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Is the ‘Cool Girl’ the new ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’?
As Nathan Rabin calls for the death of the MPDG, another archetype is taking her place.
BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
Have you heard the one about the Cool Girl? You know, the one where she walks into a bar and drinks with the guys and everybody loves her and thinks she’s really awesome—the end. If you haven’t heard about the Cool Girl directly yet, there’s still a good possibility that you’ve seen some version of her in pop culture recently. She has become everybody’s favorite new conversation piece; who she is, what she signifies, and how she impacts other women, etc.
Although not everyone has been thrilled by Flynn’s depiction of stereotypes, her book’s description of the Cool Girl has gotten under many peoples’ skin. Whether you liked Gone Girl or not, this archetype doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. While (spoiler alert) the novel’s main character, Amy Dunne, is actually a version of the “female sociopath,” another oft-discussed stereotype as of late, it’s she that informs readers just who the Cool Girl really is. The whole passage surrounding Cool Girls in the book is quite long, but the section that has been circulated most frequently online is as follows:
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.
It’s a great bit of writing, and it’s not hard to see why it’s taken hold. Vulture’s Amanda Dobbins said of this description, “I think about it at least twice a week; I could send you a list of all the Cool Girls in my personal and professional lives.”
Probably the most merciless indictment of the Cool Girl character came from Anne Helen Petersen, who used Flynn’s book as a jumping-off point to talk about the history of Cool Girls through the ages, from Clara Bow to Carole Lombard and Jane Fonda, all the way up to Jennifer Lawrence. The scathing and powerful BuzzFeed piece took no prisoners.
We’d like to think of ‘cool’ as connotative of something progressive, even radical. But Cool Girls are neither, at least not precisely. We love them because they seem to offer an alternative to the polished, performative femininity visible in both our stars and our peers. Because they ‘don’t give a shit’; because they don’t truck with the regulations and rules of dating and mean-girling that prove so infuriating. But to be ‘cool’ is to tread a fine line between something different, something almost masculine, but never anything too masculine, or assertive, or independent. The Cool Girl can talk about poop, and video games, and eating Doritos, because those things are ultimately benign: Even with her short hair, Jennifer Lawrence still has the body and the face and the wardrobe that conforms to dominant beauty ideals.
The Cool Girl is a difficult concept. It suggests a personality engineered solely to appeal to men—but which, according to some, is also employed with gusto by many women. As reported by Jessica Goldstein at ThinkProgress, “Cool Girls, as Flynn writes, are a myth, and the reason the myth persists is because everyone plays along. We’re all complicit. I wish this was something we could just blame on dudes or the patriarchy or whatever, but alas: anytime a girl says she’s ‘not like most girls,’ she contributes to the idea that there is some Platonic ideal of a woman who consists entirely of Esquire-esque fantasies about what a woman ought to be like.”
The New Statesman’s Sarah Ditum even claims that the Cool Girl has invaded feminism. Bitum warns, “Being a Cool Girl can be liberating. There’s something splendidly freeing about announcing that you are not as other women are and refusing to see yourself as victimised simply because you belong to the inferior class. It is, to use a despised word, empowering. But understanding how power works and using it to your own advantage is not the same thing as feminism. The Cool Girl Feminist appears to break boundaries as she breezes into the world of men, but her passport is a promise, written in lipstick and sealed with a handjob, that she won’t actually change anything.”
The worst part, says Bim Adewunmi, is that being a Cool Girl doesn’t necessarily make you less susceptible to rampant sexism. Looking at the Cool Girl in modern culture for The Guardian, Adewunmi discovered a kind of paradox. For many women, it appears, being the Cool Girl is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.
Of course, there are women who genuinely love pastimes traditionally associated with straight men: football, comic books and graphic novels, exploring exciting new bong technology, gaming and cosplay etc. They have always existed: my childhood and teen years were filled with Voltron and Battle of the Planets and DC and Marvel as well as a dangerous obsession with Star Trek in all its iterations. These women are now enjoying the warm of glow of some acceptability, but still face a backlash of their own from their respective fandoms. A quick look at Tumblr (the premier online destination for the disaffected fan) reveals the usual rants of men hellbent on tearing down the mask of fake nerdery, with calls for self-identified female nerd to ‘take off your nerd glasses and stop pretending.’ You can’t win.
What’s at the heart of Adewunmi’s argument here is the belief that pigeonholing someone as a Cool Girl, like pigeonholing someone as any one thing alone, ultimately holds women back, despite how much truth there is in the Cool Girl stereotype.
The closest relation to the Cool Girl in popular culture is probably the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, the term has now reached a point of such saturation that Rabin himself felt the need to apologize for it this week. Expressing his contrition in an essay for Salon, Rabin wrote, “I coined the phrase to call out cultural sexism and to make it harder for male writers to posit reductive, condescending male fantasies of ideal women as realistic characters. But I looked on queasily as the phrase was increasingly accused of being sexist itself.”
