Dear Reese Witherspoon: All Girls Are ‘Good Girls’

On Sunday night, Reese Witherspoon, an Oscar winner, accepted a very different kind of award: the MTV Generation Award in Los Angeles. Witherspoon, 35, took the stage, teased Robert Pattinson, then offered the usual celebrity thanks. So far, so good. But then her speech took an unexpected turn:

I want to say to all the girls out there, I know it’s cool to be bad, but it’s also possible to make it in Hollywood without a reality show … When I came up in this business, if you made a sex tape, you were embarrassed and hid it under your bed. And if you took naked pictures of yourself on your cell phone, you would hide your face, people. Hide your face! … So for all the girls out there, it’s possible to be a good girl. I’m going to try to make it cool.

To be sure, Witherspoon’s speech addresses a real concern. Unfortunately, there are real-world consequences for girls–celebrities or not–who are caught with sexualized photos or tapes. The reality is that nude photos are used against people of all ages when applying for jobs or child custody, and teenage subjects of such photos have even been brought up on child pornography charges. And the damage to reputation can cause real pain. In 2009, 13-year old Hope Witsell committed suicide after a topless photo of her was shared with her classmates.

But here’s the thing. Hope Witsell didn’t commit suicide just because nude photos of her were released–she committed suicide because of the slut-shaming that followed. Fellow classmates bullied her with shouts of “whore” and “slut” as she walked to class. Her friends couldn’t protect her and her school made little effort to end the harassment. As a result, the young and troubled teen felt she had no choice but to end her life because things at school seemed as if they were never going to get better.

Leora Tanenbaum, author of the best-selling book Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, explains how drawing the line between “good girls” and “bad girls” feeds into the mentality that led to Witsell’s suicide:

The school’s reaction reinforced the belief that [Witsell] was deserving of punishment rather than understanding … But when it comes to being a victim–of slut-bashing or anything else–the distinction between worthy and unworthy is meaningless. Worse, this distinction is harmful. The mindset that leads to discriminating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ victims is the same mindset that leads to judging girls as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’

Witherspoon’s advice to girls feeds into this culture of “good girls” and “bad girls,” rather than taking on the real problem: slut-shaming. Not surprisingly, Fox News loved her message: Hollie McKay claimed MTV “isn’t exactly known for promoting wholesome values” and called Witherspoon’s words “a refreshing change.”

I can’t help but recall a very different lesson in Witherspoon’s 1999 high school drama Cruel Intentions, where she played Annette, a virginal headmaster’s daughter, pitted against the “slut” Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Annette struggles with the decision to have sex, but it’s Kathryn who points out the double standard facing girls: “God forbid I exude confidence and enjoy sex. Do you think I relish the fact that I have to act like Mary Sunshine 24/7 so I can be considered a lady?”

If we are dedicated to promoting the collective power of girls and women, we cannot police their sexuality in an attempt to make girls “good.” For girls like Hope Witsell–whose photos were released to classmates without her consent–we need to offer support and encouragement rather than exhorting her to be a good girl. Ultimately, we would be wise to heed Tanenbaum’s words, not Witherspoon’s, because a world without slut-shaming is one that’s “good” for everyone.

Photo from Flickr user styro under Creative Commons 2.0


  1. Not slut shaming – just common sense. As a teacher of adolescent girls and boys, what she says is true. Girls and boy are under the impression that the world is one giant reality show and that EVERY type of self depreciating and disrespectful type of behaviour is not jut okay, but celebratory in our society. I don’t see anything wrong with decent role models and I think we should applaud Reese for giving girls a powerful message – that it is OKAY to not gravitate to the lowest common denominator, as Jersey Shore would have them believe. I don’t necessarily agree with the ‘good girl / bad girl’ dichotomy that she used, but I think her mind was in a good place. Whatever happened to wanting both girls and both to RESPECT themselves and each other Ms.? Can we not have any exemplars for youth or absolutely everything related to sexuality good to go for all ages? Is this what we want? I don’t know…

    • I’m also a teacher, and I agree. It may not be a good girl /bad girl label thing, but kids can do something in the spur of the moment for “fun”– that they live with the rest of their lives. There are many many sexual pressures out there for young women who are 13, 14 and even younger who are making sexual decisions for themselves based upon what they see ADULTS do on TV. Once some of them become pregnant, as several of my students have, it limits their choices.

