THE COOL GIRL: An analysis on the Cool Girl trope throughout cinema.
“Men always use that - don’t they? - as their defining compliment. ‘She’s a cool girl’.” - Amy Dunne, Gone Girl.
She’s not like other girls, she’s a cool girl. In her 2012 bestseller Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn gave this trope a name and proceeded to savagely tear it to pieces. If we look at cool girls onscreen - and at celebrities who often play this persona for the public - we can identify the specific elements that make up this character’s DNA: she’s one of the guys, she has a passion for cars, or sports, or other masculine activities. The cool girl reflects the male protagonist’s interests: Gone Girl stating, “She likes what he likes. If he likes girls gone wild, she’s a mall babe who talks football and endures buffalo wings at Hooters.” She’s fun-loving, raunchy, and uninhibited. She likes junk food and beer. This bro-y temperament is packaged in an effortlessly hot female form, she’s easygoing and never gets angry. Most saliently, the Cool Girl isn’t a real girl, she’s a myth created by men, perpetuated by women pretending to be her. So here’s my take on what the Cool Girl represents in our culture and how she evolved in the years since Gone Girl called her out.
The problem with the Cool Girl fiction is that it’s a male fantasy. The woman not only has to look exactly as the guy wants her to - she also has to be exactly as he wants her to be on the inside. Gone Girl investigates the toxic fallout of women feeling they have to perform this fantasy. Significantly, the movie’s iconic “cool girl” monologue plays out over a montage of Amy orchestrating her plot to frame Nick for her disappearance. So it’s implying that all the years of impersonating the cool girl are what made Amy into this sociopath. She’s determined to destroy the guy she spent so much time pretending for and now resents as a result: “I wax-stripped my pussy raw. I drank canned beer watching Adam Sandler movies. I ate cold pizza and remained a size two.” From this, we can see that the “cool girl” act has a time limit. The smoke-and-mirrors can’t endure through a real long-term relationship - as it requires a lifetime of suppressing your authentic self. Jezebel’s Tracy Moore argues that being the cool girl is a phase many women go through in young adulthood, but according to Gone Girl when the Cool Girl gets tired of faking it and decides to express her individuality, her man will just ditch her for a newer model of the trope. The movie doesn’t suggest Nick is the only one to blame for this behaviour, though - he’s never had to learn how to accommodate a woman with her own mind in his life. With all this play-acting, the couple never got the chance to really know each other.
Flynn took inspiration for her commentary from the 1998 romcom There’s Something About Mary. She explained that the character Mary “looks like Cameron Diaz but she’s also a doctor, and she also loves hamburgers, and she starts out playing golf in the morning. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a cool girl!’ And then I thought, oh right, she’s been invented by guys.”. The whole premise of the film is how wild Mary drives every man she meets - and that makes sense when you consider this woman is simply a bundle of male fantasies with a pretty face. The Cool Girl was around in our culture for a long time before Flynn gave her a name. Countless shows and movies throughout the decades have used a cool girl to be the guy’s dream - look at Donna in That 70s Show, a beautiful spin on one of the guys. In 2005, How I Met Your Mother opened with Ted falling head over heels with Robin - the perfect girl who only wants something casual. In 2004, Lost’s Kate played by Evangeline Lily embodied the beautiful tomboy who unintentionally enchanted the two most handsome males on the Island. 2007’s Transformers gave us one of the most perfect examples of the trope with Megan Fox’s Michaela. This easy, timeless pairing of hot girl and hot car might also remind us of Cindy Crawford’s iconic 1992 Pepsi commercial which began with her driving up in a sick ride to a dusty gas station. Starting in 2010 in the MCU, Black Widow became beloved in a male-heavy space by looking like Scarlett Johansson while being truly “one of the guys”. She offers a supportive presence in the other Avenger’s lives without outshining them. Even in a movie as self-aware as Deadpool, the love interest Vanessa is really just the Cool Girl trope to a T.
In most onscreen depictions, female viewers aren’t really supposed to identify with the Mary - our audience surrogate is the male protagonist, and we view this woman through his gaze. So, far from being empowering to women, this character (who attracts every man for miles without trying to, who eats whatever she wants and stays effortlessly thin) sets a new impossible standard. To this day, numerous celebrities project this persona in public. The actual cool girl may be a phantom but she comes to life because women watch the Mary’s onscreen and try and emulate her. The Cool Girl in real life as Gone Girl puts it, “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”. The irony of the cool gas that a big part of her act is not caring, not trying, not needing the man. But performing the Cool Girl persona is an extremely demanding effort. Of course, it’s important to note that men don’t have a monologs on enjoying foods or sports - many women are genuinely passionate about male activities, and this doesn’t have to be some kind of calculated act. A number of women who come off as cool girl can be positive role models. Obviously, it’s great to see women show off their sassy wit, or embracing a goofy, unpolished, no filter approach. But ultimately, none of these things matter unless the girl is supremely beautiful because the cool girl’s true defining quality is, in Flynn’s words, that she’s “above all hot.”. We can see this dynamic illustrated in Miss Congeniality, FBI agent Gracie starts out with all of the Cool Girl qualities but this just makes her the butt of the jokes and insults from her male coworkers. It’s only after her makeover - when she’s revealed to be gorgeous - that her quirky, masculine characteristics are received as charming. So, without this prerequisite of hotness, being a badass or a tomboy would not be viewed as cool at all.
