What Do You Want?: Locating Female Desire in Good Girls

Good Girls | NBC

“If the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment…Now, to be maternally with small children all day in the old way, to be with a man in the old way of marriage, requires a holding-back, a putting-aside of that imaginative activity…[To] be a female human being trying to fulfill traditional female functions in a traditional way is in direct conflict with the subversive function of the imagination.”

Adrienne Rich, When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision

From Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, woman’s quest to locate her own desire—to separate what she really wants from what she’s been indoctrinated to want—is the conflict at the center of countless women’s stories. One of my favorite things about Motherhood is how filled it is with unanswered questions and how uncertain its female speaker is of what she wants. The entire book is structured around the act of asking questions, with Heti trying to divine the answers by flipping coins. Stories like Motherhood are propelled by an uncertain inner conflict, the authors using the text itself to wrestle with questions of what it is they themselves desire. While they have rarely found an answer by the end, they are a step closer to it. Maybe they’ve realized what they don’t want. At the very least, in simply opening that door, they have grown. Identifying true desires can be a lengthy and arduous process, a perpetual quest to “kill the false woman who is preventing the live one from breathing.” It’s a web that can’t be untangled in a day.

This “false woman” is very often a traditional, normative woman. In the case of NBC’s Good Girls, another entry in the tradition of locating female desire, the false woman is the “good girl”—domesticated, maternal, innocent. “Of course,” Heti writes, “a woman will always be made to feel like a criminal, whatever choice she makes, however hard she tries. Mothers feel like criminals. Non-mothers do, too.” The show’s initial premise plays on this idea, revolving around three mothers in dire financial straits—Beth (Christina Hendricks), Annie (Mae Whitman) and Ruby (Retta)—who rob a grocery store that turns out to have ties to a gang. But as the women try to dig themselves out of their debt to gang leader Rio (Manny Montana), what was meant to be a one-time robbery turns into a life of crime.

The series is driven by feminist storytelling, from its nuanced representations of sexual assault to its increasingly critical stance on police to its empathetic portrayal of transgender characters, but I would like to focus here on the story of housewife-turned-criminal Beth.

When we meet Beth, she is living Adrienne Rich’s description of “fatigue, that female fatigue of suppressed anger and the loss of contact with her own being…the discontinuity of female life with its attention to small chores, errands, work that others constantly undo, [and] small children’s constant needs.” The series opens with a scene of children swarming around Beth as she tries to get them ready for school: “Hey, go brush your teeth. Wipe her face. Did you find your homework? And you, my little friend, you need pants.” She is in the traditional wife/mother role, devoting all her energy to caring for others, and everything is drearily, boringly safe.

Good Girls | NBC

In Fear of Flying, Jong laments the version of womanhood that she feels trapped within, describing something that sounds a lot like Beth’s life: “If [being a woman] meant seething resentment and giving lectures on the joys of childbearing, then I didn’t want it…And what were the alternatives? Why didn’t someone show me some alternatives?” For Beth, an alternative presents itself in the form of Rio, who is like if you took all the sexy danger of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and turned it into a man. There are lots of hot criminals on TV, but the way that Rio is placed in the show as an attractive character goes deeper. Sure, he just fits the stereotypical mold of the hot “bad boy” (neck tattoos, his voice, wears a lot of black), but that’s not all. Of the three women, Beth interacts the most with Rio—and this man, who initially represents a threat, begins to take on a highly erotic presence in her life. He is made into a psychosexual symbolic object specifically for Beth, sticking in her brain—not just being sexy visually, but having a specific relation to her sexuality. Even when the other mothers are around, Beth holds Rio’s gaze as if he’s the only person in the room. When an FBI agent asks how she knows Rio, she says they had a one-night stand, which she describes in such vivid detail it seems more like a fantasy than an alibi. It starts to feel like she wants to see him, like she is excited to see him, like the fear and danger turns her on a little bit. 

For Beth, what is hot about Rio is that he represents the alternative—the anti-domestic. Her life as a mother is exhausting and unfulfilling. Her car salesman husband Dean (Matthew Lillard) is cheating on her, and she spends her days in the house performing thankless emotional and domestic labor. It is a sexual awakening for Beth when she realizes she can play other roles, that she can leave the empty comfort zone of housewife domesticity and come alive in the unknown, the alternative, the feared spaces of risk.

Risk. Danger. Flying in spite of fear. This is what brings Rio and Beth’s dynamic such an erotic charge—it’s not just that Rio is hot, it’s Beth’s specific experience of him, and what he represents to her. He mocks her domestic life constantly; in one episode, Beth attempts to reform by spending her time with the traditional, law-abiding mothers, baking and gossiping and going to book club, only for Rio to show up and ask her: “They suck your soul out yet or what?” Of course, Rio works with Annie and Ruby, too—but he never shows up at their houses or challenges them about their lives. He only haunts Beth; his presence a constant reminder that there is another life to be had. He starts to feel more like a symbol, or an unreal presence, than a person—like a siren, appearing to Beth wherever she goes, calling her to a place she both fears and desires. 