      • The youth are trying sexual things out. They are taught and taught and taught not to use condoms, most don’t know what a dam is and have anal sex or oral sex frequently partner swapping or one night standing. They don’t fully educate for the realities of life, or as far as I know, I guess it depends on the area. If it’s city then maybe a bit more thought and openminded sexual education happens. Maybe not. Young women are not empowered enough and neither are the young men. Why? They use their bodies before they even think about the consequences. they are not grasping the fact that they have an impact upon their own lives becuase they are disempowered, partially. Feelings are wrong, yet people want to go with sensual, sexual feelings because it’s something nice and then the thought of interrupting the feeling or the flow is not well tolerated. Unless the feeling states of emotions and other things that must flow are unrestricted, then the use of safer sex with condoms, dams, gloves, etc can be told and told, and it will not do anything. Accidents, lack of sexual control, younger boys ejeculate more suddenly than they want to admit or know how to can be just from playing around without the intent of penetration. But what Reese is saying is for women and girls to look after themselves, not to show themselves. Why show themselves if they are not going to be able to deal with the consequences? Maybe they just took a photo with their mobile camera to see what their bodies look like then they want to see it on the bigger screen of the computer, then they say, hey my girlfriend should see my great arse, or they are dared to show their crush a photo, or they get wasted and do it without much thought..

  2. Journey McAndrews says:

    So let me get this straight, we can create a whole culture of pornography and sexualized media to cater to male sexuality and male fantasies, but females who display any trace of “real” sexuality or express “real” sexual interest are reprimanded and marginalized. I do not understand why American culture has such a double standard when it comes to female nudity/sexuality. Playboy and Hustler are legal, but a nude photo of a real woman is a criminal offense—a social/moral/legal faux pas big enough to ruin, and in many cases, end, a life.

    Could we just move beyond these irrelevant and inane “good” and “bad” sexual behavior discussions, and instead celebrate and respect female sexuality and the nudity that accompanies it? Does anyone have the courage to put the virgin/whore dichotomy to rest?

    And Reese, FYI, “good” is also sexualized in the media. The entire girl next-door fantasy is based on a different, but equally satisfying, male fantasy. Have you not watched Hugh Hefner’s “The Girls Next Door”, and numerous other “good” girl romps?

    • And Reese, FYI, “good” is also sexualized in the media.

      If it weren’t, I’m not sure she would have a career.

      • To be accurate, The Girls Next Door aren’t portrayed as being “good” girls or anything of the sort, and the show’s title is a joke. They aren’t even remotely “good” or down-to-earth, as the classic girl-next-door is.

  3. While I dislike the constant Madonna/Whore and Prude/Slut dichotomy (There is SOOO much in between!) I think you’re being too hard on Reese. She’s saying you don’t have to objectify or sexualize yourself to get ahead. You can get ahead based on talent and ambition, not by getting naked.

    • Genevieve says:

      Which feeds into the idea that if a girl who gets naked somehow gets ahead, it’s not because she has talent and ambition, it’s because she got naked. The idea that if you’re seen as sexual, you’re also stupid or worthless… that’s the problem.

      Girls have been told for a long time that they should be good girls. They’re also encouraged at the same time to be sexy. There are all these conflicting messages about who you’re supposed to be, and the idea that you should be who the hell you want to be gets lost. No, girls don’t HAVE to be sexualized to be successful in Hollywood. But some of them freaking want to, and that’s ok.

      • NewAgeAmazon says:

        No, girls don’t HAVE to be sexualized to be successful in Hollywood. But some of them freaking want to, and that’s ok.

        Yes, this. I’m seeing a lot of comments in this conversation, here and elsewhere, equating “being sexual” (taking nude photos, appearing in sex tapes) with “being trashy.” And that’s the problem, and it’s part of why young girls grow up with such a messed-up view of sex and sexuality. It seems like they are taught there are two extremes and only ONE can be right: you have to be completely covered up OR you have to be willing to get naked at a moment’s notice.

        The thing is BOTH OF THESE THINGS ARE OKAY, it depends on the individual woman, and we need to be calling out the people who set up that dichotomy, and the people who make money off of sexualizing women while at the same time equating sexual with trashy, rather than the women who are already confused enough.

