We root for the ‘Good For Her’ woman no matter what she does. She’s just like other girls — but only the other girls we aspire to be like.
Girl loves boy. Boy betrays the girl in a terrible manner that leaves her for dead, or at best terribly hurt. Girl decides enough is enough and makes sure he rots in prison, murders him and stages it as suicide, or stuffs him into a dead bear and lights him on fire. She is probably emotionally scarred and traumatized. And she will likely never again be her old self.
Yet, the story ends as she smiles and rides off to Mexico, makes a pact with Satan (and smiles), or inherits a great fortune with a great curse attached to it (and smiles).
The story is as old as… well, at least as old as 2014. That year’s Gone Girl is widely considered the first clear example of this genre: the ‘Good For Her’ movie. Who is the ‘Good For Her’ woman? What class does she belong to? What is her race, her body type, her appearance? And does our aesthetic perception of a female character influence whether a film is considered a ‘Good For Her’ picture?
Perhaps it is misleading to call Good For Her a genre.
Rather than being a kind of a film that is created with the intention of being Good For Her (though that also can happen), a film is often ascribed the title retroactively. Moreover, it seems that Good For Her can come from all kinds of genres, with Letterboxed offering up films such as Eyes Without a Face and Carrie as key examples, but also including works such as The Watermelon Woman and films by Studio Ghibli.
With such a broad spectrum, what are the definitive characteristics that define a Good For Her film? And what makes it different from the rather tired Strong And Independent Woman trope?
To start with, a Strong and Independent Woman is a sexy, mysterious femme fatale who might dress in skimpy or tight clothes for the enjoyment of a male audience. But she still has some strange plot reason that justifies such portrayal of the female body — with the best example of that being Halle Berry in Catwoman.
A Good For Her woman is not sexy.
She can be sexual, and given that she is usually played by Hollywood actresses, she often is beautiful.
What she lacks is the framing that makes her a sexual object, or to put it simply, she is usually not framed by the male gaze. She is on the screen for the female audience first and foremost. She can even be barely dressed for most of the film’s runtime, but the way her body is portrayed makes it simply nude rather than sexual.
She is not strong, in a physical sense: she is not Ripley expertly operating a flame thrower, rather Jennifer in Revenge who flies onto the ground from shooting a rifle for the first time.
She is, in short, not very exceptional.
Where a Strong And Independent Woman is supposed to be exceptional — excelling at what a woman can do by being a badass in a very masculine-coded way (with physical prowess being the most noticeable of those traits) — a Good For Her woman is ordinary. She can be any one of us, and her struggle is usually one that many of us experience.
She is a sexual assault survivor, a girl in an abusive or shitty relationship. At most outlandish, she is an android or a clone, but one that struggles with all too familiar class, race, or gender discrimination. A Strong And Independent Woman is essentially a male character in all aspects but her sex, but a Good For Her character is feminine and relatable for a female viewer. Her life is one that most female viewers can relate to, as they faced the same hardships. Only her ultimate triumph remains aspirational.
It is a moment a viewer wishes to have: finding community, finally landing a rapist in jail, punishing a cheating husband.
That victory can be achieved by almost any means.
Many Good For Her characters are morally condemnable: they frame people for murder, sacrifice them in cult rituals, lie, manipulate, kill. Some are downright sociopathic like Amy in Gone Girl, but that does not stop the audiences from relating to them and rooting for them.
The offense that however seems to be unforgivable is going against other women who share their plight.
A Good For Her woman does not build herself up by putting other women down, and her narrative is not one of rising above her gender. She can be cruel and hurtful to other women, but not in the framework of misogyny or oppression. She does not compete over a man or throw shade. She is equal to other women, and they are only worth condemnation if they themselves become secondary oppressors.
When Cassandra arranges things in such a way that Madison thinks she was raped in Promising Young Woman, she does not do it out of malice but as a punishment for Madison not believing a rape survivor. It is a cautionary act: do not go against other women. It will not make you safer and will cause further oppression of your gender.
A Good For Her character is then a sort of extreme social justice warrior who can fulfill the fantasies of revenge and justice the audience has, one that does not present or act in a way that equalizes her with men. She is not supposed to be equal to men, because that would put her in a position of being an oppressor. Instead, she can often be hyper-feminine. Promising Young Woman would be a perfect example here.
While the story follows Cassandra taking revenge on her best friend’s rapists and is brutal in the subject matter, it is portrayed in a beautiful, pastel color palette, with Cassandra dressed in retro dresses and working in a sugary-sweet cafe. The character may look like she is made out of sugar and spice and everything nice, and her environment reflects that, but she cannot i