I was raised in a progressive household, as were many of my 21st century peers and pals. I was taught an elementary version of feminism, the lesson being that women aren’t treated so great in our society. I knew where to look for this mistreatment—one could usually find it on T.V., or in magazines and movies. By the time I was a teenager, I understood, at least, that there was, in existence, a pervasive sexualization and objectification of women in our culture. I knew to be repulsed by Sports Illustrated ads, by Victoria’s Secret runway shows, by sexist commercials that demanded women be sex dolls and mothers at the same time.
And I was repulsed. I am. But for a long time, I believed in a more subtle myth. A myth that nobody bothered to deconstruct for me because it is so ingrained in our subconscious. I believed in the myth of the Cool Girl.
The Cool Girl is a longtime elusive legend, internalized by young women by the time we hit puberty. She is defined by men, but we don’t get that until much, much later. I never really knew how to put it into words until I read Gone, Girl, by Gillian Flynn. In the novel, the main character, Amy, derisively tears into this concept:
“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.”
Oh my God! I said to myself. I get it. I totally got it, because I had been trying for so long to be this girl. I was the girl who would giggle in middle school when boys snapped by bra straps instead of punching them in the face, who let sexist remarks slide in the halls of my high-school, who tweeted semi-nastily about the girls in my Women’s Voices Through Time Class sophomore year of college instead of paying attention. All my life, I had been trying to be the Cool Girl.
Although this brilliantly written paragraph may have been my “Aha!” moment, there were a few other telling moments in recent years that have led me to reflect on my Cool Girl identity. For a brief semester my junior year of college, I lived with three men. One was and is my current partner. The other two were my friends of two years. I’m pretty sure that show with Zooey Deschanel had just come out, because everyone I told about my situation said, “Oh my God! Like the New Girl.”
I have never watched “The New Girl,” but I can guarantee you it was not like that at all. Instead of flirtations and dating advice (a facet that, as I garner from promos, is central to the show), there were the typical fights over who had to take out the garbage, and how disgusting Chris’s George Foreman grill had become. It was very standard and unquirky.
Still, we were all pretty good friends, and living in close proximity with each other we became pretty comfortable talking frankly about bodily functions and sex. I remember them often referring to me as a “bro,” because, I guess, girls don’t talk about that kind of stuff openly.
On the flip side, my partner, who I actually aim to impress, has often said he doesn’t understand girls. I’m a girl, I usually point out sensibly. You don’t have trouble understanding me.
Yeah, he’d respond, But you’re not really a girl. You’re like a dude. It was my aversion to flowers and high heels that may have inspired this statement (a natural antipathy or a symptom of Cool Girl-itis? It gives me headaches!), although he never explicitly said it.
My male friends aren’t jerks—neither is my partner. They’re actually really great, and I love them. But they are also participants in a society that says that women can’t be fun unless they take on typically “male” characteristics—and the girls who do take on those characteristics are the exception, not the rule. For a long time, I never bothered to question this idea.
And so, comments like those used to make me glow. Maybe they still do. It’s hard to escape the enticing nature of being the Cool Girl. Because that’s what they were really saying, when they were likening me to “one of the dudes.” They were naming me a Cool Girl. I liked the title. I thought it was a loosening of the rules, that I could be myself and guys would dig me.
It wasn’t, though. Because being a Cool Girl also means that you have to blindly approve of everything the men around you are doing. You have to laugh at the rape jokes, you have to ignore the sexist digs, or worse, you feel like you should be participating in them. Initiation involves denouncing feminism as lame. It involves conforming to the men around you.
And the women who won’t conform? It’s our job as Cool Girls to put them down. Women who don’t like porn? Prudes. Women who don’t like sports? Girly. Women who don’t like toilet humor? Uptight. Women who don’t like cool, interesting music? Trend followers. And the women who call out men for being sexist? They’re the worst of them all. Don’t they get that it was, like, just a joke?
I was guilty of this for a while. I took a Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies class and spent a lot of time trying to be the Cool Girl instead of learning from the women around me. I openly and loudly rejected movie-style romance, and dismissed women who appreciated it. And I pretended to be fine with misogynistic comments, even though there was a tiny voice in my head that said, They’re talking about you, dummy.
I cringe thinking about it. It’s embarrassing. And there are sociological theories I could point to that explain internalized oppression better than I could, but the worst part was that I didn’t even realize that I was essentially sending myself backward instead of moving forward.
It’s hard to say when I made this conscious shift. It was a gradual process, when I started thinking about what made me so “cool,” and if those were aspects of myself that I wanted to be valued for. Did I really want to be celebrated as the girl who laughs at sandwich jokes and pretends to like sports and scoffs at women who spend time on their hair and make-up? Did I really want it to be a them vs. me, an “I’m not like other girls” situation? Who was this really helping?
My insecurities about the way I was perceived were slowly unveiled as I asked myself these questions, but it wasn’t until I read Gillian Flynn’s novel that I really got it—that, when you look at the Cool Girl on paper, she seems kind of pathetic.
I am a recovering Cool Girl, and sometimes I still slip up. Sometimes I internally criticize women for expecting flowers on Valentine’s Day, and sometimes I pass judgments on women who elect to wear heels to casual events. Sometimes I don’t know whether these thoughts are really even mine, or if they’re a projection of the Cool Girl still living inside my brain that says, Every other girl is lame and uptight and typical except for you.
As it happens, though, some of the coolest girls I know are down with feminist theory. They do Krav Maga and hold panels on sexuality and street harassment. They don’t think kitchen jokes are funny, and they don’t have any desire to shame women for wearing lipstick, or liking pop music, or not loving the movie Superbad. They do their own thing, and they don’t really care what other people think. They are the cool girls that I aspire to be.
I’m ready to shed those capital letters, ready to try to be a cool girl, lowercase. Ready to stop beating up on myself, on other women, ready to start focusing on what really matters, which isn’t how much I like poker, or how open I am about sex, or how silly other girls are. Ready to quiet the Cool Girl voice in my head that amplifies my insecurities by creating a try-hard persona who actively denies things I know to be true and accepts things I know to be wrong.
Yeah, I may still be on the mend, but I think there’s hope for me yet.