Pop music has a “good girl” problem. In Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” he sings to his former girlfriend about how she “used to always stay at home, be a good girl.” He’s upset that his ex has “started wearing less and going out more.” The crux of it is that Drake is threatened by his ex-girlfriend’s newfound sense of self and sexuality. He’s jealous that she’s got new friends that aren’t him. And he’s using this notion of a “good girl” to slut-shame her for her new, unruly ways, because he doesn’t understand them. When all it really sounds like to me is that his ex felt mildly repressed while she was with him, she got dumped, started feeling mildly resentful, and did what many woman would do in the same situation which is put her freakum dress on and start having the time of her life, rebuilding her self-confidence as her most fabulous self. Tahirah Hairston writes in Fusion that instead of admitting his own emotional distress at the situation, Drake “opts for condescendingly slut-shaming her, and dictating where she does and doesn’t belong. The song comes off so petty that you forget his feelings are hurt (or maybe you’re more aware).” The good girl is, essentially, a trope that’s used in an attempt to reign in a disruptive woman, or one that’s threatening to the patriarchal version of what is and is not acceptable lady behavior. It’s mansplaining feminine social etiquette. And it’s infantilizing in its insistence in referring to grown ass women as “girls.”
“Hotline Bling” isn’t the first time Drake has explicitly mentioned the good girl in his music. On “Hold On, We’re Going Home” Drake sings, “‘Cause you’re a good girl and you know it / You act so different around me,” as a means of both identifying and saving the woman in question. In Beyoncé’s “Mine” he raps “Know you wanna roll with a good girl? / Do it big to it all for a good girl / One time, this is a song for the good girl,” suggesting that the only kind of woman worth going all out in order to claim is a “good” one. As Hairston points out, “his concept of love is closely related to ownership.”
But like Gillian Flynn’s “cool girl” in Gone Girl, the good girl is simply is a version of femininity that doesn’t exist. It’s something guys like Drake use to belittle women when they feel emasculated by their sexuality or rejected. It’s a one dimensional concept, as curated as Beyoncé herself, that’s designed by men to project upon threatening, otherwise unruly, multidimensional women. The notion of “good,” in Drake’s lexicon, asks for a muted sexuality, and an adherence to anachronistic ideas of feminine propriety that we’re still struggling to overcome.
Beyoncé, at surface value, might seem like the quintessential “good girl” as she exists in pop music. She fits the bill: She’s sexy without being sexual. She’s a mother who is blindly loyal to her man, devout in her beliefs, and consistently impeccable in her public image. But as I said, that’s all superficial. Beyoncé works very hard to be the most unimpeachable version of Beyoncé she can be, but much like the “good girl,” that’s an illusion. Beyoncé, to Drake, might seem like the fantastic “good girl,” but a good girl doesn’t have agency over how we perceive her, whereas Beyoncé is completely in control, unfettered by the persona dictated to her by anyone, let alone a man, or Drake. Hence the incorporeal state of the good girl.
The good girl is fetishized in pop music, which seems unable or at least unwilling to divorce itself from the virgin vs. whore dichotomy. In Drake’s case, she’s used to bolster his own worth by employing the use of shame on any behavior that falls outside his realm of approval. And even though Drake’s lyrics come off as misogynist, they dance around the vulgarity with which that shame is used by other artists. On “Bound 2” Kanye West raps “One good girl is worth a thousand bitches” and on “Runaway,” “See, I could have me a good girl / And still be addicted to them hoodrats.” It could be argued that Kanye’s use of the good girl trope is self-aware and therefore less toxic as it’s used to self-deprecate, while Drake’s is self-denying and therefore more dangerous, luring audiences into a false sense of security with his “nice guy” intentions. Regardless, both artists usurp female autonomy in order to either critique their masculinity (in Kanye’s case) or bolster that masculinity by way of reducing the feminine subject (in Drake’s case). In both scenarios, the good girl is a tool for the men to reckon with their own demons, bending to their unique demands rather than asserting her own.
