I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the “Cool Girl” passage from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I was listening to Gone Girl on audiobook on the way to a class, when the (now-infamous) description of the “Cool Girl” passage came up:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
The passage made me, to quote the old idiom, stop in my tracks: 1) Because of how sharply written and relatable it was, as many commenters have since pointed out, and 2) Because almost immediately, the following two thoughts crossed my mind: “Oh shit, I hope that I’m not this girl” and “Oh shit. I totally was this girl.”
I was—to some extent, probably still am—a Cool Girl, according to Flynn’s definition of the trope. While I’d obviously be loath to self-identify as “hot,” “brilliant,” or “funny”—and while I don’t particularly like sports, video games, or anal sex, for that matter—much of Flynn’s description rings true. I write a lot about sex, so my sense of humor skews toward the bluer side. I love cheap beer and junk food and have often been asked how I manage to stay slim despite subsisting almost entirely on mid-range whiskey and veal parm heroes (the answer is binge-eating, liberally interspersed with stress-induced periods of self-starvation, if I’m being perfectly honest). And I have been known to smile in that “chagrined, loving manner” while I watch my boyfriend play Nazi Zombie Hunters on COD with his friends when we have to make a 9:30pm dinner reservation.
But I think the main thing I so strongly identified with about the Cool Girl is her skill at adroitly navigating male spaces, which is something I prided myself on when I was younger. I’ve always had more male than female friends, meaning I was one of those horrible girls who guffawed at rape jokes and ran around saying I preferred the company of men because I “didn’t trust women.” (This is basically code for: “Women don’t trust me, because I make out with their boyfriends and am generally a terrible person.”)
In its most platonic form, being a Cool Girl means you have been marked as an exception to your gender, that you’ve received some elusive form of validation from male society. I first received this validation long before Gone Girl came out, when my boyfriend’s friend drunkenly came up to me after I’d made a poop joke and said, “You know, you’re not like other girls.”
If someone said this to me today, I’d probably respond with, “Wow, you’re an idiot. How many girls have you actually hung out with?” But at the time, I felt oddly gratified to be included in this category of “other girls,” who didn’t backstab or gossip or make Sex and the City references or wince at dirty jokes. Therein lies the slippery seductiveness of the Cool Girl: You are an exception, an anomaly, the 21st century of the “Good Negro”: You are different, and therefore better, than the other members of your gender.
For this reason, I am chagrined to self-identify as a Cool Girl, in part because the Cool Girl hasn’t been too popular on the Internet these days. She’s been ripped to shreds in numerous Internet think-pieces, following the publication of a (now-canonical) essay from BuzzFeed writer Anne Helen Petersen, who equated the Cool Girl archetype with Jennifer Lawrence. In her piece, Peterson writes of the Cool Girl:
The Cool Girl never nags, or “just wants one” of your chili fries, because she orders a giant order for herself. She’s an ideal that matches the times—a mix of feminism and passivity, of confidence and femininity. She knows what she wants, and what she wants is to hang out with the guys.
Cool Girls don’t have the hang-ups of normal girls: They don’t get bogged down by the patriarchy, or worrying about their weight. They’re basically dudes masquerading in beautiful women’s bodies, reaping the privileges of both. But let’s be clear: It’s a performance. It might not be a conscious one, but it’s the way our society implicitly instructs young women on how to be awesome: Be chill and don’t be a downer, act like a dude but look like a supermodel.
But I also think the Cool Girl gets a bit of a bad rap, and we shouldn’t be so quick to castigate her. In order to criticize the Cool Girl, we have to ask ourselves why and how the trope became so prevalent, which involves deconstructing the sociocultural context from whence she came—something I feel most of her critics have so far failed to do.
Take Petersen’s piece, for instance. She calls the “Cool Girl” trope a “performance,” but how can she tell, exactly, how much of it is genuine and how much is artifice? Her entire argument rests on the assumption that a woman who “looks like a supermodel” cannot possibly be interested in stereotypically male pursuits like chili fries or blow jobs or poop jokes—when in fact, I can attest to the fact that it’s entirely possible to be a woman, not be totally unfuckable, and be interested in all three.
The crux of Petersen’s argument is essentially that a woman who is both attractive and interested in what we traditionally think of as “male” activities can only do so because she’s desperate for male attention. While the suggestion that a woman doing anything for attention is anathema to me (have we not seen “but she just wanted attention” used countless times as a self-defense for rapists?), it also kinda makes me think: So the fuck what? So the fuck what if a woman is pretending to like the Detroit Lions because she wants some guy she’s interested in to think she’s cool?
Let’s say that the Cool Girl is, in fact, pure “performance.” Guess what? Literally all tropes and personality types you encounter in your youth are. (I do think the Cool Girl is essentially a youth phenomenon, most common among women in their teens and twenties). Being a Cool Girl is no different than being a ska kid in middle school, or being really into Star Trek because you’re dating a Trekkie. It’s a new shirt or dress, something you wear to death for months or even years before you give to Goodwill or shove into a storage bin, because you don’t like the way it fits anymore.
