Pop Culture's Rebel Women


By Maria Raha

Formats and Prices




$13.99 CAD




ebook $10.99 $13.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 20, 2008. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Who is the iconic rebel? Is it a character from the legacy of James Dean or Clint Eastwood, or maybe a Beat Generation writer? Is it a woman?

Modern pop culture and the media have distorted the notion of rebellion. Classic male rebels appear sexy, nomadic—naturally rebellious—while unorthodox women are reprimanded, made to fit unrealistic roles and body images, or mocked for their decadence and self-indulgence. In order to appreciate our legacy of female rebels—and create space for future cultural icons—the notion rebellion needs to be revaluated.

From Madonna and Marilyn Monroe to the reality TV stars and hotel chain heiresses of the twenty-first century, Hellions analyzes the celebration of pop culture icons and its impact on notions of gender. Looking at these past examples, Hellions expands upon the definition of rebellion and offers a new understanding of what would be considered rebellious in the celebrity-obsessed media culture of the twenty-first century.


Dedicated to the feminist super-renegades of the 1970s
and all women
who have eased the way

It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure. Lamb, Browne, Thackeray, Newman, Sterne, Dickens, De Quincey—whoever it may be—never helped a woman yet, though she may have learnt a few tricks of them and adapted them to her use.
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

“You mustn’t give your heart to a wild thing. The more you do, the stronger they get, until they’re strong enough to run into the woods or fly into a tree. And then to a higher tree and then to the sky.”1
—Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Rebels have always populated my life. When I was young, mostly fictional outcasts fought for elbow room in my thoughts, on my overstuffed bookshelf, and in the prime-time television companionship I cherished when I was too young to know better. Many of the women and girls whose audacity I admired were questionable rebels at best, but they all somehow went against the cultural grain, informed my own rebellious sensibility, engaged and emboldened my spirit, and propelled me to search for more marginalized stories, characters, authors, and images as I grew up. Among others, there was Jo Polniaczek on the sitcom The Facts of Life and Little Women’s Jo Marsh. There was the gum-cracking, rock ’n’ roll cool of Pinky and Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days; Rizzo in Grease; a vengeful Carrie White; Cyndi Lauper; Pat Benatar; the quiet and confused opposition of the characters Judy Blume created; a shorn-haired Helen Slater running for her life in The Legend of Billie Jean; the outcast girls of John Hughes’s films; and Nellie Oleson on the TV version of Little House on the Prairie.
I always favored pop culture’s rebellious characters, whether sneaky, snide, or sassy—no matter what the medium or how badly they behaved. Any female character who couldn’t keep me laughing, reading, or rapt instantly lost my attention. I cringed at the transformation of an apathetic, goth Ally Sheedy into a pearls-and-lace “pretty girl” in The Breakfast Club, and delighted in the insolent frown of blond-haired, blue-eyed Nellie Oleson. I was perfectly content with the way all these individualistic characters clamored to inform my definition of girlhood and womanhood, and what kind of woman I wanted to be. I found kindred spirits in fictional outcasts, sympathized with acts of willfulness that I didn’t see in reality, and witnessed bravery greater than any I’d found in traditional leading women or mainstream pop stars. Rebel girls and brats inspired me, made me feel less alone, and allowed me to smile at my own impertinence and at the seemingly unlimited possibilities of being a young girl and, later, a young woman. With an inner sneer, an outer temper, and a bent toward mischief good and bad, I was utterly possessed by girls who were far from sugar and spice and everything nice. They legitimized me.
When I was twelve, something else came along. I saw Rebel Without a Cause for the first time, and was hooked faster than I could mutter, “Sayonara, Rizzo.” Maybe I needed the complexity (and sensuality) of James Dean’s Jim Stark as I grew into a more complicated and rebellious girl. I began watching Rebel Without a Cause at least once a week, forgoing reruns of movies and television shows populated with the varied characters I was raised with through the ’70s. Although I watched Rebel countless times, I have no memory of how I felt about Natalie Wood’s conflicted and angst-ridden Judy. All I remember is Jim, slumped over and brooding, as he suffered through and resisted the dysfunction of ’50s middle-class culture.
Later, as I became consumed with the counterculture that defined the 1950s and ’60s, I started reading Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Hunter S. Thompson, and listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, wishing I could write and live the way they did. Though the classic rebel image excluded bad girls, such as the characters who had formerly resounded with me, I slipped uncomfortably into romanticizing countercultural rebels without a thought to where the women around them lived or how they loved. Lacking easy access to female rebels who evolved with my own resistance and cultural sensibility, I threw myself wholeheartedly into classic American-male rebellion. At the time—as all of the women rebels I’d witnessed as a girl slunk off the air or offscreen, or became victims of cultural amnesia—no other option seemed quite as appealing.
