Bare-Naked Ladies: The Bad Girls of the Postfeminist Nineties

Bare-Naked Ladies: The Bad Girls of the Postfeminist Nineties

1996-09-01

August Tarrier reviews the 1994 film, Bad Girls.

About halfway through the 1994 film Bad Girls, Anita Crown (Mary Stuart Masterson), a young widow, discovers that she is no longer entitled to a claim on her deceased husband’s land rights. She has sought the advice of a lawyer, and when he informs her that the claim is invalid, she avows, “If your laws don’t include me, well, then they just don’t apply to me either.”

This could well be the rallying cry of the bad girl in a so-called “postfeminist” era. Like Thelma and Louise, the four women in Bad Girls violate patriarchal laws and end up purifying themselves in the process. The women start out as prostitutes in a saloon and, in the act of defending themselves against sexual violence, end up as outlaws. For the bad girls, patriarchy is reprehensible, but is at most a momentary inconvenience. The four women in Jonathan Kaplan’s film, a retrograde 1940s style Western, have better things to do and they’re partial to quick fixes. A second scene serves to illustrate this point. As the bad girls bathe naked in a swimming hole, they spot a handsome stranger approaching on horseback. Cody Zamora (Madeline Stowe) exits the pool naked and dripping, pulls a gun and confronts him. This, too, is classic bad girl behavior: she’s naked, she’s got a gun, and she’s willing to use it. During the course of the film, the bad girls claim, “we ain’t heroes,” but in fact they are, and they’re meant to be.

While Bad Girls offers saloons and stagecoaches as backdrops, it is of course a decidedly contemporary drama which attempts to heroicize the “postfeminist” bad girl. Indeed, as the film opens, the four women frolic in white lingerie while engaged in their chosen profession (they are referred to repeatedly as “whores” and “filthy harlots”): prostitution is depicted as a sexy, fun option for women who are truly liberated. As the bad girls lounge about the saloon/bordello, the dour, black-clad citizens of Echo City march outside with placards and banners. Like the feminists of today, they are against all the fun things that the bad girls advocate, especially sex and general outrageous “badness.”

In contrast to the strident, earnest feminist, the “postfeminist” is fun, indifferent to or even critical of “politics,” cheerfully apathetic, sexy, and independent. She has no need for liberation or solidarity with other women, and she’s far too busy having orgasms to worry about such issues as comparable worth, daycare, or abortion. In contrast, feminists are viewed in much the same way one might view one’s parents: as arbitrary despots clamoring about insignificant, petty concerns, as un-evolved. Uncool. Hopelessly “pre” and clueless about “post.”

For the bad girl, the problem with feminism is that it has an agenda: the “postfeminist” woman is a free agent who refuses to be defined or labeled; for her, allegiances are merely limitations. She may be defined by her body or her sexuality, but she is never limited to it. Hers is an empowered sexuality constituted in an era of “post-dependency”: she is autonomous, self-sufficient and no longer conflicted. The postfeminist bad girl is hard-wired (e.g., Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction, Demi Moore in Disclosure, or Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2); she has evolved beyond the pain and the unseemly rage of the feminist movement. She scoffs at Our Bodies, Ourselves feminism rooted in self-exploration and all-for-one collective sisterhood; the bad girl’s body is a glamorous object over which she, and only she, has control.

In the wake of Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, the feminist is seen as a whiner who deploys her victim status in order to avoid responsibility for her own actions and behavior. In the undergraduate classroom, feminism is decidedly passe; it is viewed as some kind of wacky religion, and the postfeminists are ensconced as its infidels. To call oneself a “feminist” is to embrace the retrograde identity of the seventies woman - the joiner, the placard-waver, the bra burner. This view is in many ways deeply ironic, given the fact that “postfeminism” can be seen as an outgrowth of academic feminism, which was deemed too theoretical and too distanced from the political issues of the women’s movement. “Postfeminism,” then, is the evil twin of academic feminism: the nerdy sister sheds her glasses and - presto! - she’s got glam power. “Post” makes the so-called dogma of the feminist movement palatable to a popular culture audience which includes men and skeptical Gen-X women whose mothers were/are feminists.

It is almost a commonplace to write off feminism as the province of white middle class heterosexual women who hope to gain the corporate rewards that hitherto had been awarded only to white middle class men. However, statistics show that in fact women, white or otherwise, have not achieved equality in the workplace or much of any place else, for that matter. And this lack of equality is the source of perhaps the most debilitating blow dealt to the feminist movement - the assertion that feminist women want equality with men. The suggestion is that feminists are satisfied with a middling status quo; they have no interest in surpassing or going beyond, but are content with an equal, balanced, just-good-enough world.

