I have not, have never been, and probably never will be cool.
But I tried. I’ve been trying to be cool my entire life. To be accepted, to be one of the popular girls at my high school, who were all effortlessly pretty and funny and athletic. (The effortless thing is key here; everything I have ever done has always felt like it has required a lot of work.) To be one of the girls who partied on the weekends even when they were 15 and 16. The ones who had their belly buttons pierced with parental consent while I resorted to sneaking around to get mine in a sketchy shop where the piercer infamously never asked for ID. The ones who had boyfriends, who were blonde and lean and had the kind of laughs that carried down hallways. I was round and troubled and very much alone. I was forcing a little too hard, trying — always trying — a little too much.
Admitting all of this, even nearly a decade later, still very much marks me as uncool. But the most uncool thing of all to admit is this: the fact that I very much wanted to be cool. More than anything else in the world.
Now, the cool girl happens in all sorts of iterations. My personal demon just manifested in a Manhattan Beach-bred Barbie doll. You could easily make a case that the Cool Girl was Mean Girls‘ Regina George, as seen through the lens of other girls. The Cool Girl is Jennifer Lawrence and her myriad of OMG!-stories, and she’s Chrissy Teigen and her ability to eat. She has a heritage and a story, you see. She is and has been and will be everything that her society thinks it needs right here and now (whenever “now” is) — as long as it’s paradoxical. She was Holly Golightly, the most iconic of the glitzy, glamorous fuckups (and led the way for the Carrie Bradshaws who came after her). We look to Teigen as the model who refreshingly! eats; Lawrence, the actress who refreshingly! trips on her own thousand-dollar gown. As Anne Helen Peterson notes:
The Cool Girl has many variations: She 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.
The Cool Girl never nags, or “just wants one” of your chili fries, because she orders a giant order for herself. She’s an ideal that matches the times — a mix of feminism and passivity, of confidence and femininity. She knows what she wants, and what she wants is to hang out with the guys.
That last bit, however — that ability to hang with the boys — was something I figured might be my foot in the door. It’s an easy enough paradox, and I’ve always rather liked guys. I was not cool to them when I was a kid — I was weird and loud and nerdy, and not hot or even particularly pretty, all signs that would send pubescent males in the opposite direction — but I could hang, you know. I was chill. I didn’t make a big fuss. I was easy to hang out with, I liked watching sports and discussing them like I (shockingly enough) knew something about players and stats and how a game impacted the rest of the season. For a while, too, I fell into the trap of thinking that guys were so much simpler than girls — you know, that slippery slope of how guys are less complicated, which is a total fabrication, by the way — and I considered it my last ditch effort.
And I think, in part, that those maligned beliefs were a catch-22, and part of the reason why I thought girls were more complicated. They could tell that I was trying to be cool, you see, and nothing is more repellant than trying to be something you’re not. But because guys wanted me to be cool — hell, they didn’t even want me, but rather a construct of a girl (any girl) who could keep up with and temper the testosterone a little bit — they saw only what they wanted to see. They saw a girl who put up a pretty good approximation of being cool, whether or not she ever was, or even ever felt like she was.
You see, the brilliance of Flynn’s Amy Dunne dismantling the Cool Girl lies in the fact that this is and isn’t true all at once. But I DO like football! I can proclaim (which, I do), or I DO like cheap beer! (though mostly because I am too broke to afford anything more and I have never been a particularly classy individual anyway). I like to think I’m funny, I don’t believe in dumbing myself down for a man or for anyone else, and though I don’t consider myself hot, I do like to look nice. There are facets of the Cool Girl that you can do for yourself alone, and that is fine.
Yet because society believes that people come in cookie cutter iterations, it pressures us into picking up the rest of those puzzle pieces and completing the image. To aim for all or nothing. To be Cool — really and truly just… unparalleled and untouchably cool. And so picking and choosing, and protesting that no, this is you, these small fractions of the total image are unique and honest and real, diamonds among glass, seems insincere. Sure, we want to say. Riiiight. You just want us to think you’re cool.
And even balking when someone calls you cool sounds disingenuous. Take the compliment and move on, my mother’s voice will ring in my ear, for example, even though I always want to whine and be petulant and protest that I should not take a compliment if it’s not the truth.
The truth? Coolness is malleable.
Coolness works because it means something different to whoever is gazing upon it. The person who found James Dean cool might not think the same thing of Steve McQueen, though the two men were of not-dissimilar veins. The people who thought Gloria Steinem was cool might have despised Jane Fonda, and of course, the people who turned on Anne Hathaway adored Jennifer Lawrence, even though the two women are both pixie-cutted starlets with megawatt smiles and unparalleled talent. Literary cool is different from fashion blogger cool is different from sports cool is different from any other kind of cool you could ever come up with. And there are as many types of cool as there are women and men.
So why do we constantly try to define it, and chase it, and turn it into some quantifiable and commodified THING? Why do we think one person — the person we dub “cool” in the moment — has the answers? Maybe because we’re all trying to reach desperately for cool ourselves, and latch onto the closest thing we’re going to get. Maybe because we have these ideals in our heads and project them onto someone, anyone, who might even vaguely resemble these things. Dream girls, for all their whimsical notions, have plagued us since before they were manic pixies; they will continue to do so as long as we have girls about whom we can dream.
But the Cool Girl is just that. She’s a dream. And though it might seem utterly basic, it’s possible — at least, I deeply hope it is, because frankly, I am exhausted from constantly chasing this idea and always feeling like I come up just that short — to live your own dream. You are, after all, allowed to think you’re cool. Just like you’re allowed to think you’re smart and funny and worth being around and most of all, a good person.
(Amy Dunne is very much not that last thing, but that’s a digression — and a bit of a spoiler, so I’m sorry for that.)
That’s my own definition of cool, though. Some days, I think I measure up to it. Sometimes I don’t. But that’s fine. We can’t all perform in an endless loop, because not only will we get exhausted, but we will grow bored. And so will the people for whom we’re performing — the men who think we’re Cool Girls, the women who bash us for being cool (because just as Hathaway had her downfall, so too will Lawrence and Teigen and the girls who come after them) – and they’ll find some other person to put on a pedestal and call “cool.”
After all, that’s all it is. A spotlight.
And I would imagine that all the Cool Girls of the world, if polled, would tell you that there’s nothing all that cool about being under a microscope at every turn. (Even the girls in high school were a constant focal point and center of attention.)
Yet we think there is. Because right now, it is cool to be cool. And one day, it won’t be. And maybe then, we’ll be less concerned with being cool and finally focus on just being ourselves.
Whether or not ourselves is what anyone else — men, women, or anyone outside of each individual iteration of “ourselves” — wants us to be.