Since there have been movies, there have been bad girls. When Greta Garbo first spoke in a movie (Anna Christie, 1930) her first line was “Gimme a whiskey, and don’t be stingy, baby.” But girls are really going wild this movie season. Spring Breakers has bikini-clad college students (played by former Disney stars) shooting up fast food joints. Violet and Daisy’s protagonists are teen assassins who kill for cash to buy clothes. Maybe those sound like easy satire, but Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring is based on a true story about a group of celebrity-obsessed teens who break into the houses of stars (Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom) to steal their stuff.
“Little girls are a symbol of innocence,” says Nancy Jo Sales, author of the book The Bling Ring. “Women and girls are often used as a device to work out our own problems in our culture. Does it make us more comfortable with violence to watch little girls killing people? Maybe. Does it make us feel better about drone strikes to watch pretty blue-eyed Violet and Daisy killing big criminals? Maybe.”
“What’s interesting to look at is how bad girls mean different things throughout different eras,” she notes. When Sales was a child, the bad-girl icon was a 9-year-old Tatum O’Neal, grifting and smoking in Paper Moon. Forbidden from seeing the movie, Sales’ own first act of badness was to hop on her bike and sneak in. But you could chalk Tatum’s bad behavior up to a kid emulating her dad, where the nihilism of the new films stands out. “I need something to wear to the club tonight, let’s go steal from Paris Hilton. I want a dress. I’m going to kill for it.”