I’m a huge fan of OITNB. (Get the memoir that inspired the Netflix hit by Piper Kerman here.)
Not since the Post World War II Era have on-screen bad girls so captured the hearts, minds and measurable viewings of the American psyche.
Kerman’s book and the series eloquently created by Jenji Kohan and her amazing cast is one of the most honest representations of women and women’s relationships in media history. It has humanized inmates and transformed our notion of “bad girls.” More important, it has blown apart the old dichotomy of good girl or bad girl, the dualism of good and evil women.
Western culture has been fascinated, even dominated by, images of bad girls vs good girls since the dawn of time. Consider Eve, Medea, Grimms' wicked Queens and stepmothers, Bette Davis vs the Madonna, Snow White, Donna Reed.
The archetypes have proscribed the acceptable behaviors for women and the transgressions for which they lost their men, their reputations, their fortunes, their children, and often their lives, for thousands of years up until…well, current times.
Fifties bad girls of film noir were played by a flock of sultry women, including Cleo Moore (cf One Girl’s Confession jacket blurb: “Mary Adams is a bad girl because she’s just too sexy to be good. She decides to even the score even if it means doing time”) and Women’s Prison, with Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, and noir favorite Audrey Totter.Gloria Grahame was another hot bad girl in Human Desire, The Big Heat, and The Glass Wall.
Perhaps the most prominent bad girl of the late 1940s and early 1950s was Paramount’s Lizabeth Scott. According to Eddie Muller ("The Czar of Noir"), Scott appeared in more noir films than any other Hollywood actress: more than twenty by his count, including The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Desert Fury, I Walk Alone, Pitfall, Two of a Kind, and Bad for Each Other. Scott was often compared with Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake, and her dark blonde hair, husky voice, and smoky sensuality made her perfect for the noir femme fatale. Scott played opposite some of Hollywood’s most popular leading men, among them Van Heflin, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Charlton Heston.
In the 1947 thriller Dead Reckoning, with Humphrey Bogart, Scott’s billing was equal to his. Scott’s bad girl image on screen made her career, but her outing as a bad girl off screen ended it.
In 1954, Confidential magazine called Scott one of "Hollywood's…baritone babes" a euphemism for lesbian. Confidential also said Scott’s name was found on a list of clients of a prominent Hollywood call girl. Scott sued, but the case was thrown out because Confidential, a New York corporation, couldn’t be sued in California. Scott never spoke about the accusation, the lawsuit, or her private life. Her career, however, tanked.
In the 1950s, bad girls on screen had to be good girls off-screen or lose everything—just like their characters.
In 2013 on-screen/off-screen Piper Kerman or Chapman, former drug mule, part-time lesbian, and ex-con, gets a book deal, a hit series and her man!
Makes me want to buy a pack of Virginia Slims to celebrate. Abortion rights, VA divorce laws, and Right-Wing notions of rape notwithstanding, looks like bad girls have come a measurable distance.
Check out performances by Lizabeth Scott, Gloria Grahme and Evelyn Keyes on Bad Girls of Film Noir, Vol. 1 and of Cleo Moore, Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, and Audrey Totter on Bad Girls of Film Noir, Vol. 2.
Guest blogger Linda Thornburg is a filmmaker, playwright and bad girl who thought she was just a good girl. Her play "Leap of Faith" tells the story of two women who lived in a bed.