where the writers are
BAD GIRLS in Literature and Film
Mae West

In much of the pre-1900 classic literature I have read, women characters have been idealized around the mother role as nurturing, supportive, devoted. Notable exceptions would be Anna Karennina, Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter and Flaubert's Emma Bovary. These characters are memorabe largely because they stepped outside the boundaries of decorum. They were unusual. They did the unexpected. They broke the rules, typically regarding sex outside the marriage. 

In twentieth-century literature and film, depiction of the flawed female was greatly epanded. With Curley's wife in Of Mice and Men and Cathy in Ease of Eden Steinbeck  progressively broke new ground.  Nurse Rached  in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest represents a significant evolution in complexity over The Maltese Falcon's Miss Wonderly. Then came Alexandra in Fatal Attraction and Harriet in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

An author's willingness to portray complex female villains has greatly broadened the literary palette. A bad girl is more interesting. They stir up trouble. They add realism. They either refuse to or are incapable of inhibiting their behavior. They want what they want when they want it, the same as men, although in ways that are often intriguigingly unique to their gender.

Bad behavior is a way of attracting attention--tattoos, piercings, trashy language or attire, wearing pants half-mast, defiance of authority... . "Bad" people are often thrilling to be around. They can be unpredictable and dangerous, and even a hint of danger gets readers' adrenaline pumping.

An interesting character would be a good girl who knows when and how to be Bad, but I've yet to encounter a definitive archetype except Marshall Kane's wife in High Noon. [Spoier alert] She's a Quaker who steps over her pacifist boundaries to kill one of the Miller Gang to save her husband.

How would you classify Scarlet O'Hara? Nabokov's Lolita? Ibsen's Electra and Hedda Gabler? Hemingway's Lady Ashley? Fitzgerald's Daisy? Mrs. Mulray in Chinatown? Or Susan Alexander, Kane's mistress in Citizen Kane?

Inhibitions are the inner rules for good behavior governed in the crebral cortex, the part of the brain where logic and reason reside. They can be overridden by the medulla oblongata, the region of the brain where survival and procreation are governed. Animal virtues. "Good" behavior must be learned whereas "Bad" behavior is most often natural or instinctual and must be repressed in order to remain Good. Some of us are better at self-control than others. Tiger Woods, Lindsey Lohan and Bill Clinton are popular examples.

A person who consistently portrays Bad behavior may not have received much training as a child or be acting out of insecurity or be compulsively reinacting childhood scenes of deprivation or trauma. Someone abandoned as a child can go through life compensating by being sexually promiscuous or serially abandoning romantic partners before they can be abandoned. 

In The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri's formula for character analysis may be paraphrased as: Psychology (how we behave) equals Physiology (our physical appearance and environment) plus Sociology (interactions with others), primarily during childhood. Now complicate Egri's forumla with the universal propensity of people to posess at least two identities, a public (or social) persona and a private one. Politicians are adept at maintaining a refined public persona and when they stumble they're accused of flip-flopping.

When viewed from the above perspective the permutations of character are multiplied. There's the closet Bad Girl who masquerades as a Good Girl to ensnare the innocent and gullible Good Boy. Or, as in Gone With the Wind, the Bad Girl (prostitute) with a soft heart who rescues Rhett Butler from the cruelty of Scarlet.  The Good-hearted Bad girl is also depicted in Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, a prostitute who reforms in order to escape "the life" and appeal to Doc, a potential mate.

Among the more honest Bad Girls are Curley's wife in Of Mice and Men and Cathy in East of Eden, in ascending order of evil. They're honest because their public and private personnas appear consistent, despite their flaws. They're Bad and not afraid to show it. 

Who's your favorite bad girl and why?