I am an ex-“Cool Girl.”
Gone Girl fans will immediately recognize this reference: The “Cool Girl,” that magical, mythical unicorn of a woman that main character Amy so meticulously, so resentfully describes. Book aside, this quote tends to resound with a vast number of women I know, not because we hate the cool girl, but because we have been the cool girl.
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.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”
I love this quote. It is the anti-heroine, heroine, statement, the precursor between the moment of being what society views as “girl” and what society views as “woman,” a place that women know maybe all too well, and they for sure know what the main difference is.
Girls please and accommodate.
Women don’t give a fuck.
You might be eager to call this a gross generalization, and you probably would be right. But the boundary between girlhood and womanhood, in the vast, bounding generalities that might be too liberally used, is one of plenty. There is something to be said of the way girls are taught to please and how they eventually, hopefully, evolve out of that. And I only feel confident to say that because I know this divide. I know it well. Who one is before and who one is after. I know this because I know this girl, this Cool Girl, intimately. I have been this girl. The Cool Girl.
I certainly have — the one who aimed for pretty and never let the effort of prettiness be seen. The one who warped her expectations so that her wants and desires fit someone else’s plans. The turned down version of yourself, the one that doesn’t ever rattle the boat and is fitting to someone’s “idea” of what a woman or a partner should be. I have smiled through it, faked it, been “chill.” The one who was available only when someone called (but never asked that someone be available for her). The one who was pleasant and never raised her voice (or better yet, dissented, because even in the coolest tone, that counts as raising your voice). The one who existed as a package deal for whatever boyfriend, hoping to secure a position as something of value. Aim to please, be everything, be what they all want you to be.
It has never been so hard to be such a made-up thing.
Though, it’s not like you get much of a choice when navigating the passageway from girlhood to womanhood. This, thankfully and hopefully, may be changing, but growing up means trying to find your way through being a pleasing object and hopefully ending up as a human who just happens to be a woman. Let me be clear that I am not coming down on “girlhood” in general. To become a woman, one must go through girlhood. Girlhood is necessary. Girlhood is required. Girlhood has even got serious perks. But one of the prices girlhood has to pay is coming up in a world that rather you not exert your autonomy, exert your power. Culturally, you are expected to please, to be like a shiny, pretty thing, much like Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, a woman who goes from being too loud, too raucous, too flawed, too everything, to a reverse cool girl role. Eliza Doolittle becomes what everyone wants from girlhood.
She becomes tamed. Pleasing.
Which is why Cool Girl tends to be such a toxic role to play — it’s only about being tamed and pleasing, a literal “best of” wonder record of manageable quirks and irresistible traits that don’t actually connote anything about your real fucking self. Other versions of this include Ask Polly’s brilliant “Emotional Hooter’s Waitress” or the original cool girl, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Each is a collection of quirks and likeable things that serve as a vehicle for men’s learning curve and accessory. You are like a dog that’s been paper-trained and now has that repetitive thought process of “I’ll be good, I’ll be good” to hopefully get a treat. Treats equal love. Love is what you need.
Except that the love you get as a Cool Girl isn’t real. It’s what is thought to be real. But really, it’s just the temporary prize for behaving well.
I am a once girl and now woman who has been and sometimes finds herself both desperate for love and acceptance. I’d swear to you that as an adult, a grown woman, that I am past the Cool Girl, but I still find traces of her flitting around me when I am feeling at my most insecure. “Love me,” she says, desperately wanting the praise, love, and acceptance that most women tend to falter around, whether it’s from work or from our loved ones. Women are trained to be insecure, and we as a culture act confused when it accidentally slips out that we need this love that we are systematically denied in very small, but all too often ways.
Too much, too little, all the time.
Toxic masculinity brings its own problems, but I wonder if men ever anxiously roll over their own worthiness, if they ever try and fit the role of being “pleasing.” They certainly deal with the cultural norms of being “man enough,” but I don’t think that pleasing is something that men necessarily deal with. They impress; woman subdue and pacify. Men exert their physical selves or work selves; women try to inch down to make room for everyone else. We both are taught nasty lessons from the same book, in different forms, but when it comes down to it, women have to figure out how to not please anyone but themselves.
It’s hard for me to sympathize (furthermore, even empathize) with Amy’s character. As editor Kelsium put it, “Amy is methodical in her sociopathy and even though her rage is palpable, it’s under control in a way…[It]is very much about a thought pattern that says, if I can’t make everything perfect then I will methodically destroy everything and myself along with it because why bother and that very much is my base line dark place.” Maybe that’s why she is so tough to sympathize or empathize with — she’s the symbolic, collective dark place of the very worst of internal female self-hatred that builds up over the years. The kind that comes from not playing the Cool Girl and losing the game, and the more bitter card of playing the Cool Girl and still losing the game. And that? That is scary as all hell, identifying with that darkness. Other than her Cool Girl monologue, Amy is hardly the character with whom you want to relate. She’s a narcissistic selfish psychopath, if that can even be a thing. (Or is it sexist stereotyping that her character is this way? Am I being paranoid about sexism? Or is part of feminism having a female character that is allowed the flawed, fucked up nature that a male characters are allowed all the time?) The dark places that Amy goes are too real, even if it scares the ever-loving shit out of us, because how crazy is she? Readers might not be (spoiler alert y’all) faking our kidnapping and murdering our ex, but we might identify with that very dark place that comes from feeling like no matter what, we can’t fit a mold that was made for us, a mold that no woman can really fit. Which is why we will always comes back to that monologue, because what woman hasn’t felt the wrath of not being the Cool Girl? Or even the temporal kind of hell of being one? It’s a double-edged sword, living that type of existence .
Because the truth of the matter is, none of us, once we have made the realization of being the Cool Girl, can ever, ever inhabit that role. Because as women, we will get upset at things. We will not like everything our partners do. We will always be, in some way, too much, or too little, and most of all, we will never attain any sort of pedestal (not that it’s possible or even healthy to be on one) because we are flawed. How fucking good does it feel to say that? We are flawed. We are messy and imperfect and human. God, we are fucking human. We can’t ever, ever be perfect women or girls or sisters or girlfriends or wives or feminists or whatever we identify as because we are fucking human. We can’t always represent every aspect of one another because we woman, or girls, or feminists, or whatever, aren’t a monolith, and hell, we can’t always be expected to represent the best version of ourselves. Maybe that’s the best realization that comes from growing out of the Cool Girl — no one will ever be completely happy with you, not even at your best Cool Girl. They might even be less happy with you as yourself. But in the end, isn’t the actual self — that flawed, sometimes shadow, sometimes light, self — isn’t that the one that is worthy of the fight? Of love? Of wholeness?
I think so. Even my once Cool Girl self might agree. Maybe not in the open, where she might be judged for wanting such a self. But I know that deep inside her heart, where no matter what, the Cool Girl can’t penetrate, that’s who she wants to be.
Hopefully, all of us can find her.
One reply on “Anti-Heroine, Heroine: Gone Girl and What the “Cool Girl” Means”