    • Gretchen says:

      I don’t know if this was intentional or just poor wording, but your proclamation that there is “SOOO much in between” madonna/whore and prude/slut suggests that these things actually exist outside of cultural labels. By stating that women’s expressions of sexuality can fall in between, you are reinforcing the idea that a woman’s sexual behaviour can actually be defined as sluttish or prudish. The point is that NO derogatory labels or labels at all should be attributed to whether or not, or to what extent a woman is sexually active or expressive. And while I agree that I doubt it was Reese’s intention to slut-shame, the fact is, is that she did by proclaiming that there actually exists ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girls purely on the basis of the expressions or depictions of their sexuality.

  4. patricia kohler says:

    totally disagree-I think her point was to encourage women to focus on talent rather than sexuality.

  5. I don’t think Reese is slut-shaming here; I think she’s encouraging young girls to be careful with nude images of themselves that can haunt them. Her wording is unfortunate, but her message should be heeded.

  6. NewAgeAmazon says:

    I think Reese MEANT well, but (and I’ve actually been attacked for expressing this opinion elsewhere) I DO think the statement came out as slut-shaming. I think she meant it to be empowering, as an “own your body!” thing, but instead it came out as “be ashamed of your body.” While I chalk it up to a case of “Maybe she’s never had the slut-shaming discussion with anyone,” I DO still think it ended up sounding problematic and needs to be discussed and dissected.

    She directed the statement at girls, not at all young people. She used the “good girl”/”bad girl” split to get her point across. She didn’t attack either the people who share nude photos without permission or care for the subject, or the whole “Girls Gone Wild” culture, she went after girls who take nude pictures of themselves and who have sex on camera. Some women do this of their own choosing, some are very comfortable with it and there’s nothing wrong with it. If young girls are doing it, isn’t it more important to look at the social root of the problem, what they’re being taught about sex and sexuality, rather than to just scold them for being “bad?”

  7. You think telling young celebrities that you don’t have to do reality shows that remove every shred of your self-respect to get ahead, and to properly secure your sex tapes so that they can’t be hacked and distributed as pornography is bad advice? I disagree.

    I don’t think she’s saying sex is bad. I think she’s saying “if you’re a celebrity, people will be out to get you. So be smart about it.” She’s also saying, “You can get ahead on talent. You don’t have to objectify yourself.” I think these are good messages.

    Preaching against slut-shaming is all well and good, but that’s not the predominant paradigm of our society. We live in a society where a topless photo of Rooney Mara on the Dragon Tattoo poster yielded some of the most disgusting and objectifying comments I have ever read. We live in a society where Blake Lively’s hacker that distributed her photos called her out for saying they were fake and actually wrote on the picture “thanks for the faps.” Until the men of the world stop simultaneously sexually objectifying women and slut-shaming those same women, Reese’s advice is good advice.

  8. I totally agree with the article. Enough with the good girl bad girl crap.

  9. No – she’s saying that women should be rewarded for being sexually virtuous. If she were encouraging women to focus on talent and hard work then why talk about sex? It’s not relevant at all.

  10. MyOpinion says:

    Isnt the bigger problem here that children and adults of both genders need to be taught to put less emphasis on sexualizing the body and more or a focus on developing intellect and character..

  11. I think this article points out exactly why this wave of “Slut Walks” will not be successful- because the word “slut” is so beyond redemption, so deeply pejorative in society’s mind, that trying to make it empowering at this point is an exercise in futility. It’s wasting precious feminist resources trying to “take back” something that is too far gone; what’s next, are we going to make it ok for white people to say the n-word? I think not.

    • NewAgeAmazon says:

      Whoa, wait. There is a HUGE difference between women trying to reclaim the word “slut” and white people saying the “n” word. Women reclaiming “slut” is reclaiming a word used to put us down, the same way the black community is moving to reclaim the “n” word.

      But you can’t reclaim a word if you not a member of the oppressed group…especially if you were the OPPRESSOR of that group. So, a white person saying the “n” word isn’t reclamation. It’s actually the reason the word needs to be reclaimed in the first place.

      Maybe “slut” is beyond redemption, but I kind of take issue with your analogy.

  12. I do think that it’s absolutely ok to get naked and I personally don’t get why people shame each other for nude photoes. Actually, most people look physically the same while undressed. I feel perfectly fine with taking naked photoes of mysefl as I accept my body. What the society’s problem is that naked bodies are always regarded as sexual, not just like a part of who you are. There’s nothing wrong with being naked and posting your pictures due to the fact that it’s your body and that’s how you look. While shaming people for being nude and taking pictures of themselves is absolutely disgusting.

