Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nice Girls Finish First...Or Last?

Barely two weeks after winning an Oscar for Best Actress in the movie The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock, Hollywood's favorite 'nice girl' is in the news again. This time, though, there is nothing to cheer about.

The star that everyone likes because she is so sweet (and some people dislike because she is so sweet) is dealing with the infidelities of her husband -- reality star Jesse James -- and, as rumored, possible divorce. It is the same old story. The "bombshell" mistress decided to spill all. The deepest stab must be that the liaisons took place while Bullock was working on the movie that gave her the career win that nobody would have thought her capable of before this role.

Ouch. It really hurts. And the same goes for all the 'good wives' who have been publicly humiliated by sordid tabloid exposes of their husbands' inability to keep their pants on. Whether they move in the political, high power circles (Hilary, Silda, Elizabeth, Jenny, etc.) or the glamor, entertainment circuit (Elin, Victoria, now Sandra), these women have one thing in common. They are the nice girls -- the 'good wives' who played the role of the woman behind every successful man, the capable and loving mother of his children, and yet managed to maintain their looks and poise for HIS public image.

They are also the girls who lost.

Not true? Check out GQ magazine's feature on Rielle Hunter (better known as the John Edwards mistress) for the biggest slap to the nice girls. Sexy pictures in man shirt aside, Hunter lambasted her "Johnny's" cancer-stricken ex-wife for not knowing how to love and keep her man. *SMACK* That was for Hunter. She obviously has no idea what it means to be a gracious winner.

And well, she doesn't need to. The not-so-nice girls do not need to play by the rules of decorum. In fact, the public loves it when they play up naughty and salacious (and in some cases, like Tiger's paramours, the downright sleazy).

So what can the nice girls do? They either retreat gracefully (like Elin) or they stand by their man, weather the storm, and then take charge and build their own power (like Hilary). Or, they can just be practical and dish the dirt on the cad (like Jenny in her memoir). After all, they do need to live...and in many cases, raise their children. Haven't you heard? It's expensive to put kids through college these days.

As Julianna Margulies, who plays the lead character in the TV series, The Good Wife, said: "You either sink or you swim. And you have to swim, because you have children and they have to eat. And how do you get a job in this world, when you’re a women who is 40 years old? You make yourself look good, you cut the hair, you lose the weight…whatever it is."

I interviewed her and the cast in New York last month. (Singapore peeps, look out for the stories in ST Life!.) Margulies' character has to return to work as a junior associate in a law firm after her husband's political and sex scandals land him in jail. She won a Golden Globe for the role. The series, loosely based on real life scandals, is timely. I have to admit I didn't watch it before, but only when I got the assignment. I went through most of the first season in one sitting. The writing is surprisingly good. It throws up all the shades of morality greys and complicated questions about a seemingly simple act of being the nice girl.

And then there are the classic cilches and stereotypes, as Christine Baranski, who plays a single, tough cookie partner in the law firm pointed out. If a woman works hard, and is in a position of authority, she is often called a bitch. If she sets high standards for her staff, she is a bitch. If she drives a hard bargain, she is a bitch. A man who does all of that is just simply successful.

So, the nice girls can't win, can they? What our mothers' mothers told them, and they in turn told us, is no longer true. Nice girls don't always get to live happily ever after. Princesses exist only for Disney's bottomline.

When it is my turn to tell this story to my daughter, what should I tell her? To be a nice girl so she can 'win' in her 20s and 30s, only to fall flat on her face in her 40s and have to pick up the pieces? Or, to be a not-so-nice girl, and forget about the fairy tale ending?

Well, I still believe in nice girls. I would like to think that I'm one. And there's much to be said about being a nice girl. There're many nice girls out there whom I admire and who are winners in their own right, man or no man. Girls like Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and my childhood heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi.

So I'll tell Ariel to be a nice girl. But it's time to re-write the story. This is what I think I'll say: "Nice girls always win. But being a nice girl doesn't mean you have to be a good wife. Rather, think of being a good PARTNER in a marriage. And don't look for a good husband or a good man. He doesn't exist. Look for a good PARTNER. You may not find the person the first time round, and that is ok. It's like poker. You win some, you lose some. Wining is not all or nothing. And for goodness' sake, don't let your partner do ALL the driving! Then, you may have a shot at happily ever after. And if you chose never to marry, that's fine. As long as you're true to yourself, you will be happy."

It's still work in progress. I'm open to suggestions on crafting this narrative. Any thoughts?

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