“Playing good girls in the ‘30s was difficult, when the fad was to play bad girls. Actually I think playing bad girls is a bore; I have always had more luck with good girl roles because they require more from an actress.”
Olivia De Havilland via BrainyQuote.com
Olivia De Haviland as Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind
With thanks to RidersofSkaith for putting me on to this quote through her post on the loss of Olivia De Haviland in July of 2020 at the venerable age of 104. Famous for her role in Gone with the Wind* where she played Melanie Hamilton, she also starred alongside Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood* as Maid Marian (one of my favorites among her roles). While most actresses of the time wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, De Haviland was determined to play Melanie. No one else was vying for the part. Why?
I think the quote at the start of this post rather sums up the point, but let us investigate it a bit more. Most people today, as they did in the 1930s, consider “good girls” or “nice girls” one-dimensional fluff in romances or stories with underlying “boy meets girl” and “will he get the girl?” type plots. This is the kind of “good girl” which Ms. De Haviland did not like playing – via Brainy Quote: “What bothered me was playing one-dimensional parts in films which were really about, ‘Boy Meets Girl,’ ‘Will Boy Get Girl?’”
The Girl Next Door, the Nice Girl, the Good Girl, and the Heart/Chick all tend to be shoved into the bland “boy meets girl, will he get her?” mold by inexperienced or careless authors. Simplistic depictions of these models typically glaze over the personality and deeper parts of characters who fit in these categories, leading audiences and writers alike to treat them as “boring” and, therefore, contemptible. Not only does this hobble authors creatively, it leaves people who identify to some degree with these archetypes or who desire to imitate them (writer waves from behind her computer screen) feeling rather put out.
This brings us to the first stumbling block in writers’ and audiences’ understanding of The Nice Girl. Everyone “knows” that the Nice Girl is weak, a pushover, a yes-woman. She would let someone get away with murder because she is too nice to stand up and tell the other party, “This is wrong, and I won’t let you think you’re a good person just because you use all sorts of pretty excuses to paper over your selfish, egotistical desires!”
“Nice” in the context of a “Nice Girl” archetype does not mean she is a pushover. To be “nice” in the sense most people understand it is not to be good in actuality. But that type of “nice” is not the kind actually practiced by the Nice Girl archetype. She is neither a doormat nor a dupe; she is referred to as a “Nice Girl” because her first instinct is the very feminine desire to reach out and help others.
John C. Wright describes this feminine instinct in his review of BELLE*, the anime film that transposes the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast into cyberspace: “In a man’s drama the plot is not resolved until the problem is solved, and the prone foe is bleeding or dead at the hero’s feet. In a girl’s drama the plot is resolved once an internal change, a spiritual change, takes place in herself or, inspired by her, in those around her. Such a change takes place when the heroine is firmly committed to aid or sustain a cause or a friend or a lover, or, in a tragedy, when such a commitment is betrayed or lost.
“Such is the nature of feminine decision-making. Feminine decision-making is personality-oriented. It is like deciding to get married: which is not an action that has an end and a result, but a life devoted to another. Masculine decision-making is task-oriented, like deciding to rescue the girl, kill any rivals, and carry her off as a prize. You win; the other guy loses.
“In sum, a feminine drama is over when she decides to take a vow, because this changes her internally. Feminine work tends to be cyclic and ongoing, so it has no end-date. A masculine drama is over when he succeeds or fails to fulfill the vow, because he either meets the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. Masculine work tends to be like a wager of battle, with a definite end-goal.”
Your Nice Girl, Girl Next Door, Heart/Chick, and Good Girl is so-called because her first instinct is to reach out and heal the male protagonist. To offer him something that consistently and constantly helps him deal with the fallout from the tasks he completes in ways that hurt him, or to be there to help him pick himself up when he falls or feels he has failed. She is the hero’s (and/or heroes’) anchor, their spiritual reason for fighting, bleeding, and dying to build a better world. At the same time, she is also their medic, mother, sister, and if she has a love interest among the main cast, then she is the particular prize he is striving for (even if she and he are rather oblivious to this fact).
In superhero stories, this is a must, particularly if the series is a long-running one that spans years or even decades. Even shorter epics in the superhero genre require at least one Paladin, White Knight, or Good-but-Broken hero to have a Good or Nice Girl to keep him straight. Redeeming a Bad Girl so that she becomes a Good Girl (and, thereby, feminine enough to be worthy of the hero’s lifelong devotion) is a subplot for this very reason. A knight without a Good Girl to steer him straight looks less like Gareth and more like Lancelot – and we all know how well the best knight of Camelot fared, in the end.
Being a Nice Girl does not mean said heroine is a milksop who will simper and bow to anyone who makes a case for their evil acts with fair words. Mary Jane Watson of Marvel Comics, in her earlier iterations, is anything but a soft-touch in moral matters. While she started out as a popular party girl, she developed out of that stage into a firm supporter of the moral order. She still is the love interest for Spidey who is most apt to give the villain a sharp tongue-lashing if captured or faced with his evil designs.
