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The Cool Girl Trope, Explained

She’s not like other girls. She’s a COOL girl. But does this fun, junk food-loving hottie actually exist? And what’s behind this myth? In this video, we take on how the Cool Girl has evolved onscreen and what she represents in our culture.

TRANSCRIPT

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.

Amy: “Cool girl is hot. Cool girl is game. Cool girl is fun.” - Gone Girl

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, sports, or other stereotypically masculine activities. The Cool Girl reflects the male protagonist’s interests. 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 our Take on what the Cool Girl represents in our culture, and how she’s evolved in the years since Gone Girl called her out.

Who Is The Cool Girl?

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.

Amy: “Nick loved a girl I was pretending to be. ‘Cool girl.’” - Gone Girl

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 behavior, 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 rom-com There’s Something About Mary. She explained that the character Mary, “looks like Cameron Diaz, but she’s also a doctor, and she also loooves 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.

Mary: “I want a guy who can play 36 holes and still have enough energy to take me and Warren to a ball game and eat hot dogs. I’m talking sausage hot dogs, beer. Not light beer, but beer.” - There’s Something About Mary

The Cool Girl was around in our culture for a long time before Flynn gave her a name. Countless shows and movies through 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 for Robin — the perfect girl who only wants something casual. In 2004, Lost’s Kate, played by Evangeline Lilly, embodied the beautiful tomboy who unintentionally enchanted the two most handsome men on the Island. 2007’s Transformers gave us one of the most perfect examples of the trope in Megan Fox’s Mikaela.

Mikaela: “Whoa, nice headers. You’ve got a high-rise double-pump carburetor. That’s pretty impressive, Sam.” - Transformers

(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 “one of the guys.” She offers a supportive presence in the other Avengers’ 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.

Deadpool: “Jesus Christ, it’s like I made you in a computer!” - Deadpool

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.

The actual Cool Girl may be a phantom, but she comes to life because women watch the Mary onscreen and try to emulate her. The Cool Girl in real life is, 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 Girl is 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 monopoly on enjoying food or sports — many women are genuinely passionate about traditionally male activities, and this doesn’t have to be some kind of calculated act. A number of women who come off as cool girls can be positive role models. Obviously, it’s great to see women showing 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’s qualities, but this just makes her the butt of 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 will not be viewed as cool at all.

Gracie: “Is it like, a woman thing?”

Eric: “Don’t kid yourself. Nobody thinks of you that way.” - Miss Congeniality

The Cool Girl vs. The Girly Girl

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. 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.

Rachel: “I’m gonna go get us another round.”

Peter: “I’ll grab it. It’s no big deal.”

Rachel: “Peter, you don’t have to dote on me. I’m not that type of girl.” - Forgetting Sarah Marshall

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 behavior (which she models after the unlucky-in-love Michelle character)... but it never questions why men should be so automatically put off by a woman 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 winner 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 the other girls” elevates stereotypically male qualities over female ones. As Anne Helen Petersen writes, “They’re basically dudes masquerading in beautiful women’s bodies.” 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 Trap of The Cool Girl

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 his female alter-ego and falls madly in love. But his infatuation wears off as he realizes she’s more evil than he is. 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’s 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 fans, Captain Marvel was trolled for emphasizing that its 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 make herself more attractive to Ted. But the act just leaves her feeling disempowered.

Annie: “I’m not like other girls. I’m not like, ‘Be my boyfriend!’ Unless you were like, ‘Yeah!’ Then I’d be like, ‘Maybe!’” - Bridesmaids

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. A requirement of this persona is never getting angry, which means she never tries to change anything.

Amy: “Cool girl never gets angry at her man. She only smiles in a chagrined, loving manner.” - Gone Girl

Flynn’s critique led to a backlash that made the “stock” Cool Girl appear a little too obviously contrived. After J-Law was criticized for behavior 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 example 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 (oh, 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 depart 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 starts working towards a world where women are free to be whoever they want to be… and this is considered cool.