“In her novel The Curse of the Good Girl, author Rachel Simmons argues that girls are pressured to embrace a version of selfhood that sharply curtails their power and potential. Unerringly nice, polite, modest, and selfless, the Good Girl is an identity so narrowly defined that it’s unachievable.”
The term ‘good girl’ is really just a social construct designed to categorize women into two divergent groups. The tension that lies in the crux of this dichotomy illustrates the internal struggle that we naturally face as we grow into womanhood. The good girl is a badge that many Tamil women are conditioned to wear with pride – but how do you discover who you truly are underneath the surface of this restrictive label? Is the ‘curse’ of the good girl a necessary conduit in our culture? I think that many Tamil women can attest to the fact that it is exhausting living up to the standards of the good girl complex.
In her novel, Simmons states that pressure from parents, teachers, peers and the media erects a psychological glass ceiling for adolescent girls. In our culture, Tamil woman can relate to the mountain of expectations that you have to climb to fulfill the role of an obedient and respectable Tamil daughter. Although every parent’s definition of a good Tamil woman varies depending on the morals and values that are important in their own family circle, I think that the stereotypical archetype of a ‘good girl’ in the South Asian culture is easy to define. As you become a teenager, you quickly learn that upholding the family reputation is one of our main responsibilities. This involves setting a good example for younger siblings and cousins while accomplishing your educational and career goals. Tamil women are also expected to always support and take care of their family, above everything in their lives.
Despite the absence of a single athletic bone in my body, every day of MY life has been spent feeling like I belong on a track team. Why? Very simple. After jumping over one expectation, there is always another one to tackle. Even after graduating from University, immediately landing a secure job and acceptance to a graduate program, the expectations continue to build. Good girls that are able to consistently fulfill their family’s goals for themselves, inevitably create parents who want their daughters to constantly be challenged. These expectations comes from a good place – a genuine desire to raise children who will be conditioned to strive for better than their best. This is not necessarily a bad thing since while I was busy living up to my parent’s dreams, I had no time to try to fulfill the expectations of a random boy. But what happens when there is no family foundation? Do these women get stuck in the cycle of looking for comfort and affirmation from the men that enter their lives?
Growing up, sometimes I would daydream what it would be like to live free from the strings of the good girl complex. I remember thinking that a little bit of ambivalence could make a world of difference. If I had it in me to be the bad girl, I would approach other people’s expectations like a game of dominoes- After knocking the first one over, just sit back and let the rest fall down. How easy it would be to not care, not live in a state of constant anxiety to let down those who depend on me. I would imagine that my doppelganger ‘bad girl’ would live life on her own terms. It may seem like a selfish way of maneuvering through life, but how liberating it must be not to care about anyone but yourself. However, does this come with a double edged sword? It is one thing not caring what others think of you, but does this mean that there is no one important enough that will care or be there for you if you fail or when you succeed?
“When girls fail to live up to these empty expectations—experiencing conflicts with peers, making mistakes in the classroom or on the playing field—they become paralyzed by self-criticism, stunting the growth of vital skills and habits.”
Personally, as the eldest female on both sides of my family, I was expected to be a role model for all the girls that followed me. This social construct caused me to develop a perfectionism complex. Everything I do in my life has to be perfect, and when I am less than perfect or when I make a mistake, I transform into a character from one of my favourite childhood tales – Chicken Little. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” Chicken Little proclaimed to all of her friends in a state of perpetual paranoia. But in reality, the sky is always exactly where it is supposed to be. It is my perception that is flawed. Instead of striving for perfection, Tamil women should be taught to pick yourself up when you make a mistake, learn as much as you can and move forward with your life. If you insist on adapting a façade of perfection, even those closest to you will not recognize you without your mask of strength. Going through the motions of each day, without being able to show weakness or vulnerability, – Trust me, that’s no way to live.
Simmons alludes to the fact that good girls are often placed on pedestals throughout their lives – first by their parents and then by their spouse or partner. However, from personal experience, I have found that when someone places you on a pedestal, you spend a great deal of time secretly wondering what it would feel like to fall off. The thing is, every good girl longs to do something so out of character, so out there, that no one will believe that she was ever capable of. Just for one day, what would it be like to step out of your life and adapt the persona of someone with no restrictions. Although this may give you a temporary rush or high, it ultimately leaves you feeling lost -as if you don’t know who you are anymore. You’re not comfortable in your own skin. Why can’t you just embrace it and move on?- that blasted curse!
