Summary: In this lesson students will investigate the stereotype of the “good girl” through an essay by Roxanne Gay and a music video by Carrie Underwood. They will explore how this idea of the “good girl” affects how we understand accounts of sexual assault and the struggles that many survivors face when proving the credibility of their accounts. Finally, students will explore how the definition of the “good girl” creates a catch-22 when it comes to women and ethos. CONTENT WARNING: For this lesson students will be asked to read an account of a rape. It is important to tell them ahead of time and make it clear that if they feel uncomfortable reading or discussing this content in class, they can do an alternative assignment.
- Students will practice analyzing the connotations of words offered in a given text using subtle tools of tone and irony
- Students will apply some of what they’ve learned about ethos, particularly persona
- Students will hone their skills of visual analysis by dissecting the symbols, colors and images in a music videos
- Students will explore issues of femininity and ethos, particularly when it comes to accounts of sexual assault
- Slides or handout with discussion questions
- Way for students to watch “Good Girl” music video by Carrie Underwood
- Students need printed or digital copies of “What We Hunger For” by Roxanne Gay which they can read and refer to
Outline for Class Activity
1. Small Group Discussion (5 min)
Divide students into groups of 3-4 to discuss “What We Hunger For” which they read before class.
- Roxanne Gay is known for her writing persona, the way her personality comes through on the page. How would you describe Gay’s persona here? What personality traits does she show in her writing that might be different from other writing you have read?
- What is the primary argument she is making here? What idea is she building towards (hint, it appears most clearly towards the end)?
- At multiple points in this essay Gay refers to herself as a “good girl”. What does it mean to be a “good girl” according to this essay? How does one define a “good girl”?
- When she calls herself a “good girl”, we get the sense that Gay is being slightly ironic, that her older self knows something her younger self did not. What is that something? Whose definition of “good ‘ is she using here?
- Why do you think Gay chooses to emphasize that she was a “good girl”? How does this change the way people might react to her story? How would the story change if she was not a “good girl”? In your opinion, does it make the story more powerful that she emphasizes how “good” she was? Why or why not?
2. Large Group Discussion (15-20 min)
- Gay’s persona is funny, informal, self effacing and self depreciating. It is interesting to consider why she adopts this particular persona to tell a story about the time she was raped. It’s almost as if her persona is trying to not take up too much space her, trying to make herself appropriately likable by obeying some of the expectations we have of women and girls before telling us about the rape.
- Gay is arguing that young adult literature can and should contain difficult questions, cruelty and hardship because teenagers are already facing those things. To sanitize young adult literature would effectively gaslight and isolate many teens who struggle with mental illness, abuse, etc.
- The article defines “good girl” as someone who is polite, gets good grades, goes to church and generally does what she is told. Implied in this article too is the connotation that a “good girl” is one who has no awareness of sex, is naive to the very possibility of sex. You might also discuss here what students associate with “good girl” vs. “good guy” vs. “good person.”
- We get the sense that she is using society’s definition in a way that is tongue-in-cheek. In fact, she seems to be using the definition of the adults around her who believe that she is doing fine so long as she maintains all the hallmarks of the “good girl” facade.
- There are lots of possibilities here. The first option is that Gay is trying to preempt any victim blaming by showing that she wasn’t “that girl”. She wasn’t “asking for it” by being promiscuous or “bad”. However, another way to interpret this is that she is critiquing society’s devotion to the “good girl” stereotype by saying that she followed all society’s rules and it still didn’t save her; if anything, its possible her “good girl” naiveté denied her a possible awareness that could have helped protect her.
3. “Good Girl” and Small Groups (10 min)
Have students watch the video for “Good Girl” by Carrie Underwood. Then give them a chance to discuss the following questions in their teams.
- What connotations does the phrase “good girl” have in this video? How does the video communicate those connotations (hint: pay attention to lyrics, colors, costumes, props, body language etc.)? How are these connotations similar and different to those in the Roxanne Gay essay?
- By contrast, what images, colors, and costume choices appear alongside the “bad girl” alter ego in this video? What connotations or character traits do these symbols communicate to the viewer?
- Imagine hearing this song separately from the video. How might the messages that it sends change when we hear the lyrics without the images?
- How do we feel about the way this music video bundles these traits into the “good” and “bad” girl personas? How do we feel about the fact that side of Underwood that knows the boyfriend is no good is the “bad girl”?
- Consider these messages in a wider context, be it in school, in business, in politics etc. How might these messages affect a woman or feminine person’s ability to gain credibility with the people around her?
4. Large Group Discussion
- Similarly to the Gay essay, this video portrays naïveté, modesty and nerdiness as key facets of the “good girl”. The “good girl” persona in the video dresses and moves in a way that seems younger. The glasses and costumes at certain points seem sort of stereotypically nerdy, and she is often shown with student accessories like books and a backpack. She is portrayed in white and pink alongside lots of roses and floral prints, further symbols of purity and femininity. The lyrics say that “like all good girl” she “dreams of a white wedding” associating “good girls” with innocence, purity and monogamy. This definition also puts the “girl” in “good girl” as the fashion here (flouncy tool, rhinestones, socks under her heels) are things we often associate with little girls.
- The “bad girl” alter ego in this video is more masculine in her fashion (she wears a blazer with very prominent shoulders) as well as sexy (tights with the seam up the back, bird cage veils, bright red nails, dark lipstick and makeup). When she appears, we see the roses of the “good girl” dipped in black ink, evoking ideas of taintedness and even death. She dances more sexually than the “good girl”, with close ups on her legs and butt, and more body rolls in her dance choreography. In this way she is inherently sexualized and objectified. Even the silver and black cane she uses as a prop is something we often associate with masculinity, old Hollywood villains, or more modern dance scenes that reference these two other associations that imply that a woman play acting masculinity, power or evil is sexy.
- The lyrics themselves don’t portray the narrator in any particular way except that she has knowledge and experience that the woman she’s speaking to does not have. Without the visuals, the lyrics are simply one woman giving advice to another (or maybe a woman giving advice to her younger self). The lyrics taken on their own still participate in the “good girl” stereotype, but they are almost tongue in cheek, and they do not limit women two options: good girl or bad girl.
- This video inherently creates a choice between two limiting options for women and feminine people. One can either be “good” and be naive and inexperienced. Or one can be “bad” and be sexualized, objectified and associated with impurity and death. It’s small wonder that some women trying to attain positions of power or authority have difficulty crafting persona’s that are at once “likable” and credible. It’s also interesting to consider have students consider the persona that Gay adopts in her essay in light of this binary.