In my school years, I saw how Indonesian soap operas successfully brainwashed girls including my classmates with the good girl vs bad girl narrative.
The good girl or the protagonist is usually portrayed as a princess who has to constantly defend herself against the “bad girls”. The bad girl will do everything in her power to sabotage the good girl.
In real life this happens around me too, girls putting other girls down for being themselves. When a girl tries to voice her opinion, for example, the other girls would attack her. Slut-shaming is a big thing. This builds a psychological glass ceiling that hampers women from unlocking their potential, as they live in constant fear of being judged.
I have been slut shamed since I was in elementary school and I still remember it vividly. In elementary school I was announced as the majorette of the school’s marching band, and since then, my days were never the same anymore. One day, a girl came to me and bluntly called me “cewek gatel” or a slut. The label spread like wildfire and stuck on me. Wherever I walked, every girl from my class would shout “cewek gatel!”
I tried to shrug it off, but it got worse each day. Soon, everyone in school started to know me as cewek gatel. It was a nightmare; they would glare at me like I was a parade dog, pointing at me and whispering to one another.
One day when I was walking pass the school gateway, I was stopped in my track by some girls who were staring at me, their arms crossed at their chest just like those bad girls in soap operas. I rushed home and wept. I told my parents that I was scared to go to school the next day and even persuaded them to transfer to another school.
I thought it would get better in junior high, but it did not. I was pretty active in school activities, becoming a member of the student government and taking part in the scholastic decathlon team. Once when I went to the girls’ restroom, I found my name written in big capital letters in the toilet stalls. The writing said “Aya ganjen” (Aya is a tramp). It's the same label all over again and however many times my friend covered the writing with a black permanent marker, another “Aya ganjen” would appear on the restroom walls the next day.
High school was the same. After landing a pretty good position in a school magazine team, I wrote a short story for a local newspaper. Upon its publication, a girl posted “Aya ganjen” on her Facebook wall.
I no longer get slut-shamed in my grown-up years, but I still live in constant fear of being judged for being good at something.
This doesn’t just happen to me, but also other girls that I admire because of their talent. They often admit that they are too scared to voice out their opinion or to ask for a promotion because they fear being labelled as a stuck-up bitch. Some of them end up being slut-shamed too.
The thing is, since we were children, we have been consuming pop culture products that feed us the good girl vs bad girl narrative – from Cinderella and the wicked stepmother and step sisters, Snow White and the evil queen, to the teen flicks and soap operas. What would happen if instead of these toxic narratives, we introduce a different one: that of girls who have each other’s back.
This will be so much better for us. It will create a safe space for girls, unlock their potential to succeed, and even help them break the glass ceiling.
My trauma still makes me feel uncomfortable sometimes around school girls and makes me fear having a child. But I try to overcome it by talking to young girls I know – my nieces, the little girl next door, girls in middle school during my volunteering work whom I had caught badmouthing another girl. I tell them to be nice to each other, to be supportive, and to not put each other’s down.
It's time we end the “good-girl curse” and allow girls to spread their wings.