Bad Bitch: Women, Autonomy, and Embracing Villainy

 

Angela-Davis-Smoking.jpg

Angela Davis

 

One day, I finished being good. Like a timer on a clock it just ran out. I was crossing the street to my car after a meeting with an energy-draining person who did not captivate my attention, but I had been too polite to adhere to my formerly imposed hour-long cap. Because I was too concerned with being polite, being liked, and ending on a positive note, the meeting lasted three hours and threw off my plans for the rest of the afternoon. Why am I like this? I wondered. What compelled me to seek someone else’s approval to such an extent, I was willing to sacrifice my own agenda for someone I didn’t even find interesting? “That’s enough, Raab,” I said to myself—a adage I had cultivated to cope with the amplified spiral of chatter my brain turns on in moments of self-criticism. “You don’t have to be good.”

In fiction, a hero is one who practices good behavior, who does the right thing, at times to the detriment of their own health, happiness, and well-being. Good behavior is selfless and just. The villain, being the antithesis of the hero, therefore must be the pinnacle of bad behavior. Villains get to be selfish, even if their selfishness harms other people, law and order, and society at large. Villains don’t let their plans and ideas be corrupted by societies expectations, whereas heroes are forever at the mercy of what society demands must be done to preserve a moral way of life. This is not to say villains don’t live by some ethical code, and in the non-fiction world, women who exercise Bad behavior often have complex moral compasses. In the context of our society, a society dominated in most areas by men, bad behavior from women translates to rejecting the norms of this condition. Women who behave badly are not women who behave poorly: they are women who behave in accordance with their autonomy. By this rhetoric alone, one would be inclined to believe misbehaving is a state of childish spite or bitchiness. But to examine the ways women misbehave on a societal level and not and interpersonal one, we must distinguish between the two concepts.

Society was built on the backs of well-behaved women. A girl on good behavior is not too opinionated, not too loud, and not too brash. Good behavior is sweet and sexy, but not slutty. Healthy and smart but not egotistical. Good behavior is letting things be explained, letting things happen, and reacting with grace. Good behavior is giving without expecting return, obeying laws that are put in place for our own safety. It is saying “OK” to things that run opposite to your own agenda or goals. Good behavior is letting others get ahead, even if it’s your turn. For years, this is how I tried to behave. I admonished myself for exclaiming my beliefs in mixed company. I endured having things I already understood explained to me so I wouldn’t bruise another’s feelings. I kept my sexcapades on the DL. The consequence of trying to be on good behavior at all times is feeling like you’re not being good enough, modest enough, or polite enough. What I was really doing was fighting against my instincts to be myself because I thought that version of me was unattractive to too many people. While others were benefiting from my good behavior, I was suffering under the weight of my own self-criticism, one I had developed from borrowed concepts of women’s expected behavior in society. Choosing to be yourself at the risk of displeasing people is, at least for women and minorities, a radical act of bad behavior.

Who benefits from good behavior, specifically, my good behavior, and the good behavior of women everywhere? The day my dutiful meter ran out was the day I really asked myself this question for the first time. But as I thought about it, a more accurate question took its place: who profits from my good behavior? My lifelong drive to please people has resulted in a certain amount of cultivated naïveté, a reaction I employ because I want to see the best intentions in people who commandeer my time. This is a learned behavior, and one I, as I approach my 30th year, am unlearning every day. That afternoon when I felt the last of my good behavior wane and disappear in a feeble poof, I knew exactly who profited. They had a name, a face I spent watching talk for the last three hours, an agenda, people to rely my information to for monetary gain (which I would not benefit from). But this person was neither the beginning nor the end of the line of profiteering entities, entities I had tried to please but was somehow always coming up short.

