Genre Studies

Bad Girls

by Clay Stafford,
Founder Killer Nashville,
Publisher Killer Nashville Magazine

In the genre sense, “Bad Girls” is a psychological subgenre of the larger “Crime” masthead, which we discussed in the last issue.

BREAKING DOWN THE BAD GIRL STORY

I am writing my opinion here and it is not my objective to emasculate the guys, but if you feel that way, it could be that you especially should be en garde: there are women out there who are intent on doing you serious hurt!

Femme FataleHere’s the bottom line: men have been scared of seductive women since the beginning of time. Why? Because they recognize – even if only subconsciously – the ultimate power that can lead to their downfall. It is the weakness of the men who give women this power, not necessarily the strength of the women themselves. So you have two things going on here as a writer: the flawed male character with a weakness (usually the protagonist) and the opportunistic wiliness of the woman (maybe the antagonist – or this is how these roles are normally portrayed). Of course, to have a strong hero, you must have an equally – or more so – strong villain and, in fiction as in life, why not hit the man where he is most weak? Religion has ineffectively rallied against her since the beginning of time. Politics have tried to keep her down. Misogynist males have been no match. These women – and here I go maybe offending the women – are female vampires, whether or not the actual association is made. In the end, these girls are bloodsuckers of men. They are sensual, sexy, dangerous, manipulative, near unstoppable, and even cursed.

Choke HoldNow here’s the good part. Most of the time, the female trickery is directed towards a man, but sometimes in the telling, another woman takes the fall. Psychological catfight! And don’t think the sensuality that leads to a man’s fall does not also work on a woman, though not to the physically sexual degree. For woman-to-woman, it is intimidation. It’s also interesting that, in the tragedy of these characters destroying each other’s lives, that some of these stories are designated as comedies rather than tragedies, because the truth of it outside the comedic element would be too much to bear.

There is a subgroup in “Bad Girls” known as “Femme Fatale.” I’m putting both of these in the same category because the femme fatale is just a certain – and certainly very popular for a time – version of the same thing. The motive is the same for each of these ladies, though the targets might be different. In the end, as your mother told you, there are the girls you marry, and then there are the girls you don’t bring home to meet the family (because you might be dead, for one).

Looking at femme fatales before we move on, a femme fatale is a (usually) attractive woman, especially one who will bring disaster upon any man who becomes involved with her. Femme fatale is a French phrase meaning, literally, “fatal woman.” In truth, haven’t we all dated a few of these?  In America since the late 1800’s, we’ve called them vamps, interestingly short for vampire. Here we go back to the bloodsucking motif. These women – though not always of horror – are a succubus in their own ways. But no different than the men who are portrayed in other stories. These women, call them “Bad Girls” or “Femme Fatales,” will seek to win at all costs with morals ranging from villainous to simple ambivalence. In observing this type of woman, some have even gone so far as to call her “a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse” (Joris-Karl Huysmans).

I love Gothic as my readers know and there is a definite Gothic influence in the character, whether in the whole work or not. There may not be a castle, but many times the portrayal of the lass is one of foreign origin, if not physically, then psychologically. It’s an exotic temptation as though, if American, one might need to take a trip to England or Europe. The different culture, in this case mental culture, is a thematic temptation. And, of course, there are always the eyes, those windows of those evil seeking souls.

The Reckoning
The Reckoning / Columbia Pictures

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The Marquis de Sade felt that it wasn’t evil that occupied these women, but the best that women had to offer. That’s an interesting thought. Even today, there is a whole trash market with Girls Gone Wild; unfortunately for me, I guess I prefer my “Bad Girls” more in the form of Dolores Umbridge, which leads me to this: purists would probably like to keep the genre in the stereotype of a seductress in a trench coat (probably also in black-and-white), but women come in all shapes, sizes, and modes of criminality. To the purists, I’d have to say, watch noir to see your femme fatale; to the academic studying “Bad Girls,” a kaleidoscope of color is available as you’ll see in the lists of “Bad Girls” below.

For me, though, I’m going to take a risk and jump out of the stereotype. To write a “Bad Girl,” you don’t have to have a gun or murder; you have to have intent and great characterization. She doesn’t have to be an evil twin, or Humphrey Bogart’s ultimate undoing, or even a high-powered corporate bitch. All she needs is attitude. Writers need to know that. So bear with me as I’m going to diverge from the 1950’s noir bad girl and simply look at character. These women are strong and they are formidable in numerous settings. Put a gun in their hand and you have Mickey Spillane; put a box of baking soda in their hand, and you have Mommie Dearest. In the end, it is the same woman, different time, different channel. Regardless, we are mesmerized. We love to watch these women, for the same reason we like horror movies. We love to be seduced by these women because we are foolish enough to think that – while others have failed – we can control them. But how much of their actions or successes are our own hedonistic fault? Are they all not like poor Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

CASE HISTORY: FIRST BAD GIRL OR FEMME FATALE STORIES

SphinxThe “Bad Girl” is an archetype in worldwide literature. I first met the “Bad Girl” in the most likely place: church. For children who go to Sunday School – of which I am a proponent – they know the stories of the bad girls: Eve, Potiphar’s wife, Lot’s wife, the woman at the well, Delilah, Sapphira, Rahab, Michal, and – of course – Jezebel. But they also know of Solomon’s frisky young lady whose breasts are like young fawns. As a young boy, no one had to force me to read scripture.

