LOUISE O'NEILL: What constitutes being a 'cool girl'

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl.

Being the Cool Girl means she is 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.”

I remember the first time I read this passage from Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl. I didn’t entirely love the book, but I knew when I read these words that Flynn had defined something that I had long known to be true but had struggled to articulate. I knew the Cool Girl.

I was friends with her, I worked with her; occasionally, I had been that woman myself. She was, just like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe a character who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”), and the Ladettes of the 90s, a performance. A performance that was sometimes carried out in the name of feminism but often merely upheld tenants of the patriarchy itself.

If we could be the Cool Girl, then we wouldn’t be That Girl, the one who is high maintenance and demanding and nags. All we wanted was for a man to say “You’re not like all the other girls” and we would know that we were different. We were special (Note — if anyone tells you that you’re not like all the other girls, run as fast as you can. The misogyny in that statement is bleak.)

From a very young age, men and women receive certain messages about gender. As children, toys are gendered — not only by type but by colour, and while little girls are encouraged to play with ‘boys’ toys, there’s a hesitance to allow boys to play with ‘girls’ toys. This reluctance to allow boys to play with ovens or dolls (for fear they might become too nurturing?) manifests later on as a refusal to read middle-grade books written by a woman or featuring a female protagonist.

Gradually, both girls and boys internalise the belief that traditionally masculine interests are more important and more worthy of respect. In turn, when we tell young women that they are just as good as young men, that they can do anything their male peers can, is it any surprise that this might lead young women to believe that they need to emulate the behaviour of the men around them in order to succeed? We can drink as much as you, we can have casual sex like you can, we can eat as much junk food as you can.

Because we’re just as good as you. Aren’t we?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, nor are they biologically gendered. I don’t care how much you have to drink or how many people you have sex with as long as you’re safe and it’s what you want to do, not what you feel you should do. My concern is that we are raising a generation of people who are unable to live their lives in a way that feels appropriate for them because they are afraid. Afraid to express any kind of emotion, because they have to be super chill, zero fucks given, emotionless, automatons all the time. I realised in recent years that I’m far more sensitive than I ever gave myself space to be because I saw vulnerability as a weakness. I didn’t want to be That Girl. I wanted to be one of the boys, because I secretly believed that the boys must be better.

I don’t think I’m alone in that. When I speak at co-ed schools, I notice the girls won’t ask as many questions during the session, waiting until the boys have left the room before approaching me to talk.

Many young women tell me they don’t want to be feminists because they seem so ‘angry’, and I feel utterly disheartened. (Wait until you find out your male colleague is making more money that you for doing the exact same job, then we’ll talk about angry). But I can understand their caginess. While we no longer institutionalise women for Hysteria when they fail to conform to cultural attitudes around behaviour and decorum, it is still all too easy to dismiss women as ‘hormonal’, ‘shrill’, and ‘hysterical’, when they raise their voices and demand to be heard.

It is just another form of silencing, and one that must be challenged. Young woman — it is ok to be angry. It’s also ok to be vulnerable.

It’s ok for you to have needs and appropriate boundaries and to ask for them to be met.

It’s ok for you to say no, and it’s also ok for you to say yes. Keep shouting, and ignore anyone who tells you to shut up.We need your voices now more than ever.


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