I woke up on November 9th, 2016 feeling like someone I loved had died in the early hours of the morning. I spent the next two weeks numbing myself against the news and glancing sideways at strangers in the same room. I felt there was nobody I could trust unless they were in my closest inner circle of friends. As a white person from a family in an average economic bracket, it was a humbling and eye-opening two weeks. For the first time, I began to experience the world I imagine people of color, transgender individuals, poor people, atypical and differently-abled people live in every single day. I have never felt so empathic, yet totally distant from the people society has crushing expectations for. Never before had I realized the full extent of who gets to decide who has rights and who doesn’t, and it pissed me off so bad, I immediately began to make changes. I doubled down on replacing judgment with empathy. I showed the people in my life I cared about them and their well-being. And I stopped trying to please people for good.

The first thing I changed when I decided I wasn’t going to be good anymore had the most immediate results: I decided I wasn’t going to step aside for men when I stepped out the door for a walk. It seems innocent enough, but I’ve been shoulder checked by a number of guys who I’m pretty sure were unaware of my existence until they ran right into me. I’ve always been a non-physical person. I don’t like concerts or crowds or touching strangers, but this silent statement declaring my due space in the world flared up more than one temper in the men who walked into me. (Even the statement “they walked into me” runs counter to the way I’ve thought of myself all my life.) I expected this to happen. I’ve been yelled at from cars, from the sidewalk, in stores, and pretty much everywhere else considered a public space in the city. I’m used to ignoring cat-callers and their increasingly agitated and sometimes violent attempts to get my attention. I know there are men out there who feel so entitled to the world around them, they won’t even step aside for someone on the sidewalk. I spent 27 years stepping aside for them without a second thought, but now, it’s my turn. The responses I get range from polite stepping aside, to muttered slurs under breath, to aggressive confrontation. The only solution for me is to keep walking, but I’m aware of the danger this puts me in. Bad behavior is knowing there could be consequences, but sticking to your moral compass even though it could upset someone else’s carefully balanced ego. I encourage safety and situational awareness for everyone who isn’t a straight white male, but the problem of social entitlement is not caused by the people in our nation who are routinely and viciously oppressed.

No one knows how old the narrative is, but society values tough men, compliant women, quiet Black people, birth gender conformity, tragic White heroes, standard beauty, and sexual agreeability. As long as we stick to these rules, our good behavior is rewarded—not with advocacy or social gain—but with tolerance. good behavior doesn’t move the needle closer to equality or understanding, it only performs the status quo. A conscious choice to behave in a way counter to these expectations results in overblown consequences that unevenly mirror what good behavior gains. I grew up with many strong and loud women who were shamed or cut off by their bosses, their mothers or fathers, and their peers. Don’t cause a fuss. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t argue. Don’t stomp your feet or ask for more or expect a return on your efforts. Do what you are supposed to do and take pride in the knowledge that you made life easier for someone else. Phrases like these have a way of sticking in our heads until we absorb them as truths, but when we embrace bad behavior, when we ask for what we need instead of wait for things to be bestowed upon us, we see these words only as tools to keep us on good behavior.

In 2014 I wrote a criticism of a young woman who had her face Photoshopped into different versions of beauty in countries all over the world. The project was meant to challenge beauty standards, but when I saw the project pop up in Harpers Bazaar, Cosmo, Elle, and other traditionally female targeted magazines, I wondered how the project rose to the challenge. In the critique, I concluded that it didn’t, that any momentum the project originally had ended as soon as the spread appeared in the entities that heavily control the feminine image-agenda. This was the first time I explored how even when our intentions are radical, women are funneled into being perceived as practicing good behavior when it comes to media presentation. The young woman agreed to have her project published in the same magazines that once published a headline that read: “Here’s How Many Calories a Day Victoria’s Secret Model Taylor Hill Eats to Look Like This.” The woman set out to explore standards of beauty throughout the world in order to challenge the status quo of today, but by agreeing to publish in such magazines, remained on her best behavior without moving the needle away from pervasive female stereotypes.