She is not above turning her ire on Parker, either. When he missed a date or lied to her in the 1990s series*, she was quick to call him out, usually storming away from him in a temper for his seeming disrespect for her. She demands that he meet her standards and adhere to gentlemanly conduct or leave her be, which is a part of the Good Girl trope: the Good Girl knows her worth, to herself and to mankind as a whole, so she doesn’t flaunt herself or play around. She is comfortable in her own skin, her femininity, and the more traditional roles her sex has filled throughout the centuries. In short, she is a woman who knows she is a woman, is content to be so, and actively seeks a mate with whom she can bond and be happy for the rest of her life.
None of this means the Nice Girl cannot fight. It simply means she typically chooses not to do so, unless and until she and/or her family are threatened in some manner. As Kipling pointed out in his poem “The Female of the Species,” women have to be deadlier than the male to protect their offspring – and, if it all goes to hell, their mate. The lion, if he isn’t feeling up to it, will walk away from the hunter who stands still. His lioness, however, will charge the man with the spear because she sees a threat to her mate, and to the female mind such threats cannot be tolerated.
Princess Buttercup, from The Princess Bride*, is another good depiction of the Good Girl trope. She has fire and spirit while remaining a passive participant in the film; the boys do all the fighting, dying, and bleeding to capture or rescue her. Likewise, Isabeu from Ladyhawke* largely eschews combat within the narrative of the film. Even in her hawk form, she rarely attacks Navarre’s opponents on his behalf, flying over the battlefield rather than partaking in the combat.
The most aggressive thing she did in the movie is take a knife to kill the wolf hunter she thinks has slain her husband. More than likely she planned to use said weapon on herself afterward, but Navarre’s appearance in his wolf form prevented this at the same time it saved her from the clutches of the man she had come to kill. It is notable that the most memorable thing about this scene is the rank stupidity the woman in question demonstrates, as the hunter is not only larger and stronger than Isabeu, he has very few scruples. If she failed to kill him, he would have delivered her to the bishop she hated and did her best to flee – possibly after violating her to please himself, first.
Many, many Disney princesses and heroines also fit the Good Girl trope. Since they are fairy tale princesses and therefore do not need much characterization, being the embodiment of the trope rather than people who fit it, audiences tend to consider them milquetoast examples rather than interesting characters. Rapunzel from Tangled* is one of the few to stand out due to her active participation in the film’s plot and her open defiance of Mother Gothel, none of which destroy her Nice Girl characteristics or weakens them. Her first instincts are always to heal, help, and save, entirely feminine desires in keeping not only with her character but her archetype as well.
Hayao Miyazaki’s titular heroine, Nausicaa, Of the Valley of the Wind*, fits in this vein as well. The entire theme of the film is the restoration of balance to nature and the healing of the world, something Princess Nausicaa is eminently suited for due to her empathy for all living things and especially people. She demonstrates nigh superhuman fighting skill only when enraged, and that rage always comes when a life has been senselessly destroyed.
We see this first when her father, an old and infirm man, is murdered in his bed. Nausicaa goes ballistic, killing the men who murdered her father in a display of fanatical fury. This is supported by her inhumanly quiet scream of “How could you?!” Her voice doesn’t rise and become jagged (in the English dub) but reaches near-ghostly levels of breathlessness. She only screams in blind battle rage when more soldiers enter her father’s chamber; her feminine love having been trampled on already, she is in no mood to have further interference from the interlopers who have violated her home and slain her family.
She manages to keep her head somewhat better later on, when she learns how one kingdom uses insects from the Toxic Jungle spreading across the Earth in an utterly inhumane manner to destroy their enemies, killing their own citizens in the process. She is horrified and becomes distraught when it is revealed these people plan to do the same thing to her kingdom, which is currently occupied by their enemies. Nausicaa maintains her composure enough to ferociously call out the man saying he is “trying to save the earth” with the very pointed statement: “For the good of the planet?! You’re killing my people!”
Only when she learns that the process of luring the insects to a place cannot be stopped once set in motion does Nausicaa immediately attempt to fly off to warn them. Held down by several men, she nevertheless makes their task difficult with her continuous struggles, screaming at them to let her go the whole time. The surprise at the end isn’t that she nearly sacrifices her life to save the people of her beloved Valley of the Wind, but that she survives doing it.
Throughout the film, there is never a question of Nausicaa’s femininity or “niceness.” In contrast to the other princess in the narrative, she is on a first name basis with most if not all of her subjects, plays with and loves the younger children who swarm around her like songbirds, and is a favorite of animals everywhere she goes. She is also utterly horrified to discover she has the capacity for a berserker rage that will lead her to kill blindly, with no regard for her own safety and no recognition that those she is killing are people.
