Books explore naughty side of literary heroines
Last week, I wrote about teen fantasyâs tendency to transform folkloric monsters into male love interests â usually to offer female protagonists a taste of immortality. Twilight, Wicked Lovely and even Aimee Carterâs The Goddess Test series hybridize their romantic heroes with more villainous qualities, making their characters appealing because of their dual natures.
But it would be remiss to ignore the prevalence of naughty heroines in fictional works. If teen fantasy employs a âbad guyâ formula to seduce young readers, then larger branches of literature explore the multifaceted nature of what it means for female characters to be âbad.â Brooding facades and dark superpowers might be characteristic of a few, but others take on much more varied approaches, rendering the âbad girlâ type completely multidimensional within the pages of a novel.
In the clearest sense of the term âbad girl,â there is the depiction of female characters who are inherently evil. Lady Macbeth of William Shakespeareâs Macbeth, for example, holds a title as one of the darkest characters in literature. As she persuades her husband to kill King Duncan for his crown, she reveals herself as the driving force behind Macbethâs cruel actions. Further instilling fear in audiences because of her complete dismissal of femininity and her delayed remorse for her actions, Lady Macbeth holds rank among the likes of The Wonderful Wizard of Ozâs Wicked Witch of the West and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobeâs White Witch. Still, this darker female character continues to hold wide appeal, as the theatrical role of Lady Macbeth has attracted the likes of Vivien Leigh and dame Judi Dench.
But after this point, the definition of âbadâ becomes a bit more ambiguous. Because female independence is so often a point of argument, female characters who display even the slightest bit of sexual promiscuity or lack of restraint could fall under this category.
Such issues translate into one of the more recent takes on the âbad girl:â âthe b-tch.â Today, not-so-innocent female characters are better known for their flair for the dramatic or lack of morality rather than for demonic, Lady Macbeth-esque characteristics.
Both Cecily von Ziegesarâs Gossip Girl and Sara Shepardâs Pretty Little Liars series, for example, have earned cult followings as well as television show spinoffs, demonstrating a wide audience attraction for female rule-breakers. The protagonists of these novels dismiss the âevilâ characteristics of Lady Macbeth, and instead embrace those of the modern b-tch. As they confront the moral wrongs of lying, illegal activities and hedonism, these characters remain completely self-absorbed and narcissistic, attracting us as we keep watching to see what theyâll do next.
âBlair liked to think of herself as a hopeless romantic in the style of old movie actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe,â says Ziegesarâs narrator in Gossip Girl. âShe was always coming up with plot devices for the movie she was starring in at the moment, the movie that was her life.â
Still, whatâs most interesting about Ziegesarâs and Shepardâs takes on the âbad girlâ is the attitude that readers are supposed to have toward the characters: We like them, even as we watch them tear each other apart.
This marks an abrupt departure from other depictions of âbad girls,â ones where authors attempt to convince us of their charactersâ innocence. Take Nathaniel Hawthorneâs The Scarlet Letter, for instance. When Hester Prynne engages in extramarital sex and has a child out of wedlock, she is ostracized from her society and forced to wear a red âAâ (for adulteress) on her chest.
But though the puritanical citizens of Baltimore despise Hester, the reader certainly doesnât. Hawthorne makes sure to illustrate Hesterâs oppression and genuine repentance, convincing us early on that sheâs not really a âbad girl,â despite what the larger society might think of her.
Today, however, naughty female characters donât need to make us believe that theyâve repented.
Gossip Girlâs Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen appeal to us even with their unapologetic behaviors. Sure, some of their allure might be attributed to the glamour of their overprivileged lives and the resilience of their friendship, but a large part of our interest lies in watching the characters come up with complicated ruses to handle petty problems.
But why are we so fascinated with this particular take on the âbad girl?â Perhaps Toni Morrisonâs Sula best sums up their allure. Following the friendship of the conservative Nel and the wildly independent Sula, Morrisonâs novel explores the attraction between good and bad, between chastity and promiscuity. When Sula sleeps with Nelâs husband, Jude, the friendship between the two heroines ends, though Nel later comes to regret Sulaâs absence.
âShe had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be â for a woman,â says Morrisonâs narrator. âAnd that no one would ever be that version of herself which she sought to reach out to and touch with an ungloved hand. There was only her own mood and whim, and if that was all there was, she decided to turn the naked hand toward it, discover it and let others become as intimate with their own selves as she was.â
What Morrison seems to suggest is that we look to âbadâ characters as catharsis for our own darker emotions â particularly emotions toward those whoâve wronged us. Women sick of male chauvinism might rejoice when Lisbeth Salander brands her rapist with a vulgar tattoo in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Victims of adultery live vicariously through Waiting to Exhaleâs Bernadine Harris when she sets her husbandâs car on fire.
If âbad girlsâ teach us anything, itâs that humankind can be messy and, at times, downright ugly.
But even if we canât be totally uninhibited ourselves, we can at least enjoy reading about those who can be.
Carrie Ruth Moore is a sophomore majoring in English. Her column âCover to Coverâ runs Thursdays.