I willed myself to ignore the fact that mid-twentieth-century American rebel men were still the standard for cultural images of rebellion, and that women, on the whole, were denied the right to enjoy similar renegade status. Instead, they were relegated to merely decorating the edges of men’s lives and art, or serving as folly between men’s travels, or plotting to foil male wanderers’ plans. And I didn’t think twice about why the presence of the women I saw as rebels and outcasts during my childhood were fleeting, while the male characters and icons—along with Marilyn Monroe straddling a subway grate and Lucy Ricardo whining to her husband, Ricky—long outlasted the zeitgeist from whence they came.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to follow the trails blazed by loner rebel males. Beneath the surface and beyond the formula, though, there are many ways in which to rebel, live creatively, and be an individual. The girls of every decade who are restless enough to want to follow the call of the road, and who aren’t satisfied with mainstream culture’s limited examples of female defiance, end up adoring the very heroes who would relegate them to the back seat of rebellion. The Beat Generation’s fixation on movement and spontaneity meant favoring new experiences no matter whom they left in their dust. Neal Cassady—Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s mythic muse, a legend of the generation to younger fans, and the man on whom the enigmatic Dean Moriarty is based in On the Road—bounced from wife to lover and back to wife again. In 1950, he took a jaunt to Mexico, intending to get a divorce from his wife, Carolyn. After leaving Mexico, he headed to New York, married another woman, and got her pregnant without having divorced Carolyn.2 Later, he returned to Carolyn and then left her again. It wasn’t as if women were only a passing thought, either—Kerouac kept lists of the women he’d slept with and when, and Cassady sent letters to his friends detailing his conquests.3
The women involved in the Beat movement also wrote furiously, but without landing the acclaim granted to Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. Diane di Prima, for example, has written forty-three books and has been praised by her male peers, yet she is hardly as synonymous with the Beat movement’s influence as the aforementioned men. Given all the old trappings of what we as a culture consider attractive and culturally legitimate when it comes to women—and given target-marketed cultural products’ recent return to extreme gender specificity—most girls will dream only of dating a rebel, not of actually becoming one. The former dream seems safer and more accessible, if we measure it based on the ways in which active female artists often seem ill-fated and undermined, versus the fame and comfort that many male artists’ wives and girlfriends enjoy. It certainly has a history of more tangible social success than rebellion itself does.
Our most iconic, earlier images of male rebellion captured the imagination as powerfully as they did in the 1950s and ’60s because, in an era when domesticity reigned, they symbolized courage, possibility, and liberation from the stranglehold of governmental authority and the status quo. But male rebellion also repeatedly whispers the limits women and girls represent to wandering American masculinity. As we sift through popular American rebel culture, we will find accommodating femininity in movies like The Wild One; nonconforming women who renege on their rebellion (as in Breakfast at Tiffany’s); or women punished by others or by themselves for their difference (as in the cases of writers Sylvia Plath and Dorothy Parker). Exposed to repeated messages of what attracts the loner rebels they admire and what generally happens if they themselves rebel, as well as to the veneration of breathy and compliant female celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, young girls and women haven’t been given many examples of how they can be simultaneously attractive, restless, roaming, and appealing in the same way that male icons are. In capturing the pop-culture imagination, our female legends’ claims to fame are usually limited to one of these characteristics—which makes their allure predictable and uninspired compared with the ever-present enigma that their male counterparts represent.
We worship certain men and women merely for their reinforcement, their embodiment, of the most hardened and pure aspects of traditional gender roles—Brando oozed machismo; Monroe was steeped in submissiveness. What I didn’t realize as a young woman was that iconic images also have certain hidden layers that deepen their meaning—underpinnings that our culture has forgotten or ignored, but that could be discovered by scratching their surface.
For instance, there are ways to read beyond the romanticization of Sylvia Plath’s desperation and Virginia Woolf’s despair, just as there are darker sides to the energetic bounce of the Beat movement. There are women whose insubordination we’ve largely forgotten, such as Mae West, and visionary women we might not consider subversive, like Susan B. Anthony. While the men we’ve come to know as touch-stones for rebellious imagery actually reinforce white masculinity, the women we deem immortal reveal how we as a culture view women who stand out. Marginalized outlaws who didn’t make the cut for the rebellion canon may not appear intriguing on the surface, but in reality, the backlashes of people of color, the queer community, and white women have always presented greater risks than those of culturally sanctioned male rebels. Questioning the narrow definitions we’ve allowed for our pop-culture rebels also makes room for examining and revering other, more interesting men and women.
