Pop Music’s ‘Good Girls’ Complex

The virgin-whore dichotomy has been around forever. What's puzzled me recently, however, is what feels like a sudden upsurge in these very conservative attitudes in pop music. Why is this so?

Beyoncé sings "Mine" in an extended preview of the official music video for the song. fansreedit / YouTube

It seems I can’t turn on the radio anymore without being subjected to a song about a “good girl.”

This trope, of course, is nothing new. The virgin-whore dichotomy has been around forever—Eve, of course, being the original “bad girl.” Her agency was so dangerous that it caused the fall of man. And both the New and Old Testaments are full of these treacherous and tainted women: Jezebel, Salomé, Rahab, Mary Magdalene, and a host of other colorful harlots, whores, and femme fatales who contrasted starkly against all the pious saints and the pure and virginal mother of Jesus.

These distinctions have been replicated and perpetuated in literature, religion, art, and countless forms of media throughout history. Obviously, the idea of women being either “good” or “bad” is deeply entrenched in our collective psyche. My traditional Catholic upbringing, for instance, had me foolishly believing that the Virgen de Guadalupe was the ideal woman, while those who had sex before marriage were immoral floozies. It’s taken me over a decade of feminist scholarship to undo all of these hangups, so I’m not naive enough to think that we should have erased this binary by now.

What’s puzzled me recently, however, is what feels like a sudden upsurge in these very conservative attitudes in pop music, this backwards glorification of “nice” and “chaste” young women. It seems like every other musician is putting these imaginary girls on a pedestal.

Take these lyrics in “Bound 2” by Kanye West, for example: “Close your eyes and let the word paint a thousand pictures. One good girl is worth a thousand bitches.” Here he is implying that only good girls are of any value, while “bitches” are disposable.

Drake expresses a similar attitude in his collaboration with Beyoncé in the song “Mine”: “This is a song for the good girl. And I still keep it hood, still treat you like I should.” Again, only these ideal women will be treated with respect. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, founder of the blog Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, points out that several of Drake’s songs are fixated on the dichotomy, particularly those about developing romantic feelings for strippers. This causes him anxiety because these women have already been “used.”

A few additional examples:

“I know you want it. You’re a good girl. Can’t let it get past me. You’re far from plastic.” —“Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke

“I stood right by the tracks, your face in a locket. Good girls, hopeful they’ll be and long they will wait.” —”Sad Beautiful Tragic” by Taylor Swift.

According to these songs and countless others, “bad girls”—that is, women who enjoy and express their sexuality—are not worthy of protection or dignity. This music paints women as one-dimensional. Unfortunately, some people may not understand that the kind of “good” women in these songs don’t actually exist.

Rihanna, for instance, fulfills expectations of Black sexuality in her song “Bad” featuring Wale: “I never made love, no I never did it, but I sure know how to fuck I’ll be your bad girl. I’ll prove it to you. I can’t promise that I’ll be good to you.” And then: “She don’t catch feelings she too busy catching G5. She no saint, ‘cept Saint Laurent.” Though rejecting the stifling “good girl” identity and deciding to be sexually assertive can be liberating, the problem lies in equating this kind of sexuality with badness. Why do we have to choose one identity over another?

Contrast Rihanna’s bad girl image against the iconic “good girl” Taylor Swift who has manipulated this identity to sell records. “It is nothing new for male record execs to wanna vamp up a little girl. It’s a way easier sell,” teen star Debbie Gibson said in a 2010 article about Taylor Swift. Because Swift is white, executives are able to manufacture this image of purity. There’s a reason the has never been a Black equivalent of Taylor Swift, the “wholesome girl next door.”

The “Blurred Lines” video makes this good-bad racial distinction as well. For example, when Thicke sings, “OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you. But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature” the camera is focused on the only Black woman in the video. And when TI raps, “Yeah, I had a bitch, but she ain’t bad as you. So hit me up when you pass through,” most of his attention is directed at her as well. And while all three of the women are touched and treated as objects, it seems as though the men are most aggressive toward the Black woman. The way in which they pull on her pony tail suggests that she is an object to be dominated.

With the influence of feminism, the sexual revolution, and various other social advances, shouldn’t we have evolved a little more by now?

“Even in ages of less equality, being good included self-sufficiency, but the presence of women in the workplace has created a backlash against women’s ability to ‘take care of themselves’ because it so resembles independence,” says feminist poet and non-fiction writer Carmen Giménez Smith. “The conundrum girls face today is shaped, in part, by pink princess culture: how good can they be, how chaste and passive, as it’s these characteristics that land the prince in the Disneyfied landscape of heroines.”

Perhaps this is the precise reason the “good girl” has become so popular. As women gain more advances, society develops new ways to subjugate them. In this case, pop music has resurrected the virgin-whore concept and put it in a new package.

