I was 25 the first time I fully understood.
I was navigating the tenuous journey of the Good Girl.
At the time I was being courted by an older man who decided out loud and before our first real date that I was a sexual outlier—an adult virgin. The encounter was followed not months later by a home girl tell-asking me with an incredulous giggle, the same. Both of the precipitating conversations had had nothing to do with sex but clearly had everything to do with how the two perceived me and my set of behaviors. At the time, there was a “backward fish” on my car, a rigid academic program, a soft voice, and my inability to wear makeup other than Chapstick securing my place in the/ir world.
Both of them were wrong and worse, condescending—the way that stereotyping often happens. Besides that, it was clear both times that no matter how I answered their question I was going to be her—the Good Girl—even as I sat there a legally and actively practicing (my best version of) Grown Woman.
At 25 I had no interest in being a “girl” of any variety and certainly not the good kind. Because even if Webster’s definition would tell you it’s not a negative descriptor, I know better. I had already lived it throughout my college career and knew that it meant me no good at all. The Good Girl, like most other stock depictions especially when attributed to Black women, becomes a careless and restrictive box of convenience and utility that makes the bearer of the title smaller to fit in it.
What tools did I use to chisel from that box a bust of my own making? And if that image was that of a Good Girl, what of it? Could I find those tools and share them with other black girls?
The truth is there is no primer; no series of lessons; no hard and fast rules to navigating this territory. In part this is because when it comes to discussing the stereotypes that Black females often have to negotiate, the Good Girl is not one of them.
But there are hard and fast characteristics which are ascribed her when she is evoked as the Final Girl of horror films, a term coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. (Of course these women are rarely if ever Black, which is telling).
As the Final Girl, she is sexually unavailable or virginal and avoids the vices that fell her victimized peers (sex, illegal drug use, hedonism). Quintessential Good Girl fodder. The Final Girl is likewise intelligent, curious, and vigilant—characteristics that serve to save her from victimization.
Since she is not the typical damsel in distress, her journey becomes an almost de-sexualization denying her a place on the binary sexuality spectrum. She is not the classically feminized damsel in distress and even becomes essentially masculine through “phallic appropriation.” When she takes up arms (in the form of a gun or knife which represent the phallus) in her confrontation of the killer, she still cannot become male. So she is an outlier on the sexuality binary.
When this Good Girl is evoked in a summer 2013 discussion on the Crunk Feminist Collective blog, “The Evolution of the Down Ass Chick,” the author (a “self-proclaimed Good Girl”) points out that the Good Girl is often “punished for being good.” Presumably her punishment is to be “put in the pocket while the other woman gets the attention, affection, love, sex, children, etc.”
Being “put in the pocket” alludes to the marginalization; indeed, invisibility that punishes Good Girls in the way that all stereotypes do—by limiting the possibility of dimensions.
But more than with other stereotypes faced by Black women, the Good Girl, by being kept invisible as though she does not exist, provides Black women cast in that role with few tools to develop further dimensions. The inherent danger is that she will become the stereotype if she sees nowhere else to go or any other means to go elsewhere.
“The Evolution of the Down Ass Chick” surmises that this role is “patriarchy at its finest” and that even what it suggests is “punishment” for subscribing to this role is patriarchal too. Defining what Good Girls—what women—must want as dependent on a heterosexual relationship is in fact, equally guilty as it places the male in the position of authority and ultimately dominance. This is yet another reason why the Good Girl has to be interrogated.
A Good Girl is a person without her own agency. So it is critical to include her in discussion of patriarchal and/or racist ascriptions of Black women. To begin to give her a name and moreover a voice—essentially, giving her the compass to find her way.
Young women are taught the other more commonly identified stereotypes of the Jezebel/Siren, Bitch/Sapphire, or Mammy. As Jezebel, they are hypersexual; as Sapphire, they are asexual; as Mammy, their sexuality is limited to their ability to bear and nurture children.
These common roles illustrate how Black women, and their sexuality, have often been synonymous with deviance. And it is reclaiming, repackaging, and/or discarding the roles has given women agency; a control denied the Good Girl who is essentially invisible. She needs that.
So there is a precarious but often self-selected and self-realized ideal; a construct in which Black women’s sexuality is relatively balanced. So long as a woman is attractive (read: symmetrical; no outliers) she is sexually desirable and thus partners and makes use of the act of sex by bearing and nurturing children. On the other hand, as the attractive Siren she can attract and be “kept” by her sexual partners.
Even though Black women are rarely afforded—without wresting it—this, albeit rather patriarchal, opportunity of choice this is precisely why the Good Girl must be entered into the conversation of how adult women are defined particularly as it is used in describing Black women.
It seems that Black females so named sprint the confines of the stereotype only to end up looping the hypersexual, domineering, or self-depreciating nurturing lanes to personal destruction. That’s not agency; that’s pilot mode, an auto-protective response. Looping these can be easier because the tracks are as well worn as the various exits.
The poems, stories, and essays in Breathing Lesson 101 attempt to trace the tracks and the exits—the well worn and less traveled. Where they cannot give agency, they can give voice which is where agency can begin to be employed.
Check out where this project started here and here.