This piece is inspired by E. Kline's
of the various literary traditions that have influenced
the Helen and Nikki storyline in Bad Girls
. It is interesting to note
that while these mediaeval and Victorian influences undoubtedly exist, Shed, the
production company behind Bad Girls
, have moulded them as background
colourations to characters and storylines that are grounded in modern feminism.
Similarly, my study of the heroic in Nikki focusses on three interwoven cultural
strands, which intersect in Nikki's character: the knight in shining armour, the
English moral hero, and modern feminism. All of these diverse influences subtly
register on the audience, and provide numerous avenues to follow and embrace the
character and her romance with Helen.
The most strongly enduring myth which informs the character of Nikki is the
'knight in shining armour', who will come to the rescue of damsels in distress.
Physical bravery is certainly one component of knightly courage, being well-armoured
in order to take on fire-breathing dragons or to fight the black knight in
single combat. The highest mark of knightly courage is to go into battle even if
the odds or numbers are stacked against you. However, this tradition isn't
something that was confined to some ancient time but has taken different forms
as the knight on horseback gave way to more modern forms of fighting. This piece
very closely connects with E. Kline's essay describing Nikki's ardor for Helen
as an example of 'courtly love', a version of the knight home from his
battlefield and demonstrating other kinds of fortitude.
A casual reading of Nikki in this tradition may be truer than that observer
might think. Of particular fascination to me is to see this emerge in a
relatively pure form in a modern female prison drama that is Bad Girls.
Heroism, ancient and modern, is breathtakingly exemplified – more subtly in
early episodes when Nikki doesn't hesitate to verbally confront and attack Helen
after Carol's miscarriage in the very first episode, or when she leaps over the
servery counter to beat up Shell for bullying Rachel and then disrespecting
Rachel after her suicide. The most powerful example is during the riot when
Nikki goes down on her own to confront the Peckham Boot Gang who are armed with
knives from the servery to 'stab screws'.
There is a more modern variation on a heroic myth that feels very familiar to
me, and that is the very English moral hero. This person is distinct altogether
and literally lives by the values he believes in. The test of nerve and courage
can be a much more accessible kind, the occasion where truths need saying, where
injustice is opposed right out in the open while others hang back silent letting
injustice prevail. That hero is never alone as long as he stands by those
values. Common to both forms of heroism is that the worst form of betrayal is
self-betrayal (a description of Nikki also employed by Mandana Jones, the
actress who portrays her). This heroism is accompanied by an extremely modest,
self-deprecating attitude. The hero believes in honour, of not seeing himself
as a heroic person but as a person simply doing his job, doing what needs doing.
Where there is the choice of taking the easy way out or risking hardship,
everything from loss of liberties or the simple fear of ridicule, then the hero
will make that choice. Especially brave is where that hero fights down that very
real fear in making such a stand. An outstanding example of this is where Nikki
(with the Julies' help) deliberately and consciously took calculated risks after
Monica overdosed, judging just how far she could go in order to save Monica's
life while also saving Helen's job. No one watching that scene could imagine
that Nikki wasn't afraid of the very real consequences if she failed and her
greatest fear was for Helen, not herself.
Many scenes familiar to the viewer amply illustrate this idea of Nikki as an
English moral hero. For a start, Nikki is willing to endure any amount of
hardship in that pivotal first interview in Helen's office: 'what's another
bang-up?' Much later in Series 3, two points of comparison follow in quick
succession when Caroline tells Nikki that she 'has quite a following' on the
wing and Nikki's modesty stops her from really perceiving this. Consistently
portrayed is her general inability to compromise her values in any way
whatsoever and likewise her obvious willingness to act as spokesperson. It is
interesting that no one forces Nikki to be spokesperson but she ends up that way
as others defer to her because of her fluency with words and action. While Nikki
is thought of as being verbally confrontational, she is also willing to get
physical: the full nelson hold on Renee Williams; the grab to the throat of Maxi
Purvis and Shell Dockley; and the leap from behind to tackle Tessa Spall.
