I’ve been hearing a lot recently about the archetype of the “cool girl” these days, mostly in regards to Jennifer Lawrence, but also Mila Kunis and Olivia Wilde. The trope is nothing new; this fantastic Buzzfeed article traces its history. I’m particularly interested in the archetype and the issues surrounding it because I was once, briefly, a “cool girl”.
Now, let’s be clear. I am not claiming that I’ve ever been cool. Those of you who know me IRL know better than that. I’m talking about the archetype, which is famously described in Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl (a book I still haven’t read because I have a pathological aversion to reading, watching, or listening to anything while it’s still culturally relevant).
“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.”
This pretty much sums up the media image of Jennifer Lawrence, who smokes weed (allegedly), claims to hate exercise & diets, and speaks often about how much she loves to eat. She’s the kind of celebrity that everyone wants to be best friends with, because she seems fun, laid-back, and low-maintenance. And, of course, because she’s hot.
The cool girl represents the holy grail of heterosexual womanhood – she is immensely desirable without appearing to try. (I’m going to stop using the air quotes around “cool girl” because they just look awkward, but if you want to imagine that they’re still there, go for it).
However, a recent article on Kate Upton points out the ways in which the model has taken her own version of the cool girl to new levels:
“But where Lawrence’s ‘cool’ is an attitude of general disregard for the fripperies of showbiz, Upton’s is an eager willingness to go along with whatever’s demanded of her. Want her to strip near-naked in Antarctica, for some reason? Sure! Want her to boogie in a bikini on camera? Sounds fun! Want her to appear in a movie that casts her as a vapid young lady who inspires ire in two older and more accomplished actresses? Why not? She isn’t necessarily rebelling against Hollywood’s standards; she’s fully, happily owning them.”
So, it appears that the cool girl is someone who is super-hot and willing to self-objectify… can you see why I find this problematic? I’m not judging Upton – I know very little about her, and she’s doing her job. However, I am concerned about this version of attractiveness, where the attraction is based on the fact that she gamely goes along with whatever others – particularly men – want from her. I don’t think we want girls and women to get the idea that they should strive to be non-confrontational and compliant, regardless of their own wants or needs.
The second thing about the cool girl archetype that really bugs me is even more anti-feminist, because it relies on putting down other women in order to make oneself appear cooler.
For instance, in an interview with Lily Allen this past March, the author praises her tomboyishness and honesty as Allen states: “I’m not an archetypal woman. All my best friends are boys.” Her take on gender issues? “But I don’t think men are the enemy, I think women are the enemy.”
And this is where I see the “cool girl” as a real problem. As a high school teacher, I often heard female students say things like “why are girls so annoying?,” or “girls suck”. In fact, one of the very few times I cursed in front of a student was when a girl said to me, “I really hate girls” and I replied, “that’s a really shitty thing to say”. Yes, I overreacted, but I do think it’s a problem the way girls are made to think that it’s not only ok, but also desirable to put other girls down.
The cool girl tends to look down on traditional trappings of femininity, and in her coolness, makes those trappings inherently uncool. The cool girl feels superior. She is “low-maintenance,” in contrast to all of those “other,” high maintenance girls. In fact, she doesn’t really “get” girls; she’s much more comfortable being friends with guys. And if she’s hot and non-confrontational, like the cool girl is supposed to be, guys will like being friends with her too.
And, to some extent, I get the appeal of being a cool girl. Like I mentioned earlier, I went through a cool girl phase. Most of my friends at this time were guys, because at the time I felt that I could be myself with them more than I could with other girls. Part of this stemmed from insecurity; I felt inadequate at “girl things” (I’d never had a boyfriend, I didn’t know how to dress nicely, I was way too socially awkward and easily intimidated to have a “normal” conversation with other girls) so I embraced my male friends.
With them, I could express my love of hair metal and tell off-color jokes. We’d go to the local dive bar that had no sound system and a warped, old-school bowling alley in the back where you had to score by hand. My best friend and I snuck into the Warped Tour through the VIP entrance. He taught me how to skateboard. We watched crappy movies and drank cheap beer. At the time, I couldn’t imagine doing any of those things with my female friends. Now, of course, I realize that had more to do with the friends themselves than with their genders.
And yes, I would talk to my guy friends about how I didn’t “get” other girls, how their behavior confused me, how they were high-maintenance. Was this misogynist and anti-feminist? Totally. While it often came from a place of insecurity, I was still painting “girls” with a pretty broad brush, assuming that everyone I knew who happened to be a girl would feel similarly about certain things.
Come on, did I really think I was the only girl around who liked hair metal and dirty jokes?
I was pretty sincere in my confusion, but I was also very aware that being able to commiserate with the guys over “other girls” gave me special status.
I’m not going to spend too much time beating myself up over any of this. That was a really fun and happy time in my life, and a really important one for me. My best friend from that time is still one of my best friends. During those years I gained a lot of confidence in who I was and what I liked.
It’s also probably important to note that as I developed that confidence, I began to realize that pretty much anything I liked could be a “girl thing,” and that my closeness with various friends had very little to do with their gender. I stopped being friends with the guys who required me to be a compliant “cool girl” in order to be friends, and started giving my female friends a lot more credit for how awesome they were.
Sometimes it’s just hard to find people you totally connect with. I’m not saying that in order to be a good feminist, you have to have mainly female friends, because that would be silly. I’m just saying that we need to pay more attention to the ways in which we talk about girls who are “just one of the guys”.