Monday, February 09, 2015

Cool Girls are GGG

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn's novel, is the story of a woman in her 30s who turns herself into the ideal girlfriend and, later, wife. Who does this so thoroughly that she ends up in what "Seinfeld" fans will recognize as a "serenity now" situation - that is, she's bottled up her actual feelings to the point that when they emerge, they do so with tremendous and dangerous force. Some of what "ideal" involves is predictable, clichéd - she maintains a small dress size and, when asked to uproot her life for her husband and to take on new caring responsibilities, does so without complaint.

But passive and beautiful is no longer enough. Today's ideal is a "Cool Girl" - that is, one who likes guy stuff (yay sports! boo shopping!) while looking flawless and feminine. (See of course Amy Schumer's parody. See also Flavia's commentary.) Under a façade of feminism and empowerment - girls don't have to like girly things! down with consumerism! makeup is gross! - women engage in the not-especially feminist act of going out of their way please men. The frustrating aspect about Cool Girl-ism is that it looks so much like liberation. From the outside, the two can be just about impossible to tell apart. (It's not necessarily Cool Girl if a woman on the slimmer end of the spectrum eats more than a leaf of lettuce. The myth of the slim woman who subsists on air is at least as damaging as the one of the effortlessly slim woman who can't get enough cheeseburgers. Not that there aren't slim women who eat very little or very much but... you know what I mean.)

You'll see that in the much-discussed Cool Girl speech, Amy Elliott includes, among the Cool Girl's traits, an enthusiastic appreciation of what just so happen to be classic hetero male sexual fantasies. A Cool Girl is sexually adventurous, but not really - her sense of adventure is about eagerly consenting to anything a man suggests, or anticipating a man's desires. Considering the plot of Gone Girl, one might add to this that a Cool Girl looks the other way when her husband's having an affair - it's just male second nature to see that one's wife is a bit older than she used to be and to sleep with someone younger!

I thought about this when I saw Dan Savage heap praise upon (and semi-claim credit for, not unjustly) a recent scene from "Broad City." The show has its Cool Girl moments, and the scene in question is one of them. Is it about a woman feeling empowered to try something new in the bedroom? Or is it about a woman doing something a man has asked her to do, something where there's (not to get too technical here) something in it for him but not for her.

And this brings me to my qualms about Savage's approach more generally. A lot of what he advocates - not all - amounts to asking straight women to cheerily agree to men's sexual requests. I say "amounts to" - he advocates this in gender-neutral terms, while admitting that women are socialized not to make requests of their own. And... as the "Broad City" clip only further demonstrates, Savage's ideas are more or less synonymous with what sex-positive means in our culture.


Drake said...

See also: Alyna in Chad Kultgen's "The Average American Male."

Rachel @ Musings of an Inappropriate Woman said...

This post makes me think you might like my book. I don't use the "cool girl" analogy, and most of the book (two chapters aside) doesn't even really look at the issue in gendered terms. But a lot of what you say here aligns with my arguments.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Never heard of this but will take a look!


I'd been planning to read it regardless, but now, all the more reason!

russell1200 said...

I have tended to view the novel as being a very interesting story, set against the moral and economic decay of middle America.

The couple lives in an empty post bubble subdivision with only a few homes actually occupied. The collapse of the local economy is not the collapse of the rust belt, or farm belt (which Flynn has written about), but the collapse of the mega mall. The storyline takes a detour to a collapsing tourist town that represents a fictional event. The sister, one of the few real people, seems to be permanently stuck working in her brother's bar. When the young lady escapes out of her upper middle class bubble into the real world, the downtrodden she meets are one of the few groups of folks who get the upper hand over her.

The "speech" to my mind is as much an indictment of the poor state of American male dress and decorum as it is with young women who want to slum with the guys. It isn't surprising that women would want to take part in the "better" parts of male culture, but this is pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I agree that the novel's economic and regional backdrop is important - more than a backdrop! - but don't know that I agree with the rest. It's also about the collapse of the NY publishing world - Amy's downfall comes from Nick and her own layoffs, combined with her writer parents losing everything and coming to her to reclaim the trust fund they'd given her. It's a sweeping, 19th-century-novel portrait of America, juxtaposing stories unlikely to overlap so much in real life.

Re: "American male dress and decorum," I guess I didn't read it that way, and am trying to wrap my head around how one would. Amy's point is that women have equivalent (lowest-common-denominator, maybe) desires (I believe she mentions Jane Austen, knitting, and two guys making out), but that women will actually pretend to like the things men do, while men won't pretend to like the ones women do. It's about a double-standard in phoniness required to be in a relationship.

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