “good girl”

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Being a good girl in the 1950s was about being obedient, polite, apologetic, and compliant. The good girl was a virgin who crossed her legs at her ankles; a woman pinned and proposed to, she surrendered herself as the prized calf on the night when she was transferred, much like a deed for a piece of property, from one man’s house to another’s. That initial surrender would invariably become a lifetime of supplications. Our girl was passive, always smiling, forever putting everyone but herself first while she slept through her waking life.

But what happens when the girl wakes up and wants to break the lease? What happens when she fails to conform or uncross her legs on demand, when she doesn’t become what the world expects of her? What if she looks at her body and decides she doesn’t want it to be a hotel flashing a Vacancy sign for men and small children passing through even though getting married and having children is simply what one did? Feminism promised us equality with our burned bras and picket signs, but then we came home to find everyone seated around the kitchen table, still demanding their dinner? What is our girl to do now?

My women rub the sleep out of their eyes and say, “Don’t label me good or bad, I just want to be human”.

Often, when people talk about the books they love, they think about characters that are likeable or relatable — stories that are close to one’s comfort, ones that feel like home. Great stories are a fakir, they’re charming and seek to draw you in, so much so that you feel like you’re a part of the world to which you’ve been given temporary trespass. And much like traveling to a foreign country, you cart along your passport and six-piece luggage set, the contents of which contain your language, personal history, values, belief system, and your vision for how society should function. You navigate with some difficulty the new language, cars that drive on the other side of the road, and the strange food, but there comes a moment when discomfort morphs into disbelief.

When you see or experience something that wholly challenges what you believe at your core. If you don’t want your world altered, you reject the story, set aside the book, and leave a one-star Amazon review with the comment: “Meh, so not relatable. Who would do this?” The world goes on, ad-infinitum, until you find a story that cuts closer to home — one where you’re temporarily challenged, but not altered. I wanted to populate a novel with a wholly recognizable world — one where men are the aggressors and women assume the role of caretakers, except one thing is a bit off. As first you can’t quite put your finger on it, but as the story unfolds, you realize the protagonist might not be the good girl society wants her to be…in fact she’s a vengeful, unrepentant murderer and got away with it because of society’s sexism. She doesn’t seek catharsis or redemption; rather her motivations are base (familial love, desire, revenge), and almost childlike in their blind selfishness.

In 1994, I read Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. I was a sophomore in college and an obsessive reader of dark literary fiction, i.e. stories where someone invariably meets a cruel end (chainsaws, hangings, ritualistic disembowelment — that sort of thing). Setting aside the obvious misogyny, American Psycho was a formidable satire of 1980s excess and an examination of a man who didn’t seek redemption or catharsis. Pat Bateman shot kittens and murdered prostitutes with caged rodents and you accepted this. Much like the great villains in fiction, he didn’t care whether you liked him or not. In fact, he didn’t care about you at all. That’s what made books like Psycho so thrilling to read; their characters lived on their own terms, created new norms for the society in which they lived.

Years later, a scene from the movie Scream bothered me. A bunch of teens are discussing the gruesome disembowelment of two of their classmates:

Randy Meeks: Did the police ask if you liked to hunt?

Tatum Riley: Why would they do that? They didn’t ask me.

Stuart: Because there’s no way a girl could have killed them.

Tatum Riley: That is so sexist. The killer could have easily been a female. Basic Instinct.

Randy: That was an icepick, not exactly the same thing.

Stuart: Yeah, Casey and Steve were completely hollowed out. In fact, it takes a man to do something like that.

Tatum Riley: Or a man’s mentality.

When I got home from the theatre, I thought, of course a woman could be capable of extreme violence. However, portrayals of women aggressors are minimal at best, and they’re often viewed through the lens of sexually deviant behavior, where men are the center of the story. They’re bad girls: wronged, lesbian prostitutes like Aileen Wuornos, bisexual whores like Catherine Tramell or desperate old maids like the “Giggling Granny”, Nannie Doss, who murdered her lovers because she was “searching for the perfect mate, the real romance of life.” Sex reduces their pathology and manages to relegate women to a binary Madonna/whore divide. Because good girls don’t just keep their legs crossed, they don’t go around killing people.

I won’t accept that women only reach for the icepick to punish the men who scorned them. This was the impetus for writing my book — I wanted to write a book that altered you, usurped all your pre-conceived ideas about male and female roles. Men and sex are incidental to the women in my novel, an afterthought. They’re violent, unapologetically so, because society tells them they’re docile, compliant, good. They escape suspicion even in the midst of mounting evidence, because no one expects the college-educated baker to mercy kill her mother. No one would believe that a child would push her mentally ill grandmother off a roof because she loved her. Sex (or even psychopathy) doesn’t make the women in my book dangerous, society’s blindness to their agency does.