  13. Not sure how anyone can argue she’s not slut-shaming when she says that people who take (not even share, just take) nude photos of themselves on their cells phones should “Hide your face!” She means well, yes, but she’s still reinforcing the idea that a girl who enjoys and flaunts her sexuality is not a “good girl.” And that’s bullshit.

    • I absolutely agree with you. She also fails to mention taking nude photoes as art. Some people enjoying taking pictures of themselves naked in an artistic form. As to whether to share it or not is the decision of the individual who took a naked photo of themselves which under no account should be shamed.

  14. What astounds me the most about these discussions is nobody’s ever talking about the BOYS who perpetrate the actually shameful behavior. It is boys who coerce girls into taking such pix and sending them, and it is boys who then share the pix with all their friends and post them online. And boys do this because of what this piece is talking about: boys will never be made to answer for their actions; only girls will. And thus another generation learns that boys will be boys, and girls better figure out how not to get themselves hurt while the boys are being who they are. It is a disgraceful state of affairs. Shame shame shame on the BOYS.

    • Chai Latte says:

      YES. SO MUCH THIS. We can’t solve a problem if we only deal with HALF the equation. No, that will not work–it *doesn’t* work. Boys need to be taught as well.

    • Exactly. If you ask me, I think that men should not be allowed to
      A) Watch porn;
      B) Have sex unless a woman starts it; or
      C) Ask for naked pictures
      In addition, men should be arrested if any woman sends them naked photos regardless of their age or whether they asked for them or not, while women should be encouraged. Trust me, it’s the only way.

  15. Heather says:

    I think the message that girls don’t HAVE to be “bad” is just as valid as saying that girls don’t HAVE to be “good”, either. There is a lot of pressure out there for young women to act in “bad” ways — witness Ariel Levy’s book on the “Female Chauvinist Pig” victims-cum-perpetuators of raunch culture.

    Witherspoon’s undertone and choice of words are unfortunate, but her main message — that girls don’t have (and shouldn’t have) to give in to the pressure to conform to some ideal of a cool “bad girl” to reach their goals — is a valid and even helpful one.

  16. Reese is so right! Sex is bad (TM) and wicked, and is only approved for mature grownups over 18 anyway, like Britney Spears and LeBron James and Reese Witherspoon. It is so wrong of teenagers to think that they can have any kind of ownership over their own bodies or desires until the outside world and laws say they can. All us adults know how to act responsibly about our own sexual relations and it is not the business of those kids to try to be as mature and sensible as us, or to come up with their own ideas about how to express themselves or to try to define bad and good in new ways that we haven’t thought of before.

    (Incidentally, Reese’s imaginary version of “good” might explain why she so vaingloriously delighted in joining her director in the butchering of Vanity Fair by destroying Becky Sharp’s character and turning the pieces into something that might conform to a modern Witherspoon standard of “good.” Very telling quote.)

  17. I have mixed feelings on this. It would have made me feel better about myself to hear this when I was growing up. My “friends” in high school usually picked on me and called me a prude because I didn’t drink or smoke weed or have sex, and I felt like something was wrong with me. Now I feel glad that I waited until college. I think it’s great for people to embrace their sexuality, but at the same time a lot of celebrities gross me out with their media whoring, and I think that’s what Reese is referring to here. I don’t think Paris Hilton’s sex tape empowered her. I don’t think of Snooki as a feminist role model, and I don’t think the media should constantly perpetuate the idea that you need to have sex and constantly be taking webcam photos of yourself to be cool. I don’t like the way teen motherhood is glamorized by tabloids following the girls from “Teen Mom” around, but I don’t think teen mothers should be shamed either. I don’t think Reese used the best choice of words, but I think she wanted to make nerdy girls like me feel a little bit more normal.

  18. evogrrl says:

    I think y’all are totally missing the point. I don’t think “slutshaming” is okay — but this is an actress talking to an audience of mainstream young people, directing her comments to young women who may want to pursue a life in the public eye. She is expressing her “old-fashionedness” in a way that I think is charming and perfectly appropriate for the audience she’s trying to reach. Of course women should feel free to express their sexuality. But she is using socially-acceptable (albeit overly confining) language to express a much bigger thought: that LOTS of young women are sexualizing themselves in order to get noticed. She is saying she comes from a different era, one in which that wasn’t so cool, and that she hopes that she illustrates a different way of getting noticed. That’s how I take it, anyway. I think that getting so picky about her semantic choices is silly… she doesn’t have a women’s studies degree. A lot of people have moral viewpoints on the world that ARE more black-and-white than a lot of us who read Ms. — I see her perspective as more traditional, which does not make it WRONG. She isn’t saying that making a sex tape is awful — she’s saying it’s something to keep under your bed, and to be embarrassed for the public to see. It’s about modesty.