Women misbehave by being themselves. For young women, self-awareness is inextricable from self-loathing, at least at first. When I was a teenager, I became aware of myself by becoming aware of how people looked at and treated me, and these were for the most part negative experiences. I was unaware of the expectations I was meant to meet in society. As a skinny white girl, I was privileged in many ways, but some of this privilege was connected to the image of the ideal sexualized woman, and I was twelve or thirteen when this actually dawned on me. When the grown men around you start to say “you should be a model,” it’s flattering until you begin to understand how models are treated, how they treat their own bodies, and how they are expected to release their autonomy to corporate agendas. The first thing a young woman realizes about models is that she will never be one, because she will never be good enough. It’s too much responsibility for a young woman—to grow up and be self-sufficient, strong, smart, autonomous, while protecting yourself from the onslaught of beasts that expect your image to yield something that only benefits others. Good behavior is doing both: growing up and being strong, but giving yourself piece by piece to society that demands your image, your body, your beauty, be used to their exclusive gain. This makes bad behavior, villainous behavior, an attractive draw from an early age. But it is a struggle to achieve unless you are totally impervious to pain and criticism. For women of color, autonomy is a risk with consequences that are multiple times scarier than what I face as a white girl. When a woman of color started the civil rights movement, the reaction from society was violent and motivated by fear. The simple act of not doing anything when something was expected of Rosa Parks launched a battle for black women to fight for decades to come. Society expects a different set of good behaviors from them—quiet, out of the spotlight, wise only when it benefits white heroes, and above all: grateful for any slim opportunity. Young women of color have experienced the cruelest duality of sexualization and suppression by society, it’s difficult to imagine how they manage the strength to push back during a time when it’s so easy to become exhausted.

When I was growing up, under the wing of second wave feminists and part-time lesbians, I learned the power of sex. The problem was, like it is for many girls, it was not a power I discovered myself and therefore had no control. It’s a power that is not consciously operated by adolescents, like a machine with sensitive controls, but it is one that magnetizes men of all ages. There probably isn’t a single woman on the planet who could avoid this entirely during the years she grew into understanding her sexuality. My experiences taught me that young women are gifted something powerful and menacing, something they should be careful using and exercise extreme caution when wielding. I was taught sex complicates every relationship, because it is something you can never take back. It is something the men you sleep with own. Sex was about giving up a part of myself, not gaining a part of someone else. We have been teaching young men and women two completely different things about sex for so long, I still feel guilt for past sexual experiences that I should have tossed off long ago. When I wonder if the men of those moments feel the same way about it, I feel a sick and empty sense that this is a uniquely feminine guilt, that for many women, it’s so hard to let go of sexual guilt because of the way we were taught to think about using our bodies. Certainly, I can’t think about this problem without linking it to LGBT youth, who must experience the same kind of guilt and conflict at the start of their personal development. These issues are tricky to separate into male/female/straight/gay/trans/etc exclusivity, but I’m trying to say I don’t believe the way we talk to young people about sex and their bodies has traditionally been in favor of anyone besides straight cis men and their experience of intercourse and sexual prowess. I wasn’t really aware sex was something I could enjoy until I got to my third or fourth partner, but until then, I never questioned that what I did was for someone else. And this problem is not unique to my life. It’s a symptom of a culture that associates good behavior with giving without asking to receive. Women who demand to be reciprocated for what they give, or worse, expect good things to happen to them without giving anything in return, are the villains of many real life and fictional tales. This comes all the way down to basic human rights. Women who expect to be in control of their bodies, their decisions, their autonomy, even their voting rights, are punishable in the eyes of capitalism and sanctioned by the law.

