Why Do ‘Good Girl’ Actresses Have To Go ‘Bad’ To Prove They’ve Made It?

Selena Gomez is just the latest in a long line of young women who objectify themselves for success in Hollywood, says Soraya Chemaly.

I haven’t seen the new movie Spring Breakers, which opened last Friday, and am pondering whether or not I ever will. Some people think it’s satire or parody, more horror film than anything else. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis liked it, so chances are I would since I generally agree with her reviews. But, I just can’t take another good girl having to go “bad.” It’s sad. In this case, Selena Gomez. Vanessa Hudgens, the other featured teen-actress-now-woman, was early to the game and is done. But Gomez? She was such a nice girl and is still trying to manage her transition. So now, my children, and everyone else’s, will see another prominent, successful, talented teenage girl get put through the mill.

I find it depressing.

Making this “good girls gone bad” move is a female celebrity rite of passage. It’s not just acknowledgement of healthy, human sexuality, however. It’s that sex is “bad” when it comes to girls, and that for them to become women, sex needs to be tied to passivity, objectification. Self-debasement tied to sexual availability is an essential component. For girls to get their tickets stamped and become famous women they have to very publicly enact one or more of the following: rape, stripping, pole dancing, prostitution, sexual abuse. They have to literally, on screen, be available to all men who want them. Want a list? Here’s a very short list right off the top of my head of recent actresses or performers who made their transitions in that way. It’s not remotely comprehensive, but does the trick:

Kristen Stewart
Britney Spears
Christina Aguilera
Lindsay Lohan
Miley Cyrus
Dakota Fanning
Hilary Duff
Dianna Agron
Lea Michele
Jessica Simpson
Emma Stone
Vanessa Hudgens
Jessica Biel
Elizabeth Berkley
Abigail Breslin

Even Anne Hathaway, who’s made a valiant go of it, played a phone sex worker in Valentine’s Day (which meant she was available anywhere, anytime by the men who wanted her). If this list strikes you as lily white, that begs a whole other question about Hollywood and marginalization. I mean, how many young, African American teenage girl stars can you name? This is among the reasons why The Onion’s Oscar night tweet about 9-year old Quvenzhané Wallis was exponentially vile.

And, this is nothing new: Jodie Foster, Natalie Portman, Brooke Sheilds. The list is endless. Every single one of them: rape, stripping, pole dancing, prostitution. Success! As GQ says “T&A helps. (That’s talent and ambition, you pervs.) But so does a generous helping of… girl-on-girl subtext, and choreographed dry-humping.” Don’t you love Girl Power! Coed Magazine “magazine,” which must be for all the women doing so well in college these days, has a “lucky for us” list available and asks gleefully, Which Has Fallen Farthest? Poor boys. How many ways can we find to set them up to fail?

I’m just keeping my fingers and toes crossed for Emma Watson, who just last week tweeted, “Who here actually thinks I would do 50 Shades of Grey as a movie? Like really. For real. In real life.” It got more than 44,000 retweets. You have to wonder: Were those votes?

In general, for those prone to good girl/bad girl dichotomies that glorify princesses in childhood, having to “prove” you are no longer a “girl” and are now a woman means shedding being “good.” Turns out being a woman given entré into the public imagination means that you have to tell the world you are sexually available to men where and when they want you to be. How screwed up is that if you’re a kid—boy or girl—watching this happen to female childhood stars year after year after year? And people have the audacity to wonder what happened in Steubenville?

This is when I hear the chorus of “But no one is making her do it!” You just keep saying that if it makes you feel better. Suggesting that any of these girls has a “choice” in Hollywood is laughable. They don’t have a choice if they want to grow up and be successful actresses according to the terms by which our culture defines and rewards “success”—money, visibility, power, celebrity. With very few exceptions, for women actresses the result is the big-payoff: sexy sidekick, weak spot of a superhero in the end (Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man, Emma Stone in Spider Man, etc. etc.)  

And, that is not true for boy celebrities morphing into men. It’s how the two “girls” from Glee posed for GQ as school girls giving blow jobs while Corey Monteith “juggled them” and played the drums fully clothed. Of course, a girl could choose not to be an actress or performer. That’s her real choice. But, if she’s been good at it, she likes it, and she’s well paid to do it…take the clothes off and lap dance for us, girls.

The damage done by these grossly unbalanced portrayals of sexuality and power, of centrality and agency, is like the damage done by secondhand smoke. Girls and women subjected to these representations (that would be…everyone) all experience, to varying degrees, self-objectification. The American Psychological Association report on its effects on girls is detailed and clear.

But hey, at least it’s not just on screens. It’s everywhere. I don’t even have to prohibit certain movies or deconstruct sexist marginalization and ugly misogyny for pre-teens. All I have to do is go shopping.

Recently I went into what I now think of as Urban Pornography Outfitters. I should say, right away, that I love Urban Outfitters and am thinking through debates about porn, erotica, and oppression. But, not when I’m buying clothes. As my 13-year-old and I were paying a polite and chatty 20-something man at the register, I realized that his T-shirt featured a striking, stylized black and white photograph of a luscious T-shirt clad Marilyn Monroe look-alike, crouched down, hand in her panties, masturbating. The fact that her image was screened under a translucent American flag was excellent! Team America, Fuck Yeah!

So, I said, “Hey, got any T-shirts of a hot guy spanking the monkey?”
And, he said, “Huh?”
“You know, early Marlon Brando look-alike banging the Bishop?”
And he said, “Oh, you mean my T-shirt? It’s great, isn’t it?”
So I said, “It’s just that public display of a woman masturbating is jarring, feels demeaning. You know, feminist blah blah. It’s such a downer and I don’t feel so much like buying these clothes now.”
And he said, “I know, Kant’s conception of objectification strongly implies that you’d respond that way, but Martha Nussbaum, among others, has challenged the idea that objectification is automatically a negative phenomenon.”

Just joking about the last bit there. What he actually said was, “Hey, it’s on sale today for only $24.99.”

There were, of course, no male parallels, and this despite the fact that the best and most definitive guide to slang words for masturbation features just 500 words for female masturbation and more than 2100 for male. You’d think this was a lost market opportunity. But, seriously, I’m not interested in seeing anyone masturbate when I’m shopping with my kids, or in objectifying men in the same ways that we have women. I’m just pointing out the issues at hand: the ubiquitous availability of male-gaze images of women posing for the sexual pleasure of men.

This ever-present visual distillation of one dimension (sexuality) of human females undermines girls, sends the wrong messages to boys about how to be men, and hurts us all in the end.

(Portions of this post were published last year in The Huffington Post.)

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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