The cool girl is dead, long live the cool girl
What it means to be a cool girl is another cultural artifact up for debate in 2021
My favorite poison-drenched detail in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is how the former Entertainment Weekly writer made the antiheroes at the story's center a failed pop-culture magazine music writer and a failed quiz-scribbling magazine writer. But I also retain affection for the "cool girl" monologue the book's lead character Amy levels at her fellow females:
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.
While the monologue provides a valuable character clue about Amy qua her dispassion and contempt for the rest of humanity, it's also a handy little dissection of a common gender trope.
Although the precise details comprising the performance of "cool" shift from generation to generation and culture to culture, the definition of cool is largely static: To be cool is to resist linear structures -- cool avoids setting goals, cool avoids openly working toward a goal, cool takes all accomplishments in stride as a fun side effect of existing.
To be cool is to maintain a measure of disengagement -- to float above the fray high enough to see it clearly, yet close enough to be able to drop in and untangle the fray whenever it’s fun.
The blissful indifference to unwritten rules sets up the cool girl for success. It also sets her up for failure -- eventually, the cool girl slaughters the wrong sacred cow and passes off the recipe as a westernized burger.
We've already seen the thinkpiece on Jennifer Lawrence's bobbling in the wake of her cool girl reign. Every overly-online person watched Allison Roman get pushed from her cool-girl throne in real time last year.
And over the past few weeks, the bell tolled for Chrissy Teigen, whose cool girl antics of the early aughts -- it's fun when hot women punch down! -- don't play well in the era of revisiting what Vox has labeled "the bubblegum misogyny of 2000s pop culture."
Girl is a loaded term. It's not meant to describe any adult woman with agency, the same way "princess" is not meant to describe any adult woman with power, but a girl whose primary utility is in her usefulness to a patriarchal power structure.
When I think about the girl/woman and princess/queen parallels, I am reminded of the late Marjorie Williams' excellent essay, "The Princess Puzzle," which was written on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. She concludes:
The moral of the story is that whether she's riding in a gilt carriage that bears her to St. Paul's cathedral for the wedding of the century, or in a black Mercedes that bears her to her death, a passenger -- which is the most a princess can hope to be -- is never in charge. It's a hard lesson for women to learn, and it's one that men knew all along.
I am also reminded that there is an infinite supply of cool girls, all of whom are happy to joyride in the gilded carriage until Target yanks their branded line of carriage accessories.
The cool-girl trope isn't limited to pop culture. It's infested how we talk about women, careers and money too. Working women haunt the American culture wars, but girlbosses are cheerleaders for capitalism.
Girlbosses are cool -- they're not linearly-achieving women, they're business-is-fun girls -- until they're sexually harassing their staff, fostering inhumane workplace practices, running their businesses into the ground, or behaving in ways that seemed counter to what the company was intended to sell. Then they're suddenly everything wrong with women in the workplace.
To return to the girl vs. women positioning here -- no matter how many girlbosses get profiled in the media, American women are still struggling to gain managerial traction in the workplace. McKinsey has noted that for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted. As a result, pre-pandemic, women held 38 percent of manager-level positions, while men held 62 percent.
Then the pandemic hit and more than 1.5 million working mothers were pushed out of the workforce over the next year. As Claire Cain Miller reported in March of this year, "Fifty-six percent of American women are working for pay, the lowest level since 1986." It took only eleven months to erase thirty-five years of women's increasing presence in the workforce.
And the damage to women's career trajectories is only beginning: A McKinsey study found that moms were more than three times as likely as fathers to take on most of the domestic labor during the pandemic, and were 1.5 times more likely than working dads to spend an additional three hours or more on housework and child care each day. As a result, because of their time constraints -- which their partners typically did not experience -- women are going to lose traction when they're up for tenure, promotion or job opportunities.
Caring is uncool -- it requires investment in linear structures, either upholding them or reforming them, but acknowledging their societal primacy and responding to them nonetheless.
It's evident that nobody seriously cares about working women in America. We've had a full year of media coverage detailing the way women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in both professional and domestic spheres of responsibility, federal and state governments have had fourteen months to address the issue, and … the so-called "women's recession" persists.
Nobody cares that gender diversity is demonstrably better for business productivity; nobody cares that women leaving the workforce could cost the global economy $1 trillion in the next nine years; nobody cares that the lack of support for women now will exacerbate inequality in the U.S. even more later; nobody cares about how profoundly our government has failed to support working caregivers, despite evidence that paid family leave is better for both families and the economy; nobody cares that their wives and the mothers of their children are always the ones making tradeoffs, working the "second shift" simultaneously with the first, exhausted and burnt out and betrayed by nearly every social structure in their lives.
Now, a cool girl would just smile tolerantly and not mind any of that. And that is why we're not going to see cool girls change the government (the Squad is not cool) and that is why cool girls did not change American workplaces for the better.
But as anyone who's watched the rise and fall of any given cool girl can observe: What's cool changes in response to the times. It will be interesting to see who ends up wearing the crown this year -- and how long may she reign.