'Cool Girl': How women are socialised into transforming themselves to meet men’s needs

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

The term ‘Cool Girl’ was coined in the 2012 thriller Gone Girl – eight years later, what does this say about female competitiveness?

2020 has been a homebody's dream – thanks to COVID-19 most of Australia has spent a lot of time indoors and on Netflix.

One of my more memorable Netflix adventures during bleak times was re-watching the 2014 film Gone Girl, based on Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel by the same name. The thriller revolves around Amy and Nick, a doomed couple joined by marriage and mutual hate.

Gone Girl coined the term Cool Girl in one of it’s most iconic scenes spoken by Amy – as quoted below.

“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.”

“Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding.”

The term Cool Girl refers to how women are socialised into transforming themselves to meet men’s needs, individualising this to who their current partner is, but always featuring some common denominators: relaxed, no-fuss, no nagging.

Flynn stated in an interview with Vulture in 2014, “there’s something wrong with the fact that we’re constantly willing to make ourselves over for men, that we’re so interested in pleasing men in a way that men would never do for women.”

Flynn goes on in the interview to describe how the term Cool Girl hasn’t come from a hatred of women, but hatred of the pressure women are put under. “We all know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about Cool Girl. It’s the putting up with machismo bullshit, and smiling and nodding when you know better.”

Initially, Cool Girl makes me think of girls I went to high school with that were pretty, confident, thin and one of the boys. I remember the envy I had for these girls – such a resounding feeling of inadequacy that sat in my stomach for much of my young life, due to constantly comparing myself.

Gone Girl is jarring, stirring up mixed reactions: some accusing the film of misogyny for making Amy the ‘psycho wife’, whilst some applaud the film for Amy’s brazen description of relationship dynamics.

The Cool Girl highlights one evergreen dynamic of heterosexual relationships; men don’t distort themselves as much as women feel the need to – the pressure and competition is simply not as high.

This pressure has grown in the last eight years since the book was released, this competitiveness manifesting in social media: a highlight reel of others lives perfect for comparison.

As Noam Spencer articulates in his article ‘Feminine Foes: New Science Explores Female Competition’, for Psychology Today, aggressive competition has always been associated with men, when it is in fact women who are the most competitive.

“Cutthroat female competition is due mainly to the fact that women, born and raised in a male-dominated society, internalize the male perspective (the “male gaze”) and adopt it as their own. The male view of women as primarily sexual objects becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As women come to consider being prized by men their ultimate source of strength, worth, achievement and identity, they are compelled to battle other women for the prize.”

Journalist Emily V Gordon summarises this competitiveness in her opinion piece for the New York Times, ‘Why Women compete with each other’. “Women compete, compare, undermine and undercut one another — at least that is the prevailing notion of how we interact.”

Flynn’s Cool Girl is a manifestation of this competitiveness, a knee jerk reaction to the male gaze peering down on us, the overall fear of becoming a spinster, or worse, the last chosen. In this new decade, the male gaze is ever-present in social media, where it is challenged and encouraged. The Cool Girl can be a size twelve now, she can be a person of colour. We have made progress: but at what velocity, is the question.

It’s the process of discovering how much is too much manipulation of ourselves to meet another person’s ideal partner – when is the line drawn? Maybe when we look in the mirror and see a projected version of all his favourite things, a real-life build-a-bitch workshop.