In contemporary society, women are demonized for owning their sexuality. The expectation to be virginal—if not anatomically, than at least soulfully—is an unsustainable pressure on young women in particular. We see villainous women wielding their charm and sexual authority and are meant to believe it is further evidence of their immorality, of their lack of restraint when using this powerful tool. We interpret villainous sex as women who are less discerning about who they sleep with and who they wield sexual power over. Sexual contentment—whether or not the woman perceives what she is doing as sexual—is disqualifying in almost every field outside Hollywood. Sexualizing women is only acceptable if it’s non-consensual. Vanessa Williams began her illustrious career by being on her best behavior. The 1983 Miss America was pressured to forfeit her title when Penthouse published racy photos of the young model. The photographs were taken consensually and published without her authorization, causing the Miss America committee and fans to question her credibility as the crown winner. Williams returned her title and could easily have faded into the ether of shame the public projected onto her image. Instead, Williams turned her bad behavior into a successful career as a singer, author, actress, and award winner. She defied the media and public expectations of self-flagellation after the controversy, turning the tables on how young women are meant to carry themselves after this level of public admonishment. The time-honored tradition of using women’s sexuality and consent to ruin their lives and careers continues at a steady rate with the rise of social media, because shame and fear are qualities of good behavior. At the time of the backlash, Williams no doubt felt an unbelievable weight of discouragement over the storm, but her decision to own her choices, her sexuality, and her status made her the hero of her own story and a role model for bad girls everywhere. In 2011, Michelle Obama did the unthinkable: after all the backlash she received for wearing sleeveless dresses, she had the nerve to wear short shorts on vacation. Of course, the shadowy nay-sayers on the internet lashed out saying this was not appropriate attire for a First Lady. Photos of Mrs. Obama in the racy garments show the hem of the shorts about four inches above her knee—hardly what I would consider short shorts by any stretch. Nevertheless, the fact that a woman in power exposed a little more of her skin, more than 25% of Huffington Post poll voters were comfortable with, caused a knick in her credibility and image. (Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin rides around horses shirtless and is heralded as a champion for masculinity.) Femininity, specifically one woman’s ownership of femininity, specifically a black woman’s ownership of her body, has potentially damaging consequences for a woman in power. Society treats Melania Trump the same way. Although her whiteness allows her much more leniency, her clothes and body have been sexualized and celebrated or condemned before her intelligence and capabilities were even considered. Her evolution as an individual is only almost as interesting as the career of the man she is associated with. Image is praised before autonomy, and women who flip this expectation are automatically at risk of public scorn.

A villain is, above all else, familiar with rejection. She has been told no so many times in her life, she has been told she is not good enough, it no longer means anything to her greater agenda. This frees her to go on her way the way she has learned to function: without support. This might be the definitive difference between the hero and the villain. The hero is used to being told yes, while the villain is used to opportunities being withheld and has no more disillusion about why. I bring this up to address the new realities of rejection in a technological society, part of which includes online dating. Everyone gets rejected at some point, but with the rise of dating apps and other means of romantic communication, we’re seeing the phenomenon of men who have perceived themselves as heroes of their own world for most of their lives burst into flames at the first hint of rejection from a potential partner. Young women are more confident and secure than ever before, and the expectation for women to blush or contradict with self-effacement after a compliment is not as realistic as it used to be. The amazing thing about this phenomenon is we can provide evidence of male fragility to a thousand people in a second, with the press of a key. Women misbehave by being confident in their romantic lives, and not cutting themselves down for men to rebuild with compliments and words of assurance. Confidence for women is becoming, if not for the first time, at least for the largest public, self-generating. This poses a threat to individuals who rely on searching for insecurities to gain something from a relationship. The contrast between young women who fight each day for things we shouldn’t have to earn–basic respect, equal pay, access to healthcare–and young men who lose it when a woman says “no thank you” to a second date is a micro study in the social order that grew out of women being pressured into good behavior.

I could go on. I could talk about the wage gap, the fragility of masculinity, America’s prison complex, the raging political fire that is sure to grow. But bad behavior is tiring and not exactly rewarded. Young women, grown women, women of all colors, all gender and sexual identities, it’s time to consider your good behavior, the context of your manners. Ask yourself who profits from it, and are you seeing enough, or any, of that profit in your own life. It’s time to rethink your place in society. It’s time to use the power you have, not the power you’ve been allowed to wield in a designated space at appropriate times. It’s time to misbehave.

 

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