This is something literally everyone, regardless of gender, does at various points in their life: They try on various identities and affiliations for size, until they find something that suits them. But for whatever reason, whenever you see a woman try on the Cool Girl, people can’t sharpen their knives fast enough. We call her fake. We call her performative. We call her a traitor to her gender.
Part of this, I think, has to do with sexism: People tend to have a problem with women who try on various identities throughout their lifetime, be it “homemaker” or “business woman” or “whore.” But most of it has to do with how strictly gender roles are circumscribed in our culture, and how quick we are to ascribe an ulterior motive to any behavior that might be at odds with these roles. A man wants to get an eyebrow wax? He must be gay. A lady wants to talk about how much she likes sucking dick? She must be a Cool Girl.
Well, as a feminist, I unilaterally reject the idea that a man or woman has to behave a certain way to be considered a real man or woman, and as a “Cool Girl,” I reject the idea that being a Cool Girl is, somehow, inherently inauthentic. I reject the idea that a woman who loves shoving “hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang” must be doing so for attention. This, to me, is tantamount to saying that a woman who claims to enjoy sex must be a slut, or a woman who self-identifies as lesbian must only be doing so because she can’t get a man to sleep with her. We should all know by now that when it comes to gender, there is no must; there is no prescription for inappropriate or appropriate behavior that applies to all members of one gender. All we can do is take people as they are, individual by individual, and judge them accordingly.
That is not to say that such a creature as the Cool Girl doesn’t exist in nature; if she didn’t, Flynn’s trope wouldn’t have resonated as strongly with readers as it did. There are, of course, women who appear to be better at navigating male spaces than female ones, and exhibit the same behavior—the giggling, the provocative clothing, the chirpy claims of “I love pro wrestling!” or “I’m so sad Jeter is retiring!” that you’ll overhear at any mid-level Irish pub—that makes other women hate them so deeply.
But if the Cool Girl is, in some instances, pure artifice, let’s take a second to examine why the artifice exists. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the reason why some women are Cool Girls is similar to the reason why people at the margins have, for centuries, sought to “pass” as members of the dominant group. For the Jews of Eastern Europe, or the African-Americans of the nineteenth-century, “passing” as an Aryan Christian white man to avoid immediate detection was the ultimate goal. It had less to do with a desire to betray your race and be accepted among these groups and more to do with a need to navigate these spaces for your own survival.
I think a similar thing is happening with the Cool Girl phenomenon. Because let me tell you something: If you’re at a bar, and you’re a lone, inebriated woman in a group of a dozen or so men, what’s the best way to respond when a bunch of dudes start telling rape jokes? Is it to a) scream and cry and throw a shit fit, thus leading your drinking buddies to believe you’re a delicate little flower who doesn’t have the strength to take a joke, thus making you more vulnerable to being targeted? Or is it b) go laugh along with them, loudly and heartily, thus making them think that you’re strong enough to be in on the joke, even while your guts are quietly burning in their casings inside?
I know a lot of people would say a) is the smarter and more honest answer. But frankly, I would be inclined to pick b) the Cool Girl answer, because sometimes, it’s better to fight the enemy by attacking from within, rather than waging a brief, and ultimately futile, offensive from without.
As a woman, though, there’s ultimately no way to win this question.
It is dangerous to be a woman anywhere in the world. But in some ways, it is even more dangerous to be a Cool Girl, because in order to be a Cool Girl, you completely subsume yourself in the world of men, thus putting your trust in their hands. Since being a high school Cool Girl, the kind of girl who wore low-cut tops and eschewed the company of “catty bitches,” I have learned the dangers of putting your trust in men.
I learned it when rumors about my sex life surfaced in a blog written by a female teacher, whom I had deeply trusted, and summarily ignored by the male administration, who didn’t even think it was worthy of a reprimand, let alone a dismissal. I learned it when I was hit in the face by a boyfriend—the first, and thankfully only, time—and chased around the house with a screwdriver because I was tired and didn’t want to sleep with him. And I really, really learned it when I went back to him right after, crying and begging, because a school administrator I asked to help had implied I must have done something to deserve it—because I thought I must have done something to deserve it. A Cool Girl might have said yes, a Cool Girl might have taken it, and I just hadn’t been Cool enough.
I don’t consider myself a Cool Girl, at least not anymore. I have lots of female friends who I love and cherish, I will not stay silent at rape jokes, and now when my boyfriend plays COD 2 when we’re supposed to make a longstanding reservation I will wrench the controller out of his clammy hands and show him what’s for. But I understand why the Cool Girl wouldn’t. I understand why she’d rather sit and smile and nod and feel a surge of pride when she’s told she’s “cooler than other girls.”
And I think that in order to take her down, we have to try to understand her better first.
Photo via BeeniAktor/Deviant Art