Good Girls and Bad Girls are two of the most enduring clichés in pop culturedom -- they're easy to recognize, often sexualized, affirm beliefs that are comfortable to hold, and can adapt over time to keep with changes in what we deem to be acceptable behavior. And they're at the forefront of conversations about Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens' participation in the sleazy, flashy, bong-water-and-Bud-Light-drenched world of Spring Breakers.
But first, let's look at the usefulness of these stereotypes. Take, for instance, the way these play out in pop music. In videos for both Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend" from 2007 and Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me", from 2009 (claaaassics) the singers embody both the good girl and bad girl roles to drive home the point that it's worth fighting a woman in a wig to get her boyfriend. In Avril's video, "Avril" is the Bad Girl -- albeit one that's more fun and much cooler than her darker-haired, more uptight Good Girl counterpart. Hair color is also a defining factor in Swift's oeuvre, with "Taylor" as the blond, wholesome, sweet, and chronically friend-zoned Good Girl pining away for someone who's dating a Brunette Bad Girl who has the audacity to look super fine at prom.
The clichés obviously pose a problem here, as the only indications we're given that these evil brunettes are no good (or, in Avril's case, not bad in the right ways) are the singer's dislike for her and the visual clues (that brunette wig) that she aligns with a Bad Girl / Good Girl stereotype. It's a lazy way to do a pop music video, but pop music videos tend to be broad and lazy.
And this is exactly where the Bad Girl / Good Girl dichotomy poses a problem -- they're shorthand, yes, but the use of shorthand implies that we're going to get to a larger, overriding point now that we've used an easily-understood stereotype to make sure we're all on the same page. It's in not recognizing that women exist beyond those stereotypes -- or exhibit characteristics of both at the same time -- that we run into trouble. And create trouble for ourselves.
Britney Spears, like many pop starts before and since, has spent her entire career being cateogorized and re-categorized. While critics love to look back on pop stars "good girl days," it's worth noting that Britney burst onto the scene dressed as an iconic naughty schoolgirl -- the ultimate "Good Girl gone Bad." There is no "Good Britney" and "Bad Britney" -- there is one singer, one performer, who takes on and adapts identities as is necessary to both convey a mood or message through her medium as well as to cater to a finicky audience that's prone to boredom and always searching for what's next.
Bitch magazine recently ran an article exploring why "'Good Girls' need to 'go bad,'" focusing primarily on Gomez and Hudgens' career-altering turn in the beautiful and disturbing Spring Breakers. As they always do, Bitch brings up a lot of interesting questions and valid critiques, but I feel like it missed one essential point in this discussion. Even artists who don't take on explicit characters -- like actresses or singers like Beyonce and Nicki Minaj -- slip into a different persona when they're out in the public sphere. They have to. Dolly Parton has been playing Dolly Parton for decades, and the woman who is all wigs and eyelashes and wit and charm is not the same woman who deals with clogged shower drains or flosses before bed.
Which brings us to Gomez and Hudgens: These girls are performers. They are actresses and singers who take on different personas either explicitly in movies or more subtly on albums and in music videos.
Also? They're older than they used to be. When they were young, they took on family-friendly roles in things like The Wizards of Waverly Place and High School Musical and the severely underrated Monte Carlo. They weren't in films where they danced in bikinis and chugged beer and make James Franco simulate [spoiler] on a [spoiler] because they were, like, 14. And now they're not, so they can expand their repertoire and play psycho-sexual nightmare people. Although, actually, it should be noted that Selena character in Spring Breakers is still very much a Good Girl -- the kind of girl who ruins your cocaine high by talking about dreams and getting away and, like, showing some semblance of an inner life. Buzzkill.
And it isn't as if this phenomenon -- of growing up and taking on darker, more challenging, more murdery roles -- is exclusive to women. Take a look at Ryan Gosling's career. He went from being a clean-cut kid in a dorky haircut on The Mickey Mouse Club to killing hella people and robbing hella banks. But we don't call him a "Good Boy gone Bad" because we understand that he's an actor who takes on roles, roles that change according to his age and inclination. Same for fellow Mouseketeer Justin Timberlake -- his persona changed from cute kid to Poodle-haired boy bander to a dude who brags that he'll "have you naked by the end of this song," and no one would think to call him a "Bad Boy." But Christina Aguilera puts on oooooone pair of janky, mud-splattered chaps and suddenly she's a Bad Girl. She's an artist, and one who has essentially grown up with an audience -- she is going to play with, alter, and expirement with her public persona as she grows and matures.
So while this dichotomy does exist -- particularly in Hollywood -- it's also important to maintain a distance from the roles these young women play, the image they cultivate, and the people they are outside of their work. They can exist within a flawed system without necessarily falling victims to it, particularly when their artistic choices aren't always so different from those of their male colleagues.