Even if you’re single and have every opportunity available to you, the curse makes it so difficult to let your hair down and let loose. As Tamil women embark on the journey to discover who we are, do we hide behind different masks? If you ask any Tamil man, they often claim that Tamil women behave one way with our friends and step into a completely different set of shoes when we are around our families. Even Drake’s newest track contains the lyrics “You’re a good girl and you know it. But you act so different around me”. This happens too often, and depends entirely on the severity of strictness with which each individual woman is raised. Were you given the freedom to speak your mind with your family? Are you held at a different standard from boys that are the same age as you? Do you feel that there is always a double standard in your family circle? Can you truly be yourself around the ones you love the most?
And it doesn’t help that the media and celebrities have glorified the sex appeal associated with “bad girls” for generations. Mae West, an actress from the 1930s known as one of the first femme fatales, famously proclaimed “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad I’m better”. The successful bad girl bombshells from this generation send the message to our youth that being bad sells. My mother’s generation had Madonna. I grew up with Brittany Spears and Christina Aguilera. My students today are watching the ‘good girl gone bad’ transformations of Rihanna and Miley Cyrus with their overly sexualized public performances and social media posts. How do we blame the misguided choices of young women eager to please the opposite sex, when they grow up idolizing insecure celebrities who base their self worth solely on their body image and sexuality.
Although I was able to identify with many of the pillars of Simmon’s “Curse of the Good Girl”, there is one area where I have to vehemently disagree. That is her theory that being raised as a good girl sacrifices assertiveness. According to Simmons, “The curse erodes girls’ ability to know, express, and manage a complete range of feelings. It expects girls to be selfless, limiting the expression of their needs. It requires modesty, depriving them of permission to articulate their strengths and goals. It diminishes assertive body language, quiets voices and weakens handshakes”.
I have always felt lucky to be raised in a family of boys. Now don’t get it twisted. I know what it means to be a lady – but I do not deny myself any luxury that my male cousins are allowed to participate in. There has always been gender equality in my family. We were all taught not to talk back to our elders, but this has nothing to do with sacrificing female assertiveness. Engaging in healthy debates for intellectual enlightenment is a completely different story. I was raised in a family where I was encouraged to question ideals and opinions, especially those expressed by my annas and thambies.
This skill has carried me through life, and through my family dynamic, I define my assertiveness as never taking anything at face value and always questioning why social constructs are put in place. Not being afraid to express your thoughts and opinions does not make you morally flawed. It creates women that are empowered and not taught to conform to societal expectations. I believe that this provides a man with an intellectual challenge for a partner. Although I was taught by my family to cook, clean and fulfill certain traditional female gender roles, I was definitely not raised to be a ‘yes’ girl.
After exploring the concepts in this book, I turned to my best source of information – the perpetually honest classroom of teenage boys. Despite their youth, idealism, lack of maturity and tendency to wear WAY too much cologne every morning – they did offer a gem of wisdom that I will always remember. When I asked them how they viewed a good girl, they came up with the following definition; “A good girl lives up to her own standards instead of always trying to please/fit a guys terms. I don’t want someone who behaves the way she thinks I want a girl to be. I want to admire and respect a woman for who she strives to be for herself”. Unlike Rachel Simmon’s description, in their eyes a good girl lives life according to her own terms. That sounds pretty assertive to me!
As each year goes by, I often find myself contemplating the circumstances of the future. Will I be lucky enough to have a daughter of my own one day? And if so, will we have the type of relationship where she will come to me to ask for advice to guide her to make those crucial life-altering decisions regarding what is right or wrong? When faced with this scenario, I know that I will encourage her to always be herself, and base her decisions on the values she has been brought up with. Of course I want her to explore the world, make mistakes and learn from them without worrying how society will label her. To quote my favourite spoken word artist Sarah Kay, “I will paint the solar systems on the backs of her hands so she has to learn the entire universe before she can say, I know THAT like the back of my hand”. However, If I am completely honest with myself, I know that I will spend every ounce of my energy and move heaven and earth to raise her to be a confident, assertive and strong young woman with true inner beauty– All the while, secretly hoping the curse of the good girl will somehow find it’s way to her as well.