(Un)doing the Good Girl

Chances are, if you’re into academic feminism or if you’ve taken a Gender Studies class in the past 15-20 years, you’ve heard of Judith Butler. Butler, a feminist theorist who helped found queer theory, is generally regarded as one of the most important philosophers of our time: she’s extremely prolific and her work literally changed the face of feminist theory and modern philosophy. The basic theory espoused in her groundbreaking book, Gender Trouble, is this: gender is the stylized repetition of certain embodied acts regulated and enforced by hegemonic social norms that create the appearance of the natural.

Let me help you break that down. All this theory starts out with the assumption/realization (previously asserted by Simone de Beauvoir and Mary Wollstonecraft) that gender and biological sex are separate—that your gender is something you “become” during the course of your lifetime due to the influence of society (ie your parents, your friends, your education, and the media). Butler takes this idea further: she denaturalizes sex and sexuality as well, claiming that these concepts and identities are not designated by anatomy and genetics but are made up of “stylized body acts.” In this way, gender isn’t something someone chooses and changes on a day to day basis, but is the collection and composite of specific actions. She labels this whole phenomenon the “performativity” of gender.

So what does performativity look like in everyday life? The way I see it, my gender is made up of all the repeated things I do consciously and unconsciously. It’s everything from the way I cross my legs and the way I keep my hair, to my facial expressions, my emotions, my thoughts, and the way I represent and communicate my actions/thoughts/emotions to other people.

Here is where GLI comes in. I’ve been thinking a lot about how Good Girl behavior is performative. A subset of the general category of “woman,” the category “Good Girl” is a socially defined role created and reproduced by embodied acts. These embodied acts—such as tone of voice, use of words in speech, presentation of emotion, and choice of clothes and makeup—create the image of a Good Girl. (For a ridiculous run down of what a Good Girl is, check out this website: http://www.wikihow.com/Be-a-Good-Girl .) Similarly to the way in which Butler asserts that the label “woman” is restricting, at GLI we talk about the way in which the Good Girl is an ideal that no one can live up to and is therefore an extremely restrictive way of being.

Consequently, we try to break down the Good Girl ideal by encouraging young women to be Real Girls; that is, to be emotionally honest and authentic people aware of themselves and able to communicate their thoughts/emotion/desires in relationship. I’ve been wondering about how this relates to Butler’s theories. According to Butler, gender is so deeply ingrained in us that it’s mostly unconscious—could Good Girl behavior be unconsciously performed as well? If so, how effective can one be at fighting or deconstructing it? Additionally, by trying to deconstruct the Good Girl ideal, are we deconstructing gender norms and therefore gender itself?

In order to start answering these questions, I again think back to Butler. Just as Butler helps people think critically about gender performance, GLI helps individual girls become aware of their Good Girl habits. This process gives girls the tools to change, revise, and think critically about these habits, which encourages girls to question the Good Girl ideal and the Good Girl within themselves.

Similarly, Butler has asserted that she isn’t necessarily trying to do away with gender or identity categories, but trying to expand the possibilities for what people can be. In other words, Butler wants there to be social room for people to be transgender or genderqueer or non-gender-conforming. The way I see it, people at GLI try to do something similar: we don’t try to get rid of Good Girl qualities but we want to expand the social definition of what a girl can be so that all girls feel comfortable enough to be themselves.

It’s useful to think of the Good Girl ideal as performative because it demonstrates the way the concept operates, the level to which it is ingrained in individuals, and the importance of thinking about it and questioning it. And, ok, the way it fits into academic feminism, which I unabashedly love.

Image thanks to: http://ec4.images-amazon.com/images/I/41x6NjFpwlL._AA200_.jpg

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