The problem with feminism is that it is simply too familiar: feminist critique is seen as plodding, scholastic, self-indulgent, and ultimately misguided. What provides “postfeminism” its cachet is its deployment of the term “post” - i.e., its claim to be transgressive. The prefix “post” presumes in some sense the death of feminism or at least its impending obsolescence: the suggestion is that we have somehow surpassed the mainstream and have moved beyond it to a more authentic (and, not incidentally, much trendier) moment. It makes sense, then, that the advent of “postfeminism” would occur at a time when the marginal and subversive have tremendous currency both in the academy and in popular culture.

This view of feminism has allowed “postfeminism” to arrogate to itself a transgressive stance while at the same time appropriating feminist issues and discourse. In order to construct itself as marginal, “postfeminism” must pose an incorporated and coherent feminism. This unitary feminism can be easily defined by simply pointing up the fact that the feminist movement has been grounded in the discourse of humanism - i.e., women were attempting to achieve or maintain self-determination and autonomy at a time when the poststructuralist dismantling of subjectivity provided a critique of the very notion of agency.

Because feminism embraced an emancipatory politics, especially in its ideal of a common sisterhood for all women, it was discredited as a totalizing discourse. In a contemporary culture in which at least the rhetoric of diversity prevails and in which membership or belonging is defined by increasingly inclusive communities, the bonds of sisterhood have become tentative indeed. By defining feminism as unitary and coherent - an exhausted, “consensus” movement whose aims are largely misguided - we can then construct a “postfeminist” moment which is a radical departure from the feminist monolith. However, “postfeminism” can also be read as simply exploiting a false opposition in order to construct itself as alienated from mainstream discourse.

While contemporary readings of “postfeminism” construct it as marginal or subversive discourse, we must remember that it is a discourse which can be used against women - i.e., in some instances the “postfeminist” identity offered to women simply perpetuates patriarchy’s dehumanization of them. Kaplan’s Bad Girls is a classic case in point, with its subjugation-as-liberation plot and its attempt to provide us with a prototype of the “postfeminist” bad girl. The film’s appropriation of sexist or misogynistic images in order to reinscribe them as natural, unproblematic experiences of feminine sexuality is evidence of the ways in which a “postfeminist” label can be coopted and used against women.

Bad Girls employs every convention of the Western, from the dirty faces around the campfire to the bank robberies and shoot-em-ups, but here the good guys are comely lasses who know how to carry a grudge. The film is populated by so many gutless, drunken bad guys who can’t seem to shoot straight that we wonder if there was ever such a thing as male privilege. As the fetching bad girls ride from town to town with abundant cleavage exposed, they complain about “men wanting you everywhere you go” - even the good guys. Bad Girls locates the experience of the feminine firmly in the corporeal realm. The four women are continuously sexualized throughout the film; we learn that men who objectify women are bad guys and that women who exploit their bodies for gain are the good guys, after all.

The sexy bad girls are repeatedly victimized and violated - robbed, beaten, raped - during the film and in response they display a feisty, “virile” sexuality: they ride, they swagger, they indulge their appetites, and, of course, they take revenge. The Western has traditionally depicted the mangling and killing of male bodies; to simply make those bodies female - and fetchingly female into the bargain - results in little more than a bogus inversion of the stereotype. The bad girls endure male violence in order to “get even” later, always, of course, by using their feminine wiles. In this sense, the “empowered” sexuality of the bad girl simply serves to validate an image of female sexuality that conforms to the conventions of male desire. The bad girls’ central aim is to achieve pleasure at any cost and it is this pleasure that is posited as evidence of their liberation.

In pursuit of badness, the “postfeminist” inhabits retrograde masculine identities without a trace of irony or awareness of the inherent contradictions. In Bad Girls, she takes on the macho gunslinger role that even Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis would have to parody. At a time when even a hypermasculine genre like the Western wants to prove that it has “evolved” (e.g., sensitive guy Eastwood in Unforgiven or Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves), “postfeminist” bad girls embrace a take-no-prisoners liberation that is rendered far too often in terms of preconstituted masculine pleasure. We need to dismantle the terms of such a liberation and question the image of the bad girl as “progressive postfeminist”; in turn, we must closely examine the way in which this construct has been used to coopt the feminist movement and rehabilitate patriarchal privilege.