Narratives onscreen use the cool girl to put down another type of woman who’s more uptight, classically feminine, or who cares too much. Black Swan’s fun, sensual Lily makes repressed good girl Nina feel her lifetime of diligent work as a ballerina counts for nothing with Vincent Cassel’s character saying “Watch the way she moves. Imprecise but effortless. She’s not faking it.” In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, impulsive, free-spirited Rachel - also played by cool girl, Mila Kunis - is framed as an obvious step-up from cold and fame-obsessed Sarah. In How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Andie drives a guy away for her magazine article by pretending to be the uncool girl - an ultra-feminine, hyper-sensitive, needy woman. But the irony is that Andie still can’t help making him fall for her because she actually is a bonafide cool girl who loves the Knicks and doesn’t watch what she eats. The movie makes a grotesque joke out of Andie’s fake girly behaviour (which she models after the unlucky-in-love Michelle character) but it never questions why men should be so automatically put off by a women who’s not effortlessly detached and undemanding.
We also saw this dynamic at play in the cultural response to the 2013 Oscars. After the ceremony, Best Supporting Actress winner, Anne Hathaway was much maligned for her perky earnestness, while Best Actress Jennifer Lawrence was the belle of the ball after tripping up the stairs and being characteristically unedited. Yet, while Hathaway’s persona may have struck some viewers as performative, both these women were playing a part on Oscar night. So there’s an inherent misogyny in setting up the cool girl as somehow superior to “another” kind of woman. Lauding her for being “not like other girls” elevates stereotypically male qualities over female ones. As Anne Helen Petersen writes, “They’re basically dudes masquerading in beautiful women’s bodies reaping the privileges of both.” This is played up in Amy Schumer’s A Chick Who Can Hang, where the men’s enthusiasm for cool girls is really part of their repressed homoerotic desire.
The cool girl may appear superficially edgy, but she’s only cool so long as she’s comforting - not challenging - to men. In the Family Guy episode Mr and Mrs Stewie, Stewie meets her female alter-ago and falls madly in love. But, his infatuation wears off as he realises she’s more evil than he is, joking that “Strong women always turn out to be nightmares, like Joan of Arc.”. This captures the idea that the cool girl is only desirable as long as she stays on her guy’s level and doesn’t surpass him either in aptitude or passion. She can’t be too intense about anything. On Friends, Ross is drawn to his new girlfriend Bonnie because she is so liberated and cool, but when she expresses her alternative spirit in a way that doesn’t turn him on, Ross is horrified and immediately loses interest. Petersen describes how 60s and 70s cool girl, Jane Fonda, experienced an intense backlash when she started getting too serious about activism and protesting the Vietnam War. While Black Widow is humble enough for Avengers fan, Captain Marvel was trolled for emphasising that it’s female lead was stronger than all the other heroes, and she very much knew it. Movements like #GamerGate prove that women who bring too “female” a perspective to pursuits like tech or gaming are emphatically discouraged. In light of the way our culture eviscerates uncool girls, it’s easy to see why it’s so tempting for women to put on the Cool Girl persona, even a little bit.
But this doesn’t actually get them very far. In Bridesmaids, Annie adopts this part to to make herself more attractive to Ted even saying “I’m not like other girls, I’m not like ‘Be my boyfriend!’. Unless you were like, ‘Yeah!’, then I’d go ‘Maybe?’.” But the act just leaves her feeling disempowered. Most significantly, while being the cool girl may help you get by in the short-term, it gets in the way of the long game of putting women, in general, on equal footing with men. As Sarah Ditum puts it, “ The Cool Girl doesn’t even suggest there’s anything wrong with the man-woman hierarchy as it stands. All the Cool Girl demands is that she be seen as an exception.” One of the most startling lines in Flynn’s Gone Girl monologue is: “Go ahead, shit on me. I don’t mind, I’m the cool girl.” This highlights the complete passivity of this type and a requirement of this persona is never getting angry which means she never tries to change anything. Flynn’s critique led to a backlash that made the “stock” cool girl appear a little too obviously contrived, after J-Law was criticised for behaviour that came across as a running shtick she eventually seemed to mature out of this act.
Yet, the demise of this blatant version of the trope doesn’t mean we should declare the death of the cool girl - she’s just evolving, being updated for a new era. Numerous celebrities on social media show the “cool girl” settling down into married life, as they play the “cool wife” through fun exchanges or pranks with their famous significant others. Bad Moms, another examples starring Mila Kunis, presents a “cool mom” type who is super-hot, even when she’s supposed to be a mess and relatable because she speaks out about how hard it is to be a mom and drinks a lot. Naturally, she’s juxtaposed with a too-poised, anti-cool mom we’re supposed to look down on for her obsessive quest for perfection. Overall though, the persona appears to be changing for the better. More recent iterations of the Cool Girl largely departs from her traditionally passive and submissive roots. Today’s cool girls freely speak their minds about things that matter, perhaps what’s most promising is that many of today’s examples seem to be performing coolness to appeal to women, as well as men. But the total liberation of the cool girl will only come when she stops trying to get by in a man’s world, and start working towards a world where women are free to be whoever they want to be and this is considered cool.