Saturday, May 27, 2006

Desperately Seeking Bad Girls

All the time I’ve been studying bad girls, I’ve been asking myself if I am one. I’m still trying to find an answer. If any of my bad girls (yes, my bad girls—I’ve become possessive) were alive today, I wonder how they’d answer the question. Some, I think, would be flattered to be asked “Are you a bad girl?”, and at least a few of them would tell me to go to hell, because they wouldn’t see themselves as bad girls at all. But if you look at my list of what makes a bad girl, you might find that in some way or another, just about every woman in the world has some elements of being a bad girl.

I started to study bad girls when I was at the lowest point in my life, so it’s no coincidence that every bad girl I picked came from a disadvantaged background and had to struggle to achieve happiness. Happiness on their own terms. Bad girls are ambitious—Victoria Woodhull ran for US President fifty years before women were allowed to vote. Am I ambitious? Yes, in my own way. I’m secretive about my ambitions, though, because if I fail I don’t want anyone to know about it. Bad girls are secretive.

My bad girls, by the way, saved my life. They helped me regain my lost happiness, so I love them.

Screenwriters talk about the “inciting incident”—some event that causes everything to fall apart and sends the heroine on her journey. Balance must be restored. In my case, it was turning forty and losing my husband, my baby, my job and my home all at the same time. Clearly, I had to restore balance in my life. In the case of all of my bad girls, some misfortune or indiscretion changed their life path forever and they launched out on a quest to restore balance. Screenwriters also say that a heroine’s quest will be hampered by some evil antagonist who puts obstacles in her path. That’s a handy conceit for movie makers, because it makes the story a lot more exciting, but in my case, I wonder—in the story of my life, who is my antagonist? Is it my own sense of shame? Hopelessness? Fear? Sloth? The desire to please at the expense of what pleases me?

Here are the inciting incidents in my bad girls’ lives:

For some, it was a bad marriage when they were too young to know better. Catherine the Great, Victoria Woodhull, and Mae West married young and had to find some means of escape from their bad marriages.

“If in my youth I had found a husband whom I could have loved, I should have remained faithful to him all my life. It is my misfortune that my heart cannot rest content even for an hour, without love”—so wrote Catherine the Great, the woman who ruled for 34 years as the very powerful Empress of All the Russias, after convincing her boyfriend to kill her no-good husband in 1762. She didn’t murder Czar Peter III just for fun. She was driven to it by the terrible circumstances of her life: an innocent princess from a far-off land, she was stuck in a bad marriage to a man she didn’t love and stripped of any sense of self-worth.

For others, it was divorce. Elizabeth Chudleigh and Lola Montez sought divorces when divorce wasn’t common at all. The nicest of girls would be tarred immediately with the bad-girl brush when they sought a divorce, even if the husband in question was a monster. Years after deserting the man she had eloped with as a girl in the 1830s, Lola Montez said: “Runaway matches, like runaway horses, are almost sure to end in a smash-up. My advice to all young girls who contemplate taking such a step is, that they had better hang or drown themselves just one hour before they start.”

It’s no coincidence that I, a woman on the verge of divorce when my quest began, found ugly divorces to be an appealing trait among my bad girls.

The inciting incident in the life of a bad girl also might be poverty. Again, it was an appealing trait to me because I was broke when my quest began, and I wanted to know how other women survived being poor and went on to earn money. Bessie Smith, Skittles and Mai Zetterling were no strangers to poverty in their youth. Bessie used it to her advantage as a child, singing on street corners and collecting change from passersby, which gave her an early taste for appreciative audiences and getting paid for doing what she loved best.

Similarly, a chaotically strange family led some bad girls to their fate. Born in 1877 (the years are important to me—when I started to do the historical research, I couldn’t believe, with the arrogance of the living, that all this weird stuff was going on back then), Isabelle Eberhardt was never certain of her father’s identity since the man was a nihilistic anarchist who refused to admit his paternity because he didn’t believe in families. And yet he took a dominant role in Isabelle’s development, raising her as he did her brothers, requiring her to dress as a boy at home and in public. Isabelle eventually adopted a man’s name, Si Mahmoud, converted to Islam, and ran off to the Sahara Desert to become a hashish-smoking war correspondent with a penchant for picking up Arab boys.

In the case of Ninon de Lenclos, it was the death of a parent that turned her bad. Her father, a pleasure-loving musician and occasional pimp, deserted his family sometime in the 1630s after killing a man and only came home years later to die. When he saw that his circle of friends—writers, artists, diplomats, soldiers and aristocrats—were drawn to Ninon, he warned his daughter to be careful “only in the choice of your pleasures, never mind about the number,” then died, leaving Ninon a tidy inheritance that she used to set up shop as a courtesan. She decided at an early age never to marry.

Finally, Empress Theodora of Constantinople came from a circus family, and a circus back in 5th-century Byzantium was essentially a fancy whorehouse that put on shows with animals and prostituted children to the greasy-fingered, dirty old rich men who turned up at the Hippodrome. Are you following this? What I’m trying to say is that Empress Theodora had too much bad sex at an early age, and it turned her into a bad girl.

Whatever the inciting incident might be, my bad girls arrived at a fate that women of any era dread and avoid at all costs—they became social outcasts. I’m talking about myself here, of course. I have always sought to be liked, and when I lost everything I felt despicable and believed the whole world would shun me. From my vantage point today, I think those feelings were ridiculous and incorrect, but at the time they were very real to me and they woke me up in the middle of the night, filled with dark thoughts and worry.

It makes sense that I looked to my bad girls for guidance when I was feeling bad about myself. What I loved about them, what I wanted to believe with all my heart, was that they had abandoned any sense of shame about their misfortunes. They were angry, bold and free in a way I wanted to be. They used people, especially men, to get what they wanted because they just didn’t care about their reputations anymore. Why does this appeal to me so? The angrier and nastier a bad girl was, the more it delighted me. Why? This is what I’m trying to figure out.

Despite the huge social deficit, a bad girl’s big ego saved her. If she wasn’t born royal, she assumed a regal identity anyway—in the case of Elizabeth Chudleigh by becoming a bigamous duchess, and in the case of Bessie Smith by becoming the Queen of the Blues.

Having a powerful personality also helped. The bad girls I sought were persuasive speakers with agile minds, and the more outrageous their words, the more I liked them. Case in point: Victoria Woodhull ran for President in 1872 on a platform that favored spiritualism and free love, the women’s suffrage movement, easier divorce laws, birth control, labor reform and Marxism. “Yes! I am a Free Lover,” she shouted in one of her campaign speeches. “I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please! And with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”

Victoria faced constant storms of controversy, public scandal and several jail sentences, believing all along that she had virtue on her side. She had the courage of her political convictions, but not all of my bad girls were so heavily politicized. I also like the snarky speakers, the girls with a sharp wit, a love of gossip and an ability to quickly assess the pecking order of any social situation. For a poor girl from a disadvantaged background, there is no shame in social climbing—though for my money, I’m more interested in bad girls who use their careful observations of the social order in order to understand how to escape it. Mae West, Isabelle Eberhardt and Ninon de Lenclos were all adept at this—and, might I add, were the writers among my bunch of bad girls.

OK, now I hope you have some sense of what I’ve got in mind when I talk about what a bad girl is and where she comes from. My list of character traits is a lot longer, though, so watch for my next blog post, when I get into the fun stuff, like vanity, charm and rebellion.

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