From the first woman (Eve) forward, being a “Bad Girl” has been one of the oldest ways to get ahead. Following Eve came a whole slew of ambitious females: Sphinx (Greek, not Egyptian, 1600 BC), Delilah (Hebrew, 1075 BC), Daji (Chinese, brought down an empire, 1047 BC), Jezebel (Hebrew, 858 BC), the Homer’s Sirens, Scylla, Circe, Aphrodite, Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra (Greek, 850 BC Homer), Lilith (Hebrew, 600 BC), Mohini (Hindu, 450 BC), Euripides’ Medea (Greek, 440 BC), Cleopatra (Egypt, 45 BC), Salome (Hebrew, 26 AD), and Messalina (Roman, 35 AD). And they were not all fictional. Sappho (7th Century BC) was not only a poet, but a pretty bad girl herself. Needless to say, the “Bad Girl” is a classic.

When the Middle Ages came, they piously or comically focused on seductive women of ill-intent. By focusing, they did little to quell the personality type; in fact, like modern-day condemnations, it only added to the allure of the femme fatale. In the 1600s, Shakespeare (as did most of the poets) loved the duplicitous woman, but then, even now, who doesn’t? English literature began using the femme fatale to make social statements in the 1800s. And, of course, the femme fatale reigned as Queen in American hardboiled stories and noir films of the 1900s. All through time, it was the sexual attractiveness paired with the mental ingenuity that created the allure.

THE FUTURE OF BAD GIRL FICTION

“Bad Girl” fiction dominates film much more than it does literature. Why? Not sure. I would speculate it is because of the visual element and the demographic targets are usually male audiences. In literature, one needs to mentally create, to provide one’s own pictures. Visually, one just has to sit back and enjoy. This is why I personally think the subgenre rules more in film than it does in literature…but it doesn’t have to be that way.

A distinction between the femme fatale and the vamp is that the vamp goes straight for sexual advances while the femme fatale is more catlike using sensuality as the means to the end, not necessarily sex (or some symbolic metaphor). There is a hybrid forming in many YA films and stories of the two intermingling: female vampires who are, at the same time, femme fatales.

Paramount Pictures
Mean Girls / Paramount Pictures

But in many ways because of the evolutionary view of women in the Western world, the “Bad Girl” is becoming more subtle on some sides and more bold on others. She is changing form, from sensuality of the body and cunning of the mind and expanding to a bit of male kick-ass never before allowed because – I think – society itself could not have previously endured it. By doing so, these “Bad Girls” are in ways becoming sexually homogeneous and embracing crimes normally committed by men in the past and this is possibly why we also see a greater plethora of them as protagonists (rather than antagonists or supportive roles) in the visual arts than we do in literature. Movies traditionally are made for young adult men. Explosions, pretty girls, wild women; all of these fit into that fractured male demographic. Part of the allure, too, is that the “Bad Girls” of today are not just directing their wiles against men, but also other women, society, and social issues. And they are not always working alone. Sometimes they move in packs like jackals.

EXAMPLES FOR EXPLORING THE BAD GIRL GENRE ON YOUR OWN

My objective is to look at works driven by the “Bad Girl” archetype. Sometimes I blur the lines between “Bad Girl” protagonists and plots dependent upon the “Bad Girl” character. I realize this, but I also know that these characters are a driving force within each of the stories listed and, if removed, the story would not be what it is. I often wonder, too, if in a different time and a different reader/viewer mindset would these “Bad Girls” not have taken a larger role.

I haven’t identified the “Bad Girl” in any of the below. I’m taking it as a given that you’ll figure that one out.

In the list of films, I have to say that these are not all necessarily good movies as a whole, but they are great movies for “Bad Girls” and many of the bad ones are even downright disturbing. In movies, sometimes even if there is a remake, I may include the older version (God forbid, even if in black-and-white) because it is – frankly – better acted, directed, and/or written. Caution: because we are looking at “Bad Girls,” it is inevitable that some of the women portrayed here are very bad; in the case of some of the movies, I wouldn’t look at the trailers unless you are alone, and certainly not at work.

I’ve expanded from my first column last month. I’ve included titles of books and films in a variety of settings because, as we know, quality is a subjective term and one may like their nasty sultry and sensual, while another might like it comedic because, in the spirit of Elmore Leonard, nothing says that crime cannot be funny. So I’ve included quite a few comedies for those of like mind. From your comments, too, and from previewing the excellent column written by teacher Tracy Spruce in this month’s Killer Nashville Magazine, I understand some of you are classical readers and viewers and some more contemporary, so I have included the dates for all (literature and film) so you can explore this subgenre within your own area of comfort and reference, finding books and films that work for you in the way that you easily think. Education should be enjoyable; I’ve tried to make it so. And, for further study for those writers who want to explore the genre in detail, I’ve included books I think might help you understand the progression of literary “Bad Girls” and femme fatales. Wade through. I’ve included something for everyone, regardless of your personal standards. But remember this: The “Bad Girl” does not have to be over-the-top. She can be subtle, as in many of the examples below. In fact, subtlety seems to have a way of destroying drop-by-drop hard, impenetrable surfaces that over-the-top does not.

All of these are here for us to read and study to make us better writers. From stealing puppies to seducing cops, here are my favorite “Bad Girls” in Literature, Film, Television, and Nonfiction Writer Studies:

What titles did I miss? Let me know in the comments below so we can grow the reference material.

Stick with me on this series and explore these genres and subgenres with me each month and I guarantee you will find new and exciting elements to incorporate into your own writing.

Please visit Genre 101 for past and upcoming Genre Studies.