“Before there were Jezebels, and now you have a baby mama or a video model,” Evette Dionne, fashion editor at LoveBrownSugar.com, told Rewire. “There is a particular influx of songs, but I don’t think it’s new. We’re just getting a lot of it at once.”

Dionne, who has written extensively about feminism, race, and hip hop for many major publications, also reminds us of the prevalence and cultivation of this binary during times of slavery: Once Black women were brought to the United States as slaves, she says, slave owners created the idea that this population was somehow hypersexual. It was a way to rationalize sexually terrorizing them; the slave owners needed this contrast to the “pure” and “virginal” white women. “Their deviant sexuality was a way to justify their behavior,” Dionne says.

Our culture has always stereotyped Black women as dangerous in our country. “The portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype,” writes David Pilgrim, professor of sociology at Ferris State University, for the Jim Crow Museum for Racist Memorabilia. “Historically, white women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty—even sexual purity, but black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory.”

The racial implications in the good-bad girl dichotomy still endure. In many ways, attitudes toward Black women have not changed much since the Antebellum South. Blackness is still equated with sexual deviancy and whiteness is still equated with purity.

Gumbs puts this paradigm in an economic perspective: “It’s a way of reaffirming what’s valuable and how they [women] can be used for patriarchy. It’s really about how our reproductive organs can be used by other people. This is an idea that’s been perpetuated through colonization and slavery. Women of color are useful in terms of providing pleasure.”

Dionne believes that the contemporary “good girl” is white, middle-class, from a two-parent home, heterosexual, not sexually promiscuous, and packaged in a way that appeals to men.

Suzanne Enck, assistant professor at the University of North Texas, has a similar definition. “A good girl is a white, pure, virginal girl who is sexy but doesn’t enjoy sex.” she told Rewire. Historically, “Historically, Black women never had access to good girl status.”

Dionne offers the example of Miley Cyrus’ infamous twerking on the MTV Music Awards. Cyrus was righfully lambasted for appropriating Black culture and treating Black women’s bodies as props. But Dionne also points out that while Cyrus’ performance was broadcasted around the world, Black video models are often censored and subjected to backlash. The hip-hop models featured in Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video, she points out, were criticized in Clutch Magazine, as “oversexed objects.” Black Entertainment Television (BET) refused to air “Tip Drill” before 2 a.m. The sexuality of Black women continues to be threatening.

Some scholars, however, believe the “good girl” identity is no longer as sexually stifling as it once was. Robin James, associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, whose work focuses on music and feminist and critical race theories, believes that this changed in the past five years or so. “I think that post-Kesha, we sort of expect good girls to be wild enough in the right way,” she said. While the category is still oppressive, James says it’s not just a sexual identity anymore, but rather about middle-class white women “having it all.” Like the other scholars, however, she also believes that the notion implies whiteness.

Enck believes these rigid ideas can be dangerous, “because it allows us to say that those are the women who don’t deserve help.” In an article she co-wrote with Blake A. McDaniel titled “Playing With Fire: Cycles of Domestic Violence in Eminem and Rihanna’s ‘Love the Way You Lie,'” she references a survey commissioned by the Girl Scouts of the USA and Buzz Marketing Group, which found that 45 percent of teen girls believed that Rihanna could have provoked Chris Brown to abuse her, and 33 percent blamed both Rihanna and Chris Brown for the violence.

These binaries are not simply false, but incredibly harmful, because they help perpetuate and justify violence against women. These rigid distinctions encourage people to dehumanize those who don’t fit into the ideal mold.

“Pop music is what is emulating what’s happening in the world,” said Dionne. She believes this trend is a result of conservatism and the fixation with sexual purity. I agree. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this idea is popular during a time in which abstinence-only education, purity balls, and slut-shaming politicians continue to exist and our reproductive rights are constantly under attack. We know, for instance, that more abortion restrictions were enacted from 2011 to 2013 than in the entire previous decade. I believe the good-bad dichotomy is simply another method to control our bodies and create divisions between us.

While these binaries are deep and feel almost indelible, I hope that we can continue to dismantle them and understand the conditions that allow them to thrive. Pop music is incredibly powerful and in order to combat these sorts of insidious ideas, there needs to be more discourse surrounding it. Our culture dictates the way we perceive ourselves and each other. As Gumbs points out, “If women thought of themselves as inherently valuable, they wouldn’t be preoccupied with being virginal or sexual.” The simple act of loving one’s self can be revolutionary. But if young girls continue to be exposed to these songs, they will learn to be ashamed of their sexuality. These dangerous ideas also perpetuate racism, whether conscious or unconscious, and encourage women and girls to shame one another for choosing to express their sexuality however they wish.

I personally hope that if I one day have a daughter, she will learn to enjoy sex without any apology, and that she will be able to form deep bonds with other women without categorizing them as either good or bad. I hope she never believes that all she has to offer the world is her sexual purity.