The truth that may appear too late (or for some girls may never appear at all) is that women can be angry and restless and still appealing as women—and that we can be so without the complete social rejection we’re taught comes with rebellion.
Unfortunately, because we’re presented with such limited options of womanhood, we tend to downplay our differences, as pop culture’s examples have urged us to do, in order to remain acceptable and attractive in mainstream culture. Without having robust models of revolt that mainstream culture embraces, young girls are far less likely to explore their own self-defined, diverging paths.
Embodying rebellion or denying it tends to be an either/or proposition for female icons. James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause can appear alternately angry, frightened, sad, sexy, and tough. Women who exist outside of the traditional leading-lady role or the virgin/whore divide are usually quirky (like Edie Sedgwick) or evil (like Joan Crawford or Bette Davis). And the good, wholesome, loyal leading ladies don’t generally have a voracious sex drive or occasional wanderlust. Few female characters embody complex sexuality, rebelliousness, and kindness all at once. A woman who abandons a traditional female role or her family the same way men do, by easily hopping on her bike and leaving town, is considered cruel—a role saved for the vamp or the villain.
Images like these, which lean on stereotyping even while bucking it, appear paired with today’s Hollywood celebrities. The escapades of Kate Moss, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton have made them the real-life representations of Sex and the City’s sexually rabid Samantha Jones—wealthy, notorious, and hopelessly self-indulgent—and these young women garner media attention for merely indulging themselves. If these are our culture’s “bad girls,” have we really evolved from last century’s symbols, whose cultural contributions were, at the very least, tangible? With women like these becoming more infamous and celebrated, how do women rebel, roam, and retain their sexuality? When our media markets shift from one celebrity sex scandal to another, and physical attractiveness is the most important feature on offer for teenage girls, what image will they be drawn to? Surely it won’t be Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, or even the eventually lonely and conflicted Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
In the stilted version of womanhood our culture touts, there is no love for outcast or wayward women. The underlying message remains the same: Rebellion rarely comes with love; if a rebel loves, she gives up her ability to be a rebel. There is no additional consideration for a woman’s love for the world around her, or for the autonomy that indicates self-love. As a result, what passes for female rebellion upholds the status quo, rather than breaking new ground. This pattern leaves real rebellion underrecognized and ignored by a culture that refuses to acknowledge that women experience the same restlessness as men do—and are naturally curious about and long for alternate paths of resistance.
What I learned as I delved into the cast of memorable and pioneering women nestled in these pages is that each of these women’s lives and personalities contain relevant, insightful stories that can help inform and enrich our own identities as strong, powerful women. From Sylvia’s and Virginia’s discipline to Marilyn’s and Janis’s disappointments; Bettie Page’s sexual liberation; Mae West’s biting wit; Angela Davis’s, Jane Fonda’s, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s optimistic drive; Pam Grier’s gun-toting vigilantism; Susan B. Anthony’s determination; and Cindy Sheehan’s confrontational and public righteousness, each of these women have something inspiring and empowering to offer us—even when our culture remembers them less than fondly. They can propel us toward our own individual rebellions and can conjure the same contagious excitement and intellectual stimulation that male rebellions have provided decade after decade. Given the relative lack of freedom and the public criticism female icons face, our “other” rebels have more to offer us than the much-lauded rebel-male movement.
I know how bored I would have been as a young girl if pop culture’s quasi-rebels hadn’t filled my head, my bedroom, and my imagination. I want girls and young women to see themselves in our most influential public figures, and to be filled with a sense of possibility, rather than the isolation, inadequacy, or self-deprivation that we witness women inflicting on themselves in pop culture. I’d like to think these women could make our souls soar. And I can’t imagine what a dull world it would be if, as adults, we merely tiptoed the same slight tightropes as those whom we lionize. Only when we elect collectively to relish a broader range of emotion, intellect, humor, and misbehavior in the women we idolize will the general population of Western women accept their own broad range of flaws and strengths. And only then will others embrace us for flaunting those qualities.

