recently came across a “reality” show called “Bad Girls Club: New Orleans” and was confronted by what our current culture has come to accept as “badness” in women. The show features a lot of Lycra-clad, snarling, trashy gals pouting and shouting at the camera. It’s about hot outfits and cold drinks and cat fighting over lunky dudes in board shorts and beer goggles. It seems modern day slut culture has totally co-opted the “Bad Girl” brand, and it makes me sad for young women today.
Not that the term “Bad Girl” hasn’t always had a patronizing tang to it. It smacks of passive/aggression. It’s one part “You go, Girl!” and two parts, “You’re a slut.” But still, I remember a time when “Bad Girl” connoted rebellion and iconoclasm, independent thinking and free-spiritedness. Bad Girls and Party Girls have gotten all shuffled together. Bad Girls are the girls who blow off the party to do something better, like smoke a joint out back, or have sex on the pile of coats in the bedroom. We were the ones who didn’t care if we didn’t fit in. Sure, we were also sexually free, but our promiscuity was less “fuck me” and more “fuck you.”
Why should you take it from me? Let me offer my Bad Girl bonafides, so you can be sure you’re in the hands of a seasoned pro.
In my forty-seven checkered years on earth I have engaged in just about every kind of Bad Girlery you can imagine:
I have engaged in 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 in 1976 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 unsupervised jail bait and the world came on 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 kicked him to the curb. 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 than he was heart-broken. He adjusted his aviator frames, dusted off the epaulets on his safari jacket, combed out his mustache and went out and swung. Dick Schickel 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 best friend’s dad. In today’s terminology, Gemma was my tweenage bestie, and our two families were not only close, our brownstones shared a front stoop. Gemma and I did everything together – we smoked our first cigs and made prank calls and reenacted scenes from The Three Musketeers (but dirty) in my bedroom on sleepovers. 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 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 mom’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 my next door neighbor, who was a year ahead of me at school. His mom caught me, scandal ensued, and thus it was that “Erika is a HOAR” (spelled H-O-A-R) 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.
When we think of a Bad Girl we immediately get an image of a Catholic School Girl gone wrong. While you can’t beat repression-meets-rebellion-in-a-pleated-mini-skirt for sheer iconic appeal, I would argue that the Atheist Bad Girl is a far more compelling creature. Catholic Bad Girls have a lot to rebel against, whereas the Godless must draw their angst from a more mutable source. If no one is watching me, then what is the point of being good? Like Algebra, virtue seemed to me to lack practical applications.
Alone in a world that offered no identifiable moral superstructure, deprived of the loam of faith, “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 wasn’t a pastime, it was a calling. My lofty objective were no less than to live a life of romance and adventure and turn the raw stuff of unfettered experience into an epic, love story in which the very mysteries of the universe were revealed. By fourteen I saw that sex was an essential part of the mystery and my virginity was holding up the works. So I tossed it off to a cute, available boy appropriately named Adam. Adam was but a tool, and I quickly moved on in search of true love with a man who was 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 him.
My gateway to all this badness, of course, were cigarettes. My parents both smoked (and still do) so cigarettes were easy to steal, which made it into a giddy double offense, then you throw in the lying I had to do to cover it up and I was off to the Bad Girl races. That led to pot-smoking, which led to light shoplifting, which led to sex, which led to truancy, which led to a summer of exile in London (another story), which led to major shoplifting, which led, as it often does for over-privileged Bad Girls, 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 in quick succession my freshman year. At Buxton I was free to fuck boys in the tall grass and wander 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 Mother, 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 look. It was my obligation to make the story a good one, and in order to do that I had to stuff myself full of experience. I was high-minded and full of shit — I 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 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 a married teacher while at Sarah Lawrence. My mother knew first hand the stormy cliff on which I stood. However, she didn’t have a spare bedroom for me, so I joined my teacher in Bennington Vermont where he was finishing his spring semester teaching at the college.
That summer was bliss. I lived in sin, I was the object of gossip, and I was cast out from the fold of Buxton and the bosom of my family. Not only did I get to be “the other woman” but I also got my man. I loved that man and lived for nothing more than to watch him shave every morning. Six weeks later he called my father from work and asked him to come and get me.
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 dump my Bad Girl and all her big notions about love and life if I wanted to survive.
So I locked my Bad Girl up in the dungeon of my heart, and moved to Los Angeles to reinvented myself as a Good Girl. I achieved this transformation via the miracle of marriage and motherhood. I found a kind, respectable man who I didn’t love so much that it hurt, and I married him. We had two lovely daughters and made a comfortable home for them together
Twenty years of attachment parenting, school volunteering, knitting, gardening and roasting free-range chickens had my inner Bad Girl gasping her last down in the hole. While I planted water-wise gardens, and served on the PTA and the homeowners association, I tried to ignore her desperate cries. I would sneak away to visit her in the basement, I’d try to perk her up with lap dances and sedate her with OG Kush, but it wasn’t enough. She was dying from neglect, and the imminent loss of my soul sister, had me moving through life like a woman doomed.
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 struck by his propriety. He was nervous and seemed oddly vulnerable. He was Lutheran Choirboy dressed for church with starched manners and a fiercely direct gaze. My Bad Girl stirred to life in her cell. She peered out at her from her bars and knew he was the one.
It took two more years of kicking the bars of the cage before the Bad Girl busted out, and when she finally did, what was the first thing she did? She went and found that Bad Man. Then she went and trashed everything.
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. As forty-six, I was too old for the Bad Girl label, so I became a Bad Woman.
Let’s face it; Bad Girls come with an expiration date. A Bad Girl past forty is camel toe and a smoker’s growl. She’s the cougar, leaning over the bar revealing a crêpe décolletage and dating herself by saying things like “let’s book” as she picks up the check and a sozzled frat boy. A Bad Girl grows up to be Bad Women and while everybody agrees that Bad Girls are sexy and exciting, a Bad Woman is just scary and embarrassing.
I am a Bad Woman because 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.” Only a woman with no conscience could willingly love a Republican. A bad woman is bad enough, but a bad woman with children is unforgivable. When I told my best friend that I was in love with the Bad Man, she looked at me with stricken eyes and said, “I’m just afraid that you are going to abandon your children.” And there it was, as plain as sake bottle on the table between us — I had become the worst of all things — a Bad Mother.
But I am not a bad mother. In fact, Bad Girls often make the best mothers. The advantage to having done it all is you can spot a hit towel or a half-truth at thirty paces. Raising girls in the age “Bad Girls Club” reminds us old-school Bad Girls to pass on what the essential wisdom of our own mistakes – don’t do anything to please others. Be true to yourselves. I give my daughters a long leash, because I value freedom and independence.
I have crossed so many boundaries in my life I find as a mother I have become a passionate enforcer of them. When my daughter crosses over into risky behavior, and does things that scare me, instead of pushing her away, I try to pull her in closer. She hates it, but she also has told me she loves it. I am hoping she will never have to feel the anxiety of being so unsupervised she feels utterly alone in the world. God may or may not be watching, but I sure am.