“Reductive, condescending male fantasies” are, sadly, more often than not what the idea of the Cool Girl is all about. In either case with these fantasies, you have a woman who is more a reflection of the men around her than she is a fully realized person unto herself.
Indeed, Adewunmi addressed the obvious comparisons between the Cool Girl and the MPDG, too. She notes, “In cinema, the “cool girl” is more often than not typified as a “manic pixie dream girl”: the free-spirited, fun-loving girl with no other concerns except being in love with our main guy, and helping him out of his awkward ailment. She is essentially Natalie Portman in Garden State, or Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown.”
But the comparison starts to become more harmful when one considers the applications. MPDGs, are, for the most part, nothing but a figment. Yes, they are based on misguided perceptions of the real world, but in any practical sense, they don’t exist. Cool Girls, on the other hand, are frequently identified in the real world—Olivia Wilde, Olivia Munn, and Mila Kunis, have all been branded with the label as of late.
Like the MPDG, the Cool Girl is in theory an optimum example of what men want to see when they look at a woman. But where the MPDG is usually a girlish, ephemeral type, ready to teach you important lessons about yourself, the Cool Girl just wants to chill and do the things you like to do. However, as Adewunmi mentions above, some women do just like the same stuff guys like. Some women just like a few things guys like. And some women enjoy sports, beer, and sex without being classically beautiful. Is it appropriate to lump these women in with the Cool Girls as well?
If there’s one fault with the Cool Girl takedown Petersen did for BuzzFeed, it’s that her portrait of Lawrence is a bit reductive at moments. She asserts, “I’m not suggesting that Lawrence is intentionally inauthentic, scheming, or manipulative: Rather, like all the Cool Girls you know, she’s subconsciously figured out what makes people like her, and she’s using it.”
Subconscious desires aside, this still makes Lawrence sound like a Cool Girl machine, built in a laboratory. According to Petersen, her main aim is basically to please. However, with one Oscar win and two more nominations under her belt, it seems safe to say that Lawrence is more committed to fulfilling her own dreams than she is to being anyone else’s idea of a perfect woman.
Lawrence may have the “body and the face and the wardrobe that conforms to dominant beauty ideals,” just as Petersen says she does, but is she really any less her own person for it? Yes, she’s traditionally attractive. That doesn’t change the fact that being overly critical of young women who happen to be famous sends a dangerous message to young women everywhere.
The next can of worms with the Cool Girl is that she’s designed to be put in opposition against other girls. Take, for instance, the way the media has chosen to contrast Jennifer Lawrence with Anne Hathaway. At Indiewire’s Women And Hollywood blog, Kerenesa Cadenas cautioned, “Keep in mind, the more we pit and compare actresses like Hathaway and Lawrence, position them into these archetypes of femininity and complain about them—the more we box in ourselves and foster a community of female competitiveness which is the last thing we should be doing.”
Finally, as Adewunmi hones in on in her Guardian piece, the main reason not to be too hard on the Cool Girl is that like every other stereotyped group, Cool Girls are being put in a box by us. It hardly seems fair that we can say, “Act like this,” and then turn around and respond with, “Why are you acting like that?” Adewunmi concludes, “It’s easy to be scornful of these so-called cool girls, but they are also responding to societal cues, as are we all… The real issue is that we are still being boxed into narrow definitions of what we can be.”
And yet, we shouldn’t shy away from talking about the Cool Girl entirely. She is now a part of the social fabric, and thanks to Gillian Flynn, she has a name we can use when we consider her. To say that anyone is just a Cool Girl (and that there is nothing else to them) is wrong, but to use the phrase to contextualize certain attitudes about women in 2014, it can be helpful.
Like with the MPDG, it all depends on how you discuss the Cool Girl. Lisa Kinsley at the Daily Dot, for one, responded to Rabin’s piece by deciding she wasn’t ready to give up talking about the MPDG entirely. Knisely argued, “Talking about the idealization of the MPDG in both film and real life is a pretty powerful tool for feminists to have in our descriptions of gender relations. It’s one I don’t think we should apologize for using, even if it blurs some important details every time we use the term and even risks sometimes veering into misogyny.”
There’s a fascinating anecdote in Rabin’s Salon essay where he brings up an interview with Zoe Kazan, who wrote and starred in the film Ruby Sparks. When asked how she felt about the MPDG in conjunction with the movie, she said, “I think it’s basically misogynistic.”
One can easily see another young female writer, several years down the line, being asked how she felt about the phrase Cool Girl, and if it related to her movie. And you can see her getting annoyed, rolling her eyes, brushing off the question, and perhaps calling that term misogynistic, too.
Flynn concludes her chilling Cool Girl soliloquy in Gone Girl with Amy declaring that for men, “’I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women.'” And that, in the end, is what we need to change about the Cool Girl. It doesn’t matter if she simply wants to be one of the guys. What matters is recognizing that all women have an identity apart from men.
And for the Cool Girl and the MPDG to go away for good, we need to recognize that there are more than two types of roles for women to occupy in the first place.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.
Photo via DeviantArt/Beeniaktor