chapter 1
The Rebel Curve
“Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” “What’ve you got?”1
—The Wild One
Brooding and cool, slumped over and sneering, rebels have been a cultural landmark for each generation since the beginning of the twentieth century. In the 1931 film The Public Enemy, for instance, James Cagney’s Tom Powers perched at his breakfast table, perusing the paper and gorging on breakfast as he sat beside Kitty (Mae Clarke). A stereotypical early-twentieth-century gangster moll—anxious, gum-chewing, and cutesy—Kitty hounded him in her high-pitched voice.
Just as Kitty’s predictable cuteness and nagging misrepresented real womanhood, Cagney’s character was far from being the societal threat the film billed him as. The infamous outburst in which Powers, fed up with Kitty and her incessant squealing, ground a half-moon of grapefruit into her confused, crumpled face, should have made his character infinitely less likable. But instead of remaining a public enemy, his frustrated persona became a classic Hollywood image, and his resistance pumped blood into the portraits of angst-ridden men as time went on.
The classic rebel formula keeps rearing its macho head, proving that its popularity hasn’t faded. Fast-forward to 1980 and Raging Bull’s initial depiction of prizefighter Jake La Motta’s family life as he sat at home, eating and talking to his brother, Joey. In the first of many incensed moments that characterized Jake’s relationships in the biopic, he abruptly upended the kitchen table as his wife hurried into another room to the soundtrack of his death threats: “You break anything in there, and I’m gonna kill ya! I swear to God, I’m gonna come in there and I’m gonna kill ya!”2 The brutish reactions of both La Motta and Powers to these women were conveyed as “acceptable” emotion in male antiheroes. They also painted a dark picture of the rebels’ need to disrupt the domestic lives that suffocated them.
Beginning in the mid- to late 1990s and persisting today, many of the most successful rappers have promoted the themes of gangsta rap—once a subgenre of a larger, more politically and socially oriented hip-hop movement—from a place of ordained authority: 50 Cent brags about his multiple gunshot wounds, and the lifestyle of the hustler is routinely glorified, most notably in Snoop Dogg’s cartoonish, recent incarnation as a cane-wielding, slyly self-satisfied “pimp.” The 2005 film Hustle & Flow took a compassionate stance toward poverty and desperation but also deified its incarcerated bad-boy protagonist and received an Academy Award for 36 Mafia’s hit “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” And consider the anger simmering in Eminem, who, before his rhymes focused on his celebrity status, wrote “Kim,” the story of a man drowning his trunk-trapped wife while his daughter witnessed her murder.
Although it’s too soon to know whether today’s rebels will outlast their generational popularity in the same way the post-World War II American renegades did, the popularity of someone like 50 Cent—whose 2003 mainstream debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin, sold more than eight hundred thousand copies in its first four days, and whose follow-up album, The Massacre, sold 1.14 million in the same stretch of time—indicates that some of these rebels are destined to become legends.3
Since the male rebels we dote on treat women with such contempt, we need our own antiheroic cachet. That’s precisely why female rebels are so essential to growing up in this crazy country. When I say “crazy,” I’m referring to the hands-down maddening mixed messages we’re bombarded with when we’re young: We’re told that courage involves doing the right thing, being ourselves, thinking our own thoughts, and sticking by our developing ideals and those instilled in us. We are educated about the American Revolution and the revolt against authority that developed the United States. We’re taught that freedom, liberty, and our historical rebellion against an oppressive authority are the cornerstones of American life. We learn about the value of difference—but only enough to retain that old “melting pot” moniker. And we’re expected to conform enough to succeed in school and obey the law.
Then we become young women who are expected to avoid getting too fat, too loud, too inquisitive—no matter who we are, what our backgrounds are, or whether or not we’re receiving other, more accepting messages at the same time. We should hold ourselves out there for young boys to see, but retain our virginity for as long as we can. Look, but don’t touch. Indulge, but not too much. Love ourselves, but with limits. We’re told to avoid being too angry or unhappy, yet we’re also taught that we should never be satisfied with ourselves: We should constantly seek self-improvement through wearing what the media tells us is the “right” clothing, makeup, and accessories, and through avoiding typically masculine behavior. We shouldn’t be too aggressive (though assertiveness occasionally makes a comeback). For women, having “enough” self-love translates into caring for ourselves in the way traditional beauty standards and the industries relying on those standards require, but not enough to inspire an all-out rejection of them.
