The “Cool Girl” and other ways to be a woman in the 21st century

So…the “Cool Girl.” Those of us interested in gender discussions online (and with our similarly-minded friends and co-workers) have probably run the gamut on articles that not only identify this character trope, but have contributed to either criticizing it outrightly, or more moderately evaluating the social constructs behind this concept.

For those late to the discussion, this is the type of girl who, in the words of Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen,

“…can have tattoos, she can be into comics, she might be really into climbing or pickling vegetables. She’s always down to party, or do something spontaneous like drive all night to go to a secret concert. Her body, skin, face, and hair all look effortless and natural — the Cool Girl doesn’t even know what an elliptical machine would look like — and wears a uniform of jeans and tank tops, because trying hard isn’t Cool. The Cool Girl has a super-sexy ponytail.” This type of girl has seemed to embrace society’s directive to her that she “[b]e chill and don’t be a downer, act like a dude but look like a supermodel” (“Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls”).

Of course, the real credit for this term becoming a staple of current online social criticism is Gillian Flynn, who described and used the term “Cool Girl” in her bestselling novel, Gone Girl.

Already much has been said on this topic, either debunking it as a phase (“The ‘Cool Girl’ Is Not Fiction, But a Phase”), a negative trope that causes further misogyny (“I Used to Scorn ‘Cool Girls’,’ But Now See They Don’t Really Exist), or something that inspires a negative conversation overall that further pigeonholes women into a predetermined category (“How the Cool Girl Trope Is Damaging to Women”)

The evidence is clear that as a culture, younger Americans (primarily teens-30-somethings) are drawn toward this persona as demonstrated by all the ample Pinterest/Tumblr/Facebook/Instagram postings on Jennifer Lawrence (and how every young girl seems to want to be her friend), to the fact that celebrities like Jennifer and others (Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Shailene Woodley) all seem to continue to perpetuate that image of themselves whenever they are interviewed by talk show hosts.

But my take on this is to consider a little but more specifically why this is such a compelling persona for us Americans, in particular those in my age range (20-30 somethings). So a mini-history lesson, shall we?

  1. The Women’s Rights Movement of the 1960s/70s

Though historians debate exactly how effective this movement was in the counterculture era of U.S history, it is certainly true that of anything, the ideology influenced the way women were viewed in American society (for good or for bad). In some ways, women made a shift in thinking from dependence on men, to independence and self-reliance. In fact, it’s no surprise that future political and social discussions would include abortion, single mothers, and wage increases as these are all issues tied into female independence. In promoting this independence, there has to be some rejection of previously “feminine” traits that reflected an outdated gender role, and that embraced a woman’s right to be free to be “herself”, whether that would be a more masculine or sexualized version. Thus, you have women cutting their hair, wearing pants, seeking a slender, more masculine body type, and wearing shorter skirts and swimsuits. For younger women, the pearls and dresses of the 1950s will eventually be gone.

2. Modern Feminism

It would seem that the “cool girl” would be just the right personality for a modern feminist. She doesn’t have the typically “girly” and antiquated characteristics of women who pined for men and were needy in relationships. The natural stepping stone to being a modern, independent woman is to have the qualities that men have tended to have. We see Jennifer Lawrence talking about her love to eat, or Shailene Woodley talking about sex, and we see them as embodying the type of confidence that modern feminism seems to be about. It’s not man-hating, as the feminists of old were seen to be, as much as it is each woman embracing who she “really is,” even if that goes against previous social norms for women. And this is why it’s a potentially harmful personae-it’s not actually who many girls are, as much as what they want to be because they think that’s what men want. And that is just another form of women buying into patriarchy. When women change themselves into what they think will meet the status quo (which is typically set by the dominant gender) they are not really being feminists. The social pendulum has swung and women are feeling compelled to be something they are not. It may be great that women don’t feel that being a housewife or mother is the only job description that gives them meaning. But it’s not great when women reject typically feminine attributes or callings for the sake of upholding a feminist perspective. Femininity and feminism are not mutually exclusive.

If you’re a tomboy-great. If you hate sports-great. If you love shopping-great. Feminist discussions must always make it clear that women are free to display their personalities. We won’t ever have a society that is without criticism or that doesn’t create neat categories for men and women to fit into. But recognizing when certain “types” are being held up disproportionately to others is a step in the right direction.

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