Recently a friend ran into a woman we all knew in our twenties as a so-called "Cool Girl." She braced herself for the typical performance-art femininity—"dude in a hot girl's body" ready to party with suspicious, irritating gusto—and was startled to find herself speaking to a grownup who seemed pretty together. Down to earth, even.
I realized then what I had always suspected: The Cool Girl has an expiration date, and it is round about your thirties, when you either simply grow up by virtue of existing a few years more on earth, or realize it is hella tiresome to keep pretending you don't have any feelings or long-term goals to be desirable to a certain breed of dude.
Let me be clear, though: Liking beers, hot dogs, sports, partying, and having a general allergy to feelings or Anything Too Serious is not the province of straight men in reality. Anyone can play this game. Plenty of women genuinely love many of these things, myself included. But generally speaking, it is the cultural province and conditioning of straight men. These are the criteria for general dudeness, and by acknowledging this we must also acknowledge the criteria for general ladyness, which is typically thought of as a softer, gentler, more feelings-driven creature who is less reflexively impressed by violence, poor manners, pranks, booze as a lifestyle, and meat products.
These are all stereotypes, of course. People like what they like. But we all perform gender to some extent or the other, of course and we don't get our social cues in a vacuum. So when a woman for whatever reason embraces traditionally straight male interests while retaining aspects of straight female interests, and is hot (she always must be hot)—when she manages, for all intents and purposes, to somehow combine the best of both genders into one bangin' superpackage of awesomeness—you have what is called a Cool Girl. It has always existed, of course, but was, as we all know, recently popularized in an essential passage from Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. You know, THAT PASSAGE:
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, co-workers, 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 lived in Nashville in my twenties in the midst of a burgeoning rock music scene, and it was lousy with Cool Girls. I was covering the scene as a job, and so was slightly older than most of them. I had the fascinating sociological bird's eye view of seeing such women up close with the advantage of More Years. A few in particular were considered top tier examples of the form, and they were irritating beyond comprehension, but mesmerizing to watch. They were fun. Never too serious. Beautiful. Interesting. Elusive. Allergic to feelings. Only about good times. Effortlessly sensual, but one of the guys. Foul-mouthed, but incredibly feminine.
Naturally, there were, at any given time, droves of dudes in love with them because they were "not like other girls." Whereas other ladies were obvious, these girls were hard to read. Whereas other girls were transparent about their desire for a commitment, these girls seemed indifferent to the notion. Whereas other girls were clingy, jealous, or needy, these girls were autonomous, roving, restless types who could not be pinned down easily and wanted even less than you did, whatever it was you wanted.
They perfected a mix of crudeness and delicacy and the one quality essential to Cool Girlness: Every once in a while, they would let the mask down just enough that you could see underneath it all there was a kind of extreme vulnerability—a need, say, for someone to swoop in and help pick up the pieces of this fragile but tough specimen. This particular combination, it seemed, was intoxicating.
It's not hard to see why men find this desirable. Fed a steady diet of pursuit-as -gender performance, plenty of dudes who have never examined such tropes will willingly join this thrilling chase, and nothing is better to chase than something that keeps darting away, which is so unlike the cultural narrative men are taught to expect—that every woman around is trying to ensnare you long before you are ready to be snared.
The Cool Girl is always just elusive enough to keep you guessing, to keep several men interested at once, to never promise herself anywhere, not really, and to master the art of lightness as being.
In a recent piece at the Telegraph, writer Helen Coffey argues that the Cool Girl does not even exist, though, and asks men to stop looking for her. She writes:
You see people buying into this nonsense all the time – men chasing a non-existent dream girl and, worse still, women doing their best to contort themselves into the preposterous mould because they think it's what men want. But the truth is, we've all been brainwashed.
The Cool Girl model of womanhood – Olivia Wilde in Drinking Buddies, Anne Hathaway in Love and Other Drugs, Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer, Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (before she starts pretending to be the kind of hopelessly needy girl that is, obviously, repugnant to men) – is something you'll only find on the big screen.
She notes correctly that there is a human trait curiously absent from the Cool Girl schtick:
Even if someone has the Cool Girl attributes – laid-back, into sports, genuinely enjoys a beer and a burger while maintaining the figure of a Broadway dancer – the only way to truly embody the Cool Girl spirit is by never, ever getting pissed off. And herein lies the problem.
In the very best relationships, you're going to irritate each other from time to time. The idea of a girl who is endlessly understanding and who never gets angry is, frankly, kind of disturbing. It makes her two-dimensional and subservient, with a stunted spectrum of emotions – less than human, almost. You may as well go out with a Japanese body pillow.
A few years back, Bim Adewunmi, who says she used to scorn cool girls but has since realized they are fiction, took a similar position:
The cool girl trope does not describe a whole person. She is a collection of attributes, a list of someone's favourite things. Womanhood is a broad church; call us legion, for we are many. The real issue is that we are still being boxed into narrow definitions of what we can be. Maybe the way to undermine and eradicate this tendency to it is to attack the legitimacy of the various titles we are "forced" to adopt.
I don't think this means the Cool Girl is fiction, but rather, a phase. I think she's a perfect role to inhabit in your twenties when you're unsure of yourself (and who isn't?), trying on identities for size still, still working out your needs and how to get them met, and likely running with a pack of dudes who value such hedonistic detachment. I think a Cool Girl offers a way of moving through the world with protective armor over the girl you still are and the woman you're yet to become, while still courting all the adoration and fawning we're taught to hold so dear.
Sometimes it feels good to reject cultural notions of femininity and take up residence on a strange earth and live among the Others—to be told that for a while, you were that sort of girl, the one all the men wanted, admired, and desired, and could never quite grab hold of. A mirror that telegraphed back their values, but beautiful.
But that girl also grows up and learns it's better to be real than cool. And without suggesting that the end result for everyone is to pair off and settle down, most people do mellow with age. And they do settle, just more easily into their own complexities, more easily into something less prone to typecasting.
Which is probably why I don't know a single woman in her thirties, forties or beyond who is at all like the Cool Girls I knew in my twenties or still see from a distance. At this age, they are serious and fun. Masculine and feminine. Simple and complicated. Transparent and elusive. You know, just people.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.