One of the apparent advantages of being a bad girl is that it’s supposed to be fun. Being a bad girl may be a bad deal in other respects—it gains a woman social condemnation and ostracism, assumptions of limitless availability for sex, and the list goes on. But at least it should be fun. There can be pleasure in defying others’ expectations, breaking the rules, and upsetting tradition. And there can be pleasure in having no messy emotional consequences, no attachments, no settling down, and no guilt about sex. There is also appeal in the drama and excitement of having crazy stories to tell and creating a history for oneself, especially if one’s history previously has been defined by others’ expectations of what a woman should be and do.
However, I found that the real-life experience of being the bad girl was often not so much fun. Instead, this approach sometimes left the women I studied feeling unhappy and numb. Particularly for women with fragile senses of self, the bad-girl strategy seemed to provide a strong identity. At the same time, it ostensibly protected women from losing track of their identities in a relationship by never investing in one emotionally. But rather than feeling strong and protected, some bad girls were left feeling alone and vulnerable.
Jayanthi, a twenty-nine-year-old second-generation Indian American woman born in 1974, spent her early twenties rebelling against her upper-middle-class, traditional but moderately religious Hindu family, doing everything she could to be “bad” in their eyes. Jayanthi spent years casually hooking up with men, and she enjoyed some of it, but often felt “played” and used by them. She would then retreat from men and sex and be a “goody goody girl” who toyed with her parents’ offers of an arranged marriage. But eventually she’d swing back to being bad.
Having lots of sex felt like both a way to rebel against her parents and a way to assert her sense of herself as a strong woman. But while the sex helped Jayanthi to define herself in opposition to a stereotypical good girl, she didn’t get much pleasure or a solid sense of herself out of it. She felt more confused than ever about whether she was good or bad, Indian or American. And even as she eventually figured some things out about how to have an orgasm, Jayanthi confided anxiously that she worried about losing herself in relationships with men. She imagined that in a relationship, she’d get swept up into her partner’s world and lose track of her identity and things that mattered to her.
I heard this fear of losing track of their identities again and again from women in their twenties. Self-help books call out to them to “focus on yourself,” “make yourself happy,” and not to “lose yourself in a relationship.” But without a solid and reliable identity, these intonations rang hollow for women such as Jayanthi.
Jayanthi and her fellow twenty-something women, many of whom also fear being overwhelmed and overtaken by relationships, live in a new social landscape in which they can spend their twenties choosing whether to be in a relationship and hearing new edicts about how personal development should happen (on one’s own, not in a relationship). Building a strong identity through being in a relationship is, among some high achieving twenty-something women, no longer seen as possible. And Jayanthi was no exception—her model for developing was to go it alone, and only once she felt “complete” as an adult could she be in a relationship.
At the same time, the social and cultural expectation that a relationship with a significant other—after they’ve “found themselves” and “figured themselves out”—will be the centerpiece and a primary accomplishment of women’s adult lives still exists. Developing oneself within a relationship used to be the only path to follow and was restrictive to women. But now, twenty-something women are expected to form intimate relationships in their late twenties and early thirties, having spent their college years and early twenties assiduously avoiding them.
Being a bad girl may seem to be a perfect twenty-first-century strategy for a twenty-something woman to get fun, good sex, empowerment, and diverse experiences on which to build an identity. Sounds ideal! The bad-girl option really does represent tremendous advances for women, who are increasingly free to be players who use sex for their own ends, as men have done for years. And the option to develop one’s self and sexuality outside of intimate relationships is unprecedented for women.
Young women run into trouble, however, when they use the bad-girl strategy defensively, as a way to avoid the hurt and vulnerability that necessarily accompany relationships. In this case they are left not empowered, but isolated and scared.
Jayanthi used the bad-girl strategy to develop an identity independent of her parents and culture. But she also used it, somewhat ironically given its inherent risks, to remain safe from emotional hurt. Once she was ready to move on from the bad girl strategy, Jayanthi found herself at a loss. Just heeding the edict to focus on herself and be the architect of her own happiness didn’t provide Jayanthi with much help in figuring out how to maintain a strong identity within an intimate relationship. She needed to acknowledge that she could survive the risks of vulnerability, that she could come out of disappointing experiences stronger rather than destroyed. This is not a task that we do enough to equip young women to master.