Of Good Girls and Bad Girls

Becky Sharp may have been the first feminist heroine

Magazine Issue
November/December 2004
Of Good Girls and Bad Girls

During my many years toiling in this profession, I keep noticing that people who don’t read novels seem to have a harder time getting inside the heads and hearts of their fellow human beings. After all, there are no more penetrating observers–or more astute psychologists–than the great 19th-century novelists, especially Dickens and his less celebrated contemporary William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon and whose greatest work, Vanity Fair, has just made it to the screen again. The new version was directed by Indian Mira Nair, the brilliant chronicler of culture and class tensions who gave us Monsoon Wedding. The film reminds us of what it’s like to roam through the richly imagined worlds that great novels create for us. It also shows us, if we need yet another reminder, how much our world has changed.

To understand Thackeray, it’s helpful to contrast his preoccupations with those of his great literary rival, Dickens. For Dickens, growing up poor, with his father in debtor’s prison, left an indelible stamp on his work. However overblown his characters may seem at times, and however dripping with sentimentality his plots, his novels (like Oliver Twist) are filled with social outrage over the neglect and abuse of the poor. Dickens saw the world’s evils as social, and he saw human beings as helpless victims who must rely on luck, pluck, and serendipitous encounters to survive.

That isn’t Thackeray’s world. Thackeray was born in Calcutta and grew up in middle-class comfort in London, where he was both an insider and an outsider, and thus the ideal observer of matters of social class. The most important thing about his work is his inescapable, obdurate, middle-classness. For him, social circumstances don’t determine who we are, but rather the quality of our character–our virtue–defines us. Along with the sensibility of a moralist, he offers us a good-natured awareness of how we bring loneliness and disgrace upon ourselves. His gift as a writer is to illuminate the vanities of his characters while he makes us love them anyway. And Becky Sharp, the heroine of Vanity Fair, is certainly the most memorable–and troublesome–character Thackeray ever created. She might be considered the prototypical feminist heroine.

Becky is the orphaned child of a British artist and a French dancer, who’s been forced to live on the charity and goodwill of others. As Thackeray envisions it, her circumstances have led her to become a great seductress, and she has only rage and resentment where her character should be. Ultimately, She betrays everyone who’s taken her in and befriended her. The novel keeps our focus on the contrast between the “bad girl” Becky and her more privileged “good girl” best friend, Amelia.

Becky is ambitious. First, she seduces the brother and then the husband of the ever-loyal Amelia. Then, she takes over the house in which she’s a governess and not only seduces the decrepit-but-aristocratic father and the wild-but-handsome son, but the rich-old-aunt as well. When, after marrying the son, he’s promptly disinherited, Becky becomes the mistress of the sadistic (and married) Lord Steyne.

The most dramatic scene in both the book and the movie is the one in which just about all the characters end up at a ball in Brussels on the eve of the battle of Waterloo, in which Napoleon is defeated and Amelia’s husband is killed. Unbeknownst to Amelia, this occurs just before he’s about to dump her to run off with Becky. Amelia sinks into poverty as she raises her son and turns her life into a memorial to her husband.

Meanwhile, Becky gives away her own son and husband to better scratch her way up the social ladder. She crowns her life of upward mobility by sitting beside, and catching the eye of, King George IV at a dinner party.

Finally, the climax of the story comes when Becky, impatient with Amelia’s moping over her husband, George, reveals to her friend the love letters George sent her a couple of decades earlier. Amelia refuses to speak to Becky again, but she’s now free to bury George and marry the loyal man who’s loved her all these years. This climactic act is the first unselfish and honest thing Becky has ever done, but it’s enough to vindicate our bad little heroine.

What’s most distinctive about the new movie version of Vanity Fair is how much we end up pulling for Becky, not just at the end, but all through the story. The 21st-century audience is primed to appreciate her intelligence and identify with the sheer tenacity with which she goes after what she wants. We just wish what she wanted didn’t come at the cost of so many others’ lives and happiness.

Reese Witherspoon is the perfect embodiment of Becky for the contemporary audience. This tiny, jut-jawed, bulldog-faced actress is among the half-dozen biggest female box-office draws in the country. Witherspoon’s breakthrough film was Election, Alexander Payne’s political satire, in which she played a relentlessly ambitious candidate for class president. It was a daring performance of stupefying insensitivity and a shocking willingness to be detestable. Since then, she’s done highly popular comedies (like Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama) about young women who’ll not be taken for granted and know how to take matters into their own hands.