Perhaps the most powerful societal message of all is an idea that’s imposed on us starting from the time we’re old enough to harbor memories: We’re bamboozled by the idea of marriage and true love as the ultimate life-success story. And even as the number of single women in the nation grows, we’re told that if we don’t marry by a certain age, we’ve done something wrong. We’re told that our wedding day is the biggest day of our lives—next to having a baby, of course. We’re often pitied or reviled for valuing our careers over our children, our minds over our bodies, or wanderlust over suburban stability.
Pressure to conform to these traditional ideas about womanhood can negatively affect wandering, wondering, questioning women when we try to explain our lives to uncomprehending family members, friends, and even strangers. We begin to doubt ourselves. The looks and the questions can make us feel undervalued, unworthy, or unwomanly. We become oddities and rebels, alienated from ourselves—and often lonely. When we become aware of the expectation to rein in our zestful girlhood dreams as we get older, that knowledge can deaden our former passion and foster resentment of other women who can represent the female ideal easily.
Sorting out that conflict can lead young women to become consumed with being desirable, especially at a time when social rejection is a daily fear. But when we begin resisting our true spirit—as layered human beings who don’t always want to eat, do, wear, or say the “right” thing—the sense of mischief that seems so present in childhood slips away. Instead of embracing our complexity and imperfections and questioning the physical and behavioral standards set for us, we end up turning for inspiration to the examples we’re inundated with on television, in new media, and in our daily lives.
To complicate matters, the media landscape that influences our ideas about femininity and encourages us to display overt sexuality is increasingly vast, technologically complicated, and individualistic. We have access to more diverse depictions of women, many of which fill the representational gaps that existed in the past. But how many of those are prevalent enough to drown out the narrower view of womanhood lurking in publications like Cosmopolitan, on television shows like Desperate Housewives, or in the menagerie of backstabbing, emotionally damaged women found in gossip magazines or on almost any “reality” television show today? The most accessible and repetitive presentations of women, those traveling through the pop-culture pipeline, become the most resounding messages young girls receive about what kind of women gain cultural attention, and what kind of women young girls should become. Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, the most ubiquitous images of women are usually the most ridiculously self-indulgent, greedy, and debased—and least interesting and complex—ones readily available to the general public. We see Victoria’s Secret ad campaigns; America’s Next Top Model, Rock of Love, and The Real Housewives of Orange County; a host of hopelessly mediocre sitcoms; MTV’s parade of shallow programming and video vixens; blockbuster Hollywood comedies full of boring or witless beauties; vicious, violent, lonely, or corrupt women (most recently glorified in Notes on a Scandal); and the even less engaging army of stock characters retread in romantic comedies, often highlighted by the toothy, white-bread smile of a non-threatening, multimillionaire actress such as Julia Roberts.
As a woman who doesn’t meet mainstream beauty standards; who has never had enough money to even consider indulging in material overconsumption (another expectation for women); who questions too much and is too loud, too angry, and too unhappy with the world around her much of the time, I know the most important thing to me during some of the most challenging times in my life has been cultural images commemorating women who pick up, move on, and stare down convention like a time-tested enemy. As American culture continues to overvalue beauty and wealth—as in our continuing fascination with Hollywood’s cadre of rich, young, and socially irresponsible women—it abandons women who don’t slip easily into the very narrow roles we prescribe, and makes affirming our own worth seem impossible. Young girls are surrounded with the message that being underweight, privileged, and fairly ignorant is the primary way to hold society’s attention. Relishing female rebellion and widely permitting women to be as “cool” as the boys, on the other hand, allows other, less prominent rebellious females to love themselves.
Amid such pitiful fare, culturally prominent female rebellion becomes increasingly important in battling the broken, battered, bruised images we’re subjected to as women. Rebel women fill the holes, inhabit empty spaces, and help American girls seeking more engaging, attainable images feel less lonely and less insane. They certainly make America seem less crazymaking and less alienating. For those reasons alone, female images are worth reevaluating—and female rebellion is worth celebrating.


On Sale
Oct 20, 2008
Page Count
280 pages
Seal Press

Maria Raha

About the Author

Maria Raha works for Spin and Vibe magazines, and has written for Time Out New York, and Bitch. She lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author