Another attribute of the English moral hero is Nikki's honesty: she won't
smile falsely or make polite conversation to anyone who she doesn't trust or
respect. Barbara has to work hard to regain Nikki's trust when her fortune and
bigamous marriage comes to light. Nikki's unfortunate accusation of Helen as a 'two
faced tart' is one which most viewers don't dwell on as Nikki got everything
disastrously wrong. However, it does encapsulate her values very neatly and
illustrates this theme. She demands honesty and constancy in both respects, not
only of a lover but of a friend, and yet is the first to apologise once she
realizes that she was in the wrong. In all these ways, Nikki's character
conforms perfectly to that of the English moral hero, a personality that is
normally a male one. She embodies this personality type while instilling it with
a female perspective. She is simply being Nikki and assumes those qualities
This leads on to an equally engrossing form of heroism which some call the
modern feminist heroine or another the inner directed individual. This compels
attention as it is perhaps taken for granted how much Nikki had to work against
her upbringing to become who she is today. As the Bad Girls book reports,
with a Naval captain for a father, a gin-and-bridge Navy wife for a mother,
conventional things were expected of Nikki. At the very least to be suitably
married off, presumably to some rising young Lieutenant. The book goes on to say
that "her parents rejected her when she was expelled from boarding school for
'lesbian activities' as did her older brother, a married solicitor. Her parent's
intolerance caused the young Nikki to run away from home, to travel the world in
search of a lifestyle."
You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks
They really found you.
A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit to satisfy
Insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to.
Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.
This chunk of Bob Dylan lyrics is sung with a passionate intensity and ends
on that magnificent last line, the rejection of all 'hand me down' values. It
perfectly captures Nikki's feeling of being out of sync with the world around
her, of a framework that doesn't fit her psyche. Nikki was brave enough to step
into the unknown and look for a way to live that was true to who she was. In
order to become a feminist or any form of freethinker, this crucial first step
has to be taken and after that, all else can follow. These lyrics may have been
true of Nikki at a very early age at that turning point in her life described
above and most certainly became true for Helen. While Bad Girls contains
only one overt reference to feminism (that conversation with Helen after her
'flat packing' furniture) feminism in this sense of rejecting 'hand me down'
values pervades the show, most notably in Nikki's feelings and actions.
Nikki's strength is how she has learned to work out her own values and her
role in life, including the meaning of being in a relationship. By contrast,
Bodybag is little more than the summary of all her mother's proverbs and
catchphrases and even Yvonne, strong-minded and masterful as she is, is trapped
within the Atkins family values, as personified by Charlie Atkins who is on the
outside 'taking care of business.' 'Business' is not Yvonne's preserve and only
becomes Lauren's when Charlie proves himself false. By contrast, Nikki starts
off with Trisha's love and support on the outside and subsequently earns
Helen's, even while Nikki remains stuck half in Larkhall.
Nikki's strength, in a very un-English way, also comes from her ability to
feel and channel her emotions. This is at odds with the traditional male Brit
heroic quality, of having a 'stiff upper lip', which is arguably a throwback to
ideas of Stoicism. I have split views on its worth: it is great for fighting
wars and dealing with immediate crises, but as Nikki said to Monica 'you have to
give way to your feelings.' "You're not normal, you're not abnormal, you do what
you want, what you feel" is Nikki's credo, an expression of her strength,
tenderness and imagination. It should therefore be no surprise that Nikki has
those very feminine characteristics of empathy, and the ability to feel and
express her emotions without blocking anything out. In that way, she does not
display weakness but simply makes her emotions work for her. She can similarly
feel for other people's emotions and can tune in to them with her gift for
finding the right words to express these feelings to reach those she is trying
to help. In short, she has that emotional fluidity that interweaves with, not
contradicts, the strength of her principles. When she is at her most relaxed,
she softens up to those who she trusts. In love, Nikki is the most passionate
caring woman imaginable, so she knows when to hang her suit of armour up on the
hook so that she can be free to love.
I have covered a fair stretch of different values, both ancient and modern.
What is remarkable is how everything balances out so much in Nikki that it is
easy to overlook the fact that anything needs to be balanced at all.
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