The release of Gone Girl in cinemas recently has reminded me all over again about why Gillian Flynn’s book resonated so loudly with me and other women when it was published.
This key paragraph, from the main character Amy Dunne, establishes the central concept of womanhood in the book:
“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.”
And in the brilliant article on the subject by Jezebel’s Tracy Moore (link to the full article below), she encapsulates the concept:
“…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.”
I was trying to be Cool Girl, at least for a while. My phase timed with the emergence of the ’90s ladette, which to all intents and purposes was the defining era of the Cool Girl. Women like Sara Cox and Zoe Ball were bouncing around on our TV screens and in lads’ mags, drinking pints, partying ’til dawn and still managing to look oiled and hot in a tiny vest and denim shorts as they leered lairily at the Loaded cover-shot camera.
When I met my husband I tried desperately to be the Cool Girl – he seemed very keen on the Loaded ladettes and I scoured the pages of his magazines to pick up tips on how to be one. I was determined, unlike his friends’ wives and girlfriends, to give him as free a rein as possible, to never complain (indeed, actively encourage him) when he announced a boys’ golf weekend or a skiing holiday, or when he got wasted with the boys. I even actively embraced any trips they made to a lapdancing bar, which I was told to keep secret from the other wives – I was the ‘Cool Wife’ who would laugh at their stories of who got a dance, and then ask questions about how they controlled their erections in a public place (I’m still not quite clear on that, or on why they would want to risk it happening).
I remember feeling really aggrieved when I once overheard him talking to the lads, referring to me as some kind of social sign-off person on their latest boys’ weekend plan – they were all discussing how they’d get it past their wives. I burst in on their conversation and pointed out that he was free to do what he liked (subtext – I was not like the other, more controlling, wives). They all looked at me, rather shocked, and he was embarrassed – I’d spoiled his ‘lads-only’ camaraderie over their shared experience of the stereotypical controlling woman.
Over the years, I continued to be a version of Cool Girl and kept any grievances inside. And they festered. And in the end, these internalised resentments built up and up until they spoiled everything. I wasn’t really me during those years and I wasn’t honest with myself or my husband. I don’t know why I pretended to be someone else who was cool about everything, when I seriously wasn’t. This is why my ‘honesty policy’ is so important to me now. During those thirteen years of the relationship, I hardly ever raised any grievances, for fear of a horrible confrontation – I just saved them up into one massive one that ultimately couldn’t be resolved. It had all gone too far.
It really surprised me that my ex and his friends pretty much all ended up with women who clearly ‘set the rules’ in their households, and seemed to enjoy being told what to do. I tried and tried not to be that woman, but ultimately it backfired. But I always maintained that I was a director at work and didn’t want to direct the marriage at home as well – I’d still maintain that mantra, if I ever went there again.
In many ways, the last four years have been about gradually shedding the need to be Cool Girl. I’ve found myself more and more exposed to the realisation that I don’t need male approval to be in the world, and that some men aren’t expecting to approve me according to the Gone Girl rules (some are, though, it has to be said.) I now see female friends masking grievances in their own relationships with gritted-teeth smiles and feel glad that I’ve left those scenarios behind. If I ever got there again, I would make sure I never let these scenarios pass without comment – that a reasoned discussion would happen about every single one, if I felt something unjust was happening to me. I’m pretty sure any reasonable guy would expect me to do that – it’s how they would deal with those things. Mostly.
When I first read Gone Girl I couldn’t believe that someone had written about Cool Girls so brilliantly – lots of female friends were clearly experiencing the same self-resonance as I was when they read it. Our online book club was alive with comment. I think we all recognised something of ourselves in Amy, although of course, she takes the concept to an extreme level.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many women of my age find the concept so familiar – I do think the ’90s emergence of ladette culture really didn’t do us any favours. Men were being marketed with a feminine ideal that has no basis in reality – a complete fantasy of sexual availability, hotness, and, well, blokiness. I know I struggled to meet its impossible criteria, but it didn’t stop me trying.
Thank goodness that’s over.