What Does It Mean To Be A ‘Good Woman’?

Emily good woman

Be beautiful, be sexy, be active, be nurturing, be domestic, be focused on everyone else, and by God, make it all look effortless.

What is a good woman? What constitutes goodness and who is the arbiter of the standards that would indicate goodness?

If women take their cues about how to “be,” either good or bad, from popular images and cultural myths, what is revealed is not so complex. Spend 20 minutes watching television, and the commercials might communicate the following:

Women should be beautiful, of course, but aesthetics are just one part of the equation (and these aesthetic standards we’ve come to consider the barometer for what beauty is are exclusionary, arbitrary, and yet somehow universally acknowledged). Witness everywhere the yearly, deeply unoriginal article in some fitness magazine about “how to get a perfect butt,” complete with the requisite air-touched photographs (the backside of a white woman bathed in white light!) and pull-out exercise cards about how to achieve this new backside, advertisements about how to thicken hair, tighten your sagging neck so you don’t look your age, fix your adult acne or psoriasis, “fix” your sex drive after menopause, the implication being that it’s easier to take a pill than to, say, have a conversation with your partner about sexual satisfaction. As if even enjoyment is a woman’s sole responsibility.

So, yes, please look effortlessly beautiful, even though exercise, diet, and beauty treatments are costly and time confusing. Wait, there’s more!

Please be knowledgeable about the best energy efficient washing machines, bake homemade cakes, knit sweaters in your free time from organic yarn purchased at a local store (no Joann’s Fabrics! NEVER!), and have a few chickens in the backyard of your rural or urban dwelling where you can be sure said chickens are grass-fed before you make an omelette for your children, pepper it perfectly, decorate the plate with strategically placed parsley sprigs, and post it on Instagram.

Be active, too! Post more Instagram photos of lakes you’ve hiked to, mountains you’ve summited, and beach vacations you’ve taken where everyone looks relaxed.

Here’s proof positing that 20 minutes of television might actually leave you exhausted, even if you haven’t moved an inch.

Recently I taught a summer workshop in which there was a single male participant, which is not uncommon in memoir workshops. At the end of the class, we were talking about the gender imbalance of the group, and I commented that I usually had more men in my class. “That is because you are pretty!” my male participant offered up as explanation.

At first, I was flattered, because I’m vain, but then I understood that, in a sense, his comment had undercut all of the honest, ardent work I’d done over the course of the week: leading exercises, moderating discussions, putting out emotional fires, and occasionally, to my annoyance but not surprise, handing out tissues. All of my efforts at being a good teacher felt fruitless at that point. Why do I do this? I thought. What’s the point? Was I a good teacher or just eye candy for a middle-aged man?

That weekend I started watching Homeland, the popular Showtime series starring Clarie Danes, and found a new heroine, a new commercial-free depiction of women that is complicated, disturbing, and sometimes terrifyingly real. Carrie is impulsive, she occasionally drinks too much and has reckless sex, she is career-obsessed to the point of abandoning her daughter in her sister’s care, a daughter she is, frankly, disinterested in caring for and in one harrowing scene, even thinks about drowning—not because she’s an evil person, but because she doesn’t know how to be a mother, doesn’t really want to be one, and is unprepared to engage with this complication. Instead, she’d rather be fighting terrorists.

She seduces CIA operatives, she lies, she cheats, she rails, she sends out drones, she allows her ethical compass to get knocked way off course, she makes elaborate wall maps that only she can decipher and that, I was slightly shocked to recognize, resemble my wild to-do lists made on the back of Whole Foods receipts.

Of course she is physically stylized, as this is television, which is aspirational at its core. Her hair always has a fresh blowout, is impossibly blond, and she somehow manages to avoid having chapped lips despite all the cross-world travel and change in climate from D.C. to Pakistan.

Much has been said about whether or not the acting on Homeland is any good. Frankly, I don’t care. What I appreciate about Carrie is what a highly functioning mess she is—a real person, a human person, a flawed person, a person that makes me feel, weirdly, proud.

Is it strange to feel pride watching a scripted television series about a woman that is effective at her job but also appears to have a massive self-destruct button? Maybe.

But what I see in the character of Carrie—the strange, fantastical, beautiful mess that makes her terrific at her job as CIA station chief and an outright failure as a partner, a mother, a friend—is that she doesn’t care about having a perfect butt, or having a hobby, or even taking care of others. Her goal is singular: to be good at what she does, at all costs. It’s not the lesson women are normally taught, and in this way it is refreshing, if limited.

According to the standards women are taught to live up to, she’s not a good woman, but that’s why I watch—to see a new standard set, even if it’s not aspirational, even if it’s not “nice.”

Do I like her character? Not really, but I feel I understand her.

Is she good? She may not be good, but it sure is a relief to watch her be real.

Role Reboot regular contributor, Emily Rapp, is a professor in the University of Cailfornia-Riverside Palm Desert MFA program and the author, most recently, of The Still Point of the Turning World.

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