This symbolism seems to culminate in Good Girls’ first season finale, after the mothers attempt to orchestrate Rio’s arrest and rid him from their lives. In the episode’s final scene, Beth comes home late at night and hears a voice in the other room: “Hey, honey. I’m home.” Then, the shocking reveal: it’s Rio at the dining room table, a little bloodied (hot), very much not under arrest, and mocking her domesticity as usual. Beside Rio sits Dean, tied to a chair and badly beaten. Rio hands Beth a gun and tells her she’ll have to kill someone, but doesn’t specify who. In doing so, he places both lives in front of her—her husband’s and his, domestic and criminal, traditional and alternative—and gives her the power to pick one. The violence and finality with which the choice must be made makes it clear that one life must be sacrificed for the other to be lived. Rio is offering Beth not the death of her husband, but the death of her being a wife. She could easily kill Rio, but she doesn’t look like she wants to. She looks afraid, yes, but as we stay on her, it is completely unclear what she is about to do. And then we cut to black. 

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Throughout the following season, Beth is repeatedly asked “What do you want?” We never hear an answer to it—except when she lies (saying “I want to be normal” only to shoplift a lip balm a few days later)—because the truth is that she is still finding the answer. She is rediscovering the “longings which marriage stifled.” To be able to answer such a question, one has to be in touch with their own desires. For women, who are systematically estranged from our own desires—for everything from food and sex to love and freedom—it’s a difficult and complicated question. It is, therefore, one that all women should ask ourselves again and again until we can finally form an answer to it. 

Does Beth want Rio? For all the frisson between them in season one, nothing came of it—so you can bet that the escalation of their relationship in the second season was vindicating. Not only is Beth’s sexual attraction to Rio made explicit, it’s explicitly linked to what we might call the erotic anti-domestic—sexuality in direct opposition to domesticity. When she finally initiates sex with Rio, it is a direct response to Dean telling her she should stay at home and take care of the kids instead of working with him. Dean’s suggestion feels like a threat to Beth’s liberty, an attempt to contain her. And it drives her straight to Rio.

Rio continues to symbolize the erotic anti-domestic as the series progresses. One night, Beth meets Dean at the car dealership only for Rio to show up and smash the windows of Dean’s favorite Corvette. The next morning, Beth masturbates to the thought of Rio smashing lamps and mirrors in her bedroom—she’s literally turned on by the thought of him destroying her domestic space. What’s more, the scene is shot as if he is really in the room—thereby reinforcing Rio’s position as a sexual spectre in Beth’s life.

Good Girls | NBC

Beth clearly gets a rush out of crime and deviance in a way the other two women don’t. After the FBI raids the dealership—an experience which Ruby and Annie agree must have been terrifying—Beth says, sounding like she’s even surprising herself: “It was fun.” From petty theft to large-scale counterfeit schemes, Beth is no longer trying to escape her life of crime; rather, she’s looking for excuses to stay in it. It’s somewhere between the thrill of transgression and full-on hybristophilia. If crime itself makes Beth feel alive, then Rio only strengthens this feeling.

But they are criminals, and in the tradition of 1950’s Gun Crazy and 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, their relationship has all the perverse thrills of any good amour fou. When Beth tries to leave her life of crime, Rio begins mailing her chopped-up pieces of a body. Yes, it’s blackmail to keep her working for him, but Beth’s reaction carries ambiguous and disturbing romantic connotations: “He wants me back.” When she ignores the packages, chucking the dismembered fingers and ears in the garbage disposal, she talks about Rio like a needy ex: “He needs to get over it.” As the packages keep coming, each discolored and rotting body part feels like an act of courtship-by-corpse, a woozy wooing. She’s right: he does want her back.

In spite of Rio’s serious flaws—he sometimes calls women bitches, he’s committed violent crimes, and, to reiterate, mails corpse fingers—he still manages to offer her things Dean cannot. He’s attentive, at least. He takes her seriously. Where Dean is threatened by the very idea of his competent wife working at the dealership, Rio perpetually trusts Beth with high-stakes tasks and responsibilities, telling her “I think you could be something” and even suggesting that she could take over his job. The little details feel perversely romantic, too—he, and only he, calls her Elizabeth (or sometimes darlin’); he trusts her with access to his storage facility of valuables (“the keys to the kingdom”); he gets her child’s blanket back from a crack house (where she accidentally left it).

Yet Dean struggles to fathom Beth’s interest in Rio, perpetually bewildered by her inability to break away from him (surely he’s being facetious—Dean knows full well that Rio’s a babe). As the second season progresses, Beth’s desires become more clear, with her explicitly choosing a life of crime over domesticity, and agreeing to a divorce from Dean. At the end of his rope, Dean asks her: “Does he, like, listen to you more? Or encourage you in ways that I don’t?” In one of the greatest moments in the show, Beth responds, without malice, shame, or hesitation: “I just really like having sex with him.” This is the truth, which Beth is finally allowing herself to follow: simple, primal, and driven by desire.

Of course, as the second season finale suggests, Rio is not the end for Beth. A man can never be the end. The end is herself. But Rio is a necessary step in the process—he triggers an awakening, a vital change in Beth from which she can never return. In coming to symbolize her desires, he makes them visible, tangible, unignorable. It is much easier to deny the internal presence of an impulse than the physical presence of a person. The spectre of Rio is ever appearing in Beth’s field of vision, showing her some alternatives, reminding her that she is alive, reminding her that she wants.