The good girl betrays the inner Don Draper that’s come to define a generation of self-denying misogynists. She’s an intellectual figment that’s conjured up when an emasculated man feels like he must make a cursory display of power. However, physically and emotionally, these same men are uncontrollably attracted to dynamic, powerful, unpredictable women. In Drake’s case, he’s shown outward sexual attraction to Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, both of whom (at least in the “message” of their public personas), are bold, sexual, delightfully unruly women who all relish in upsetting the status quo weaponizing highly visible bodies against patriarchy. Which makes the instance on the existence of the “good girl” seem slightly pathetic, the action of a child who's been told it can’t have pizza, must have broccoli instead, tasted the broccoli, loved it, but out of spite and feeble protest won’t eat it, and so goes to bed hungry.
There’s another kind of good girl that comes up in song too: She’s the one that men want to corrupt. There’s something about perverting the good girl that appeals to masculinity, and that goes back to that same idea of control. Women are there to fit the whims of men, to fulfill their fantasies, despite whatever moral code or ethical value she held that initially attracted him to her. A woman, according to the good girl doctrine, should be whatever a man tells her to be, which is completely contradictory to the notion of “good girl” in the first place. But “Hotline Bling” isn’t the only song in which this contradiction exists. In “Blurred Lines,” the rape anthem of the century, the lyric “You’re a good girl” is followed by “I know you want it,” suggesting that through sexual violation, the man can strip the woman of her good girl title. You know, the one he bestowed upon her in the first place. Likewise, in “Part II (On The Run)” Jay-Z raps “I been wilding since a juvi / She was a good girl 'til she knew me / Now she is in the drop bustin' Uey's, screaming,” while in Cobra Starship’s 2009 summer banger “Good Girls Go Bad” the band sings, “I know your type/ Yeah daddy's little girl / Just take a bite (one bite) / Let me shake up your world.” Rihanna laments this in “Good Girl Gone Bad,” singing, “'Cause once a good girl goes bad / We die forever” (written, by the way, by a 3/4 male team). The most important aspect of the good girl is that she exists only in so far as the men in her life allow her to.
There’s little in pop music to subvert the good girl, as the alternative is usually presented as mutually exclusive. But in Taylor Swift’s “Sad Beautiful Tragic” (which she has sole writing credit for), she regretfully mocks the folly of trying to be the good girl, singing, “Good girls, hopeful they'll be and long they will wait.” Swift tacitly acknowledges that in attempting to be this illusory “good girl,” she must first and foremost live to impress a man and meet his expectations, therefore making her vulnerable to his abuses. It’s a brief glimpse at the woman seduced by the male defined “good girl,” turning her own gaze upon herself.
It’s hard to be a woman at the mercy of male driven lyricism. You’re good or you’re bad. Chaste or slutty. And while the “good girl” isn’t the subject of violence in pop music, her reference is just as insipid as the abuse of “bitches and hoes” and other lovely turns of phrase for describing unwanted women. “Good girl” is the backhanded compliment of mansplaining womanhood. It’s something nice, something to aspire to. Everyone want to be “good” to some extent, and so it rationally follows that we’d be attracted to this ideal. But to be a “good girl” is different to being a “good person.” The good girl is quiet and submissive, she doesn’t stay out too late and she only has sex when she’s in love. She doesn’t challenge antiquated machismo and she certainly doesn’t complain. And if you’re her, Drake will devote himself to you. But what about the mean girls or the moody girls? The sexy girls and the funny girls? The smart girls and the loud girls? What about the girls that are all those things rolled into one weird, wonderful, vibrant package? Where are the songs for the everything girls, the regular girls? As long as we keep holding onto notions of good girls and bad girls we continue to promote a culture of competitive division amongst women and, moreover, foster a culture of shame. Is it too much to ask for artists like Drake to simply accept women as they are, without forcing fictional, one-dimensional narratives onto us?
Kat George is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.