We All Want To Be "Good Girls" — Until We Really, Really Don't

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon.
Before I was old enough to go to school, I used to spend the day at home with my mom, doing all manner of little kid things. Sometimes, those things involved getting into trouble, like convincing my sister to come outside so I could spray her with the hose on a cold November day. When I was bad, my punishment was to sit on the stiff living room couch and wait for my father to come home, so I could tell him what I had done.

The script was always the same. My dad, tall and handsome in his suit and tie, would enter the room, very serious. Then he would ask me if I had been a "good girl," at which point I would burst into tears. He would pick me up, and I would cry and say how sorry I was, because the worst thing I could imagine then, and even now, was to disappoint my father. Years later, both my parents would confess that they had to suppress their own giggles at how truly beside myself I was: I wanted so badly to be a good girl. Even at 4, I seemed to understand the weight those words carried with them.

What it meant to be a "good girl" morphed as I got older. Good girls got good grades, turned in their homework on time, and eschewed boy craziness for other pursuits. Good girls went to second base, maybe, but not third; or if they rounded home plate, it was with a good boy who asked them to dances and remembered the corsage. Good girls got into good colleges, and in the Midwest, where I'm from, good girls tend to get married earlier than elsewhere in the country, and start the cycle anew.

But to always be a good girl is to resign oneself to being the personified equivalent of a vanilla cupcake with a swirl of white frosting on a sparkling plate: perfectly fine, but not very interesting. They say well-behaved women never make history. They say that because it's true.

Eventually, being a good girl mattered less than being an independent woman.

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Which brings me to Good Girls Revolt, the new Amazon series based on the real-life good girl rebellion at Newsweek's Manhattan office, back in the late 1960s. GGR's 10-episode first season, released in full on October 28, is modeled on the book of the same name by award-winning journalist Lynn Povich. One thing to keep in mind, for those out there who have yet to watch it but intend to: Give GGR some time. You might wrinkle your nose at first. But if you stick with the show, it'll grow on you.

For starters, let's talk about the ladies who catalyze the plot. There's Patti (Genevieve Angelson), a hippie just coming back to Earth, a researcher who is sleeping with a reporter (in the back office, no less), a true-blue '60s child who at first can't see the sexism right in front of her face. Then there's sweet, naive Cindy (Erin Darke), a married woman with one year to work according to her husband's wishes, and a secret drinking problem. Blonde and bright as ever, Anna Camp plays Jane Hollander, a brilliant young woman being bankrolled by her father. She loves her job but is afraid to commit to the idea of being a career woman — or, as she shouts from a fire escape in a later episode — a career girl. Grace Gummer, in a truly unfortunate brown wig, portrays Nora Ephron, showing up intermittently as a kind of consciousness-raising Yoda figure.

Initially there is a flatness to these characters. They are archetypes of their era, their heads bumping up against a glass ceiling they don't yet seem to see. They're less fully formed characters than caricatures tasked with relaying a Cliff's Notes version of an era when the tectonic plates of American culture were in full-on earthquake mode. It takes three episodes, so almost three hours, for them to finally get into the groove and become people you can empathize with or root for. That's too slow a build for subject matter that should be presented like a bomb with a longish fuse.
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon.
We know that women at News of the Week (a fictionalized version of Newsweek, on which Povich's book is based) are allowed to help reporters, but never get to have a byline; that their husbands and boyfriends are resentful of the women even working at all; that gains have been made at other publications, and in the world, but this particular newsroom is a land stuck in time. One of the husbands even goes so far as to poke a hole in his wife's diaphragm, so that she'll get pregnant, quit her job, and fulfill her in-a-family-way obligations. And yet, the women of the office love their jobs: The scraps of dignity and purpose it affords them, their (limited) participation in the boys' club. But that only becomes heartbreaking later, when they finally realize how unfairly they've been treated.

We are supposed to watch Patti, Jane, and Cindy's social awakening as they come to the realization that, actually, they're going to have to toe a hard line to get what they want — and it will almost certainly mean sacrificing their status as "good girls." There is a heavy-handedness to all of this, which made me think about the way Mad Men did justice to similar female struggles of the same era without ever seeming to be patronizing about it. The thing about sexism is that even when it is boldfaced, it's the nuances that really hammer inequality home. And for the first third of GGR's premiere season, the lack of subtly is tiresome, whether it's the way the women discuss the problems they face or the show's signifiers of the '60s. At one point, Andy Warhol walks through a scene that reconstructs a wild night at the Chelsea Hotel. That moment isn't the worst cliché of the 10 episodes, but it's among them.
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon.
Here is the good news, though: Once the women of News of the Week decide they don't want to be held back by being "good" anymore, things finally start to get interesting. Watching the leading trio negotiate what it means to let go of the kind of life they thought they would have, for both better and worse, drives our investment in them as viewers. By the midpoint of GGR, I found myself actively cheering, and aching, for these women, not to mention other characters around whom other narratives —softer, more devastating ones — develop.

A secretary who has four children starts drinking a toxic mixture when she becomes pregnant and knows she can't afford another kid; the women around her rally, pooling their meager dollars to help her obtain an illegal abortion. (Roe v. Wade, as a reminder, wasn't passed until 1973.) A Vietnam vet struggling to find work is losing his grip on life; a woman whose husband is away at war is on the brink of losing her apartment because she cannot resign the lease paperwork for herself. It is these sorts of stories, maybe even more so than the ones that GGR puts front and center, that really make you realize what was at stake for women, for young people, for veterans, for Black people, for minorities at the time. These detours (alongside the sexy side plots, and the mounting legal case against a magazine that won't let women write) is where GGR really finds traction. Even having finished the first season, the moments that stick out to me are the small injustices, the little awakenings.

One in particular surrounds a key character defying her father's wishes, pouring her heart out to him about her dreams and who she wants to be. She has to decide if being his good girl is worth giving up her sense of self-worth. The moments between her confession and her father's response are some of the best in the series. Suddenly, you become keenly aware of what's hanging in the balance — of what women give up when they decide they no longer care about being seen as "good." I will never forget the first time I chose to disappoint my dad in a way I knew I couldn't make up for. Watching GGR, that memory surfaced. It's still not an easy one to turn over in my mind.

But it's also not something I would take back, because it brought me to my life. Eventually, being a good girl mattered less than being an independent woman. In the end, that mattered more than anything. Good Girls Revolt is a reminder of that, too.
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