    I find it refreshing, because I think the objectification of women has gotten so absurdly NORMAL that now we all have to be totally COOL with (very) young women objectifying themselves. I’m the same age as Reese Witherspoon, and I am continually disturbed by what passes for “liberation” — young women objectifying themselves is not necessarily okay just because they’re doing it to themselves. They are fed so many messages that you can’t seriously believe it’s entirely their own clear-headed choice. They are coming of age in a coercive environment. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a well-regarded actress tell them they don’t HAVE to go along with the newly-acceptable sexualized “norm.”

  19. Maybe I’m way off base here and correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t see Reese’s words as slut shaming. While I thought the way she worded it was really awkward (the ‘hide your face!’ and all), I thought she was just trying to say that you don’t need to be blatantly sexy like Kim Kardashian or Jessica Alba (no offense to those lovely ladies. They can’t help that their bodies have been hypersexualized by men to the point that most people can’t see beyond that.) Reese probably just meant that young girls should conduct themselves morally.

    And I don’t mean like don’t take sexy photos of yourself. Those things can be empowering for a girl and girls shouldn’t have to hide their sexuality. And most girls my age (myself included) have sent a ‘sexy’ picture to a significant other, with no repercussions. But sometimes things go wrong and those pictures get published and young ladies get slut-shamed. Is that fair? Of course not. But it does happen. And in this society, it’s a sad fact ): And I think Reese was warning girls about that danger.

    Also, I don’t know about this whole ‘Men can act like players and it’s cool but if women do it, they’re sluts’ thing. I don’t think it’s ok when EITHER sex does it. Tiger Woods got lambasted for his affairs, Bill Clinton will be the butt of jokes for all time. I’m not very religious. And while I believe sexuality is never something to be ashamed of, that doesn’t mean I want to go showing my sexuality to everyone and broadcasting it /: I don’t think men should do the same thing either.

    I think the difference is that for centuries, men were seen as the wayward ones. Men were the ones who wanted to bed lots of women and women were seen as loyal and true. Women weren’t seen in popular culture as the ones who expressed their sexuality. Now in today’s society, men express their sexuality and it’s a little shocking but not new. But when women express sexuality or are known to have had multiple partners, it’s shocking. Maybe that doesn’t make sense, but it’s how I rationalize it /: Correct me if I’m wrong.

    I agree with the poster above me. I’m all for women’s liberation. I don’t see why I can’t walk around in the world without my body being seen as a sexual object just because I have certain equipment. But I also don’t believe women should liberate themselves from this by making sex tapes or acting like female ‘players’. Most of the women in the media I see ‘liberating’ themselves through this type of behavior (Snooki, Paris Hilton, Kim K, reality tv show personas) aren’t very good role models for young ladies. But then again, that’s just my own personal opinion.

    I want the boys to be held responsible for this double standard. But I don’t envy the ‘player’ lifestyle. It may work for some but it seems empty to me and girls shouldn’t emulate it to be ‘liberated’. Girls should embrace their bodies and not be ashamed. And they can achieve that without the media’s idea of ‘liberation’.

  20. Sorry Ms, this article is wrongheaded and misdirecting the message Reese was trying to convey. Specifically, the cultural norms promoted by the reality-show celebrity culture production feed into everyday people being trapped into the horrible scenarios you describe. The critical point Reese makes is that the culture production must reflect decent values and provide positive messages, which will lead to people making better decisions in their lives. The echoes of “slut” and “whore” in those school halls is a direct reflection of the same cultural production that creates space for girls (and boys) to be degraded and victimized because they think it is “normal” or “cool”. Hugo Chavez some years ago described American media as creating a “porn-addled” society. He was right then, and even more so now. Apologist articles like this do nothing to move our culture forward and certainly don’t help the cause of women and girls.

  21. Hang on- so if a girl shows, or is encouraged to show a sex-tape or whatever, it’s “objectification” and “misogyny”, yet if she doesn’t, or is encouraged not to, it’s “slut-shaming”? So… if I don’t want to be sexist, what should I do?

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