An Action Girl, Bad Girl, or one who had lost touch with her inherent femininity would not have this reaction. But a Nice or Good Girl would, as her psyche often leans away from combat as a lifestyle, reserving it for extreme situations where survival depends on fighting desperately. Despite having no love interest, it is not at all hard to see why so many people are attracted to Nausicaa, with hints given that the prince in the narrative may yet harbor feelings for her that go beyond mere friendship. (Whether or not she reciprocates is up to the viewer, as it is not pertinent to the story the film is telling.)
This is one of the differences between Good Girls who effect the plot passively and those who take a more active role in the fight. Vladilena “Lena” Milize in 86 – Eighty-Six* is, in effect, a Girl Next Door in a Boy Meets Girl, Will Boy Get Girl storyline. The story just happens to include insectoid mecha and the potential extinction of the human race. A prodigy of sorts, Lena is noted by her father as being able to learn by observation as much as through reading and school programs, which is why he tells her what is being done to the titular 86. On learning of her people’s cruelty, she resolves to find a way to help them and end the genocide her people are committing.
Her early attempts to do this don’t amount to much, and at this time she is “nice” without actually being effective in a meaningful manner, justifying the criticisms she receives from her future friends and comrades at the same time she exhibits the simplistic reading most have of the Good Girl model and Girl Next Door sub-archetype. This criticism, however, helps her to grow and become more proactive, making her a Nice Girl who actually effects the plot even though she does not actively fight. Lena is able to make this change in part because she maintains her belief in the ideals which her country has abandoned, keeping her hope for a better future alive despite enormous odds.
It is this decision of Lena’s to “hold fast to that which is good” that earns her the continuous efforts of her despairing peers to stamp out her hope. Trapped in a situation of their own making, seeing the debauchery into which their nation has fallen, they adhere to the motto above the gate to Hell in Dante’s Inferno*: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Those in Hell have no happiness and are forever miserable; the lives they live while still breathing on this earth do not change that fact at all. You can have foretastes of Hell as much as Heaven in this life, and the desire to stamp out hope for things not yet seen is a mark of those already living in eternal darkness.
Lena is completely alone in facing the apocalyptic situation before her with hope. No matter how faint it may be, she clings to the slim promise that the present war and terror can be ended. That humanity can survive and strive to reach the ideals on which her country was ostensibly founded, but quickly forgot in an effort to avoid getting their hands dirty. In essence, she echoes Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings* films when he said there was good in the world “and it’s worth fighting for!”
Although the world itself is not mankind’s ultimate destiny, he has been given dominion over it. That is something we tend to forget these days by either worshiping the earth itself or discarding it as necessary to our ultimate end. Pilgrims we are, yet we are pilgrims who were given a command to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” It is a command we instinctively follow even today.
Good Girls, Girls Next Door, Hearts, Chicks, and Nice Girl archetypes are reminders of all this. They look beyond the present to the future, for they are the means by which the future is born. As Doctor Who said in this film here*, “How does life travel? The Mother Ship!” Good Girls always have at least a glimmer of an idea that their passage through this world can never be completely effective – physically or spiritually – unless they find a mate and propagate the species, or at least make sure the culture into which they were born survives.
Perhaps that is, at its root, the problem so many people have writing Good Girls. It is certainly the issue many take with fairy tale princesses, unfortunately, and that is sad. The Good Girl archetype deserves better than it has received of late.
Let us see what we can do to bring Good Girls back to public consciousness, shall we?
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If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!
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11 thoughts on “Nice Girls – Are They More or Less Difficult to Write than Bad Girls?”
Huh. You just casually codified another archetype. Awesome post!
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Thanks! I’m so glad you liked it! 😀
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Well, some people when writing characters forget that Good isn’t always Nice which applies to male characters as well as female characters.
Of course, there are idiots who write “Good Characters” as “Stupid Characters”.
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Just thought of another example to prove your point: Yor Forger from SpyxFamily. Yor is the nicest person you can imagine. Perfectly gentle, submissive, feminine, cares deeply for her family and country and will do ANYTHING necessary to protect them. Also, an inhumanly strong ultradangerous assassin who will, as mentioned, do ANYTHING necessary to protect her country/carry out her mission. Nice =/= harmless. Nice =/= uninteresting.
(Have you seen SpyxFamily? AND WHY NOT?? 😉 )
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I haven’t had a chance to see it yet. It is on my list, and I will be watching it soon. 😉 Thanks for the recommend – and yes, from everything I have heard, Yor definitely fits the trope! 😀
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excuses, excuses…. 😛
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I do my humble best.
Helps to do fairy tales
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Come to think of it, the story in which I tackle this most directly is The Princess Goes Into the Forest.
(Which is, I confess, an odd portal fantasy.)
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Ohhh I just thought of another, and she’s directly contrasted with a Bad Girl, too: June Mills/Stanton from the film noir Fallen Angel. June falls in love with the antihero and reforms him through sheer force of love and will. The bad girl, Stella, is more desirable/sexy, but a lot less constant i.e., resolute–which ends up costing her.
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Another classic example: Donna Read in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. Classic good girl, and a classically strong character.
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