Witherspoon fills a niche once occupied by Holly Hunter and her predecessors like Betty Hutton and June Allyson, i.e., the feisty tomboy. It’s as if she’s humming to herself “Anything you can do I can do better.” Her demanding, unyielding characters make life difficult for themselves and others when they simply won’t stay in their place. Her boundary-hopping Becky feels deprived and is, therefore, entitled to help herself without returning the favor. (At one point she bewails, “I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year.”) Witherspoon pegs Becky perfectly, but we find ourselves rooting for her, instead of running for our lives or even just thinking of her as a bad moral example.

Witherspoon’s performance shows us how much our ideas about good girls and bad girls have changed. Good girls, like Amelia, Melanie in Gone with the Wind, Tolstoy’s Natasha, and all of Jane Austen’s hopeful heroines, were devoid of ambition for themselves, while they remained loyal, through thick or thin, to their children and to men who didn’t deserve them. Good girls were incorruptibly loyal defenders of propriety and respecters of boundaries, keeping the world structured and safe for their husbands and children. Bad girls, like Becky Sharp, Scarlett O’Hara, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary, with their excess of vanity, were a lot livelier, but ultimately less successful.

In his novel, Thackeray promises us that virtue will be rewarded and vice will be punished. But the movie version of his book demonstrates just how much times have changed. Today, virtue has become very much its own reward–best not to expect the world’s approval. Unlike Thackeray’s original readers, contemporary audiences can be expected to cheer for those who aren’t bound by the ordinary rules and boundaries, whatever harm they do.

Perhaps the film that most clearly underscores the change in our distinction between the good girls and the bad is the recent We Don’t Live Here Anymore, John Curran’s startlingly intimate dissection of the convoluted affairs and friendships between two adulterous couples. The Andre Dubus stories behind the script are rooted in the ’70s, preoccupied with the men’s careers and satisfactions, while wives were expected to clean up after them and hang on passively. What’s timely about the film, though, is the post-sexual-revolution narcissism and the fear of growing up.

Mark Ruffalo plays a failed college professor with a dumpy house full of bedwetting kids and a boozy, slovenly wife (Laura Dern). His best friend (Peter Krause) is cold, vain, and mean, likes to mess around with his students, and has pushed his pristine, dutiful wife (the serenely gorgeous Naomi Watts) into an affair with Ruffalo. Something clearly has to give here, and, sure enough, all hell breaks loose; Ruffalo’s life is blown apart and Dern ends up in bed with Krause. The unrepentant Krause thanks Ruffalo for romancing his depressed wife, and explains that his own life is much nicer when his wife feels loved.

The camera moves in so close on each of the characters that we feel we can read their minds. Such is the skill with which this remarkable film has been acted and shot that we discover within ourselves Krause’s unrepentant narcissism, Ruffalo’s vanity, Watts’s neediness, and Dern’s moral outrage. The presumed good girl here, Watts, the perfectly mannered and perfectly groomed Martha Stewartian homemaker, turns out to be the homewrecker. It’s Dern, the drunken, violent, highly improper slob, who fights for her marriage and for her friends. Dern’s intermittent tirades, in which she voices the unspoken truths and her insights into the craziness of the situation, are the high points of the film. In one outburst, she attacks her inept husband for complaining about the shocking state of the kitchen, berating him for being so shallow he can only see what she does or doesn’t do, not who she is. As she speaks, her little head, surrounded by out-of-control hair, sitting high atop her long stringy body, begins to look like a Greek mask of tragedy.

Dern knows that she’s too good for her weak, petulant husband, but it’s the mark of her devotion that she tries not to let him know that she knows it. In the ethics of the film, Dern’s final act, sleeping with Krause and making sure everyone knows, sets her friend Watts free of Krause, evens the score with Ruffalo, and brings her marriage back to life with her at the helm. It’s a daring act, no less than Becky Sharp’s climactic gesture, and it works on many levels, but I wouldn’t recommend you try taking either action at home.

What We Don’t Live Here Anymore More makes powerfully plain is that cleaning up, bowing to social propriety, and avoiding scandal are no longer enough to make a woman a good girl. And sexual infidelity isn’t enough to make a woman a bad girl. A good girl now needs to be strong and active, like Becky and Laura, rather than mealymouthed, inoffensive, clinging, and simpering like Melanie, Amelia, and Naomi.

The world no longer bows to women who hide their strengths in order to keep from scaring weak men–such women just end up with scared men in their laps. A good woman fights for her loved ones and comes to their rescue when they need her, often in uniquely creative ways, as Becky and Laura demonstrate. A woman who can’t do that, however impeccable her abs, her grooming, and her kitchen sink, isn’t really much good to herself, or anyone else.

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.