The Mythical Cool Girl

So I just watched Gone Girl a few weeks ago. Late to the party, I know, but I think paying with any hope of having a healthy relationship without fearing for my jugular vein makes up for it.

Oh, uh, spoilers, I guess.

But within this incredible cinematic achievement/self-fulfilling prophecy of Ben Affleck’s love life, I found myself captivated and conflicted by one monologue in particular. You may remember it, right after Rosamund Pike’s character reveals her plot to the viewer via narrated diary entry. If not, I’ve included the unabridged version from the book below, for your consideration.

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 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.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating 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. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)

First of all, this is compelling writing. We can all relate to it – especially you, my fellow twenty-something, adrift in the throes of college and postgrad relationship woes. It’s punchy, and it’s confident. Agree with the sentiment or not, it grabs you by the hoo-hoo and demands your ear.

The Original Cool Girl (drawing by Gaia Balduzzi)

The Original Cool Girl (drawing by Gaia Balduzzi)

As you might expect, I can’t entirely get on board with the bitter indictment behind this little piece of characterization. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the message, either. For as long as I’ve had friends with significant others, the myth of the Cool Girl/Guy has been as hotly debated as the existence of Atlantis. Yodeled accolades of “she plays Halo and drinks beer with me” have often given way to the truth of bored texting and once-sipped cans of Bud Lite; “he’s such a good listener” translates to a clinical case of the old smile-and-nods.

I found myself in such a situation as recently as my senior year of college. I found myself “dating” a girl who I was nothing short of crazy for. Let’s call her “K.” K was funny, politically incorrect, but a bleeding heart all the same, quick as the proverbial whip, and a drop-dead bombshell to boot. “But Jon, why ‘dating’ and not dating?” you ask. She was a free spirit or some such nonsense, and didn’t want to make a commitment. When she dropped that on me, it genuinely hurt. But I’m not one to give up easily.

So I adapted. I tried my damnedest to be the man she wanted to be with. I spent almost all of my free time with her. I re-learned basic math so I could help her with her homework. I watched the shows she liked, and managed to fake a few laughs where appropriate. I even started dressing the way she liked – although, I’ll be the first to admit that the advice was much-needed. Still, it wasn’t for me. I was going through the motions for bae’s happiness, at the expense of my own.

After it all inevitably fell apart, I thought that genuine “cool” relationships were the stuff of whimsy and imagination. Miss Pike’s damning tirade against us was true, after all. What’s more, the problem was quite possible with roles reversed: the woman was the arbiter of what was cool, the man, the scorned try-hard. When I somehow manage to push my own cynicism aside, that whole soliloquy is a logical fallacy at best, and a denial of individuality at worst.

One of the premises behind this argument is that feigning similar interests is a sign of weakness, and an open invitation for infidelity. I can personally assure you that someone can tell when you’re not truly into whatever they’re into, no matter how hard you try to sell it. Maybe they see through your dishonesty, maybe they lose the respect they had for you, and maybe they end up cheating.

But what if you genuinely share a quirky hobby with someone you care about? According to Amy Dunne, it doesn’t matter. The way she sees it, no woman will truly be interested in the activities of a man – and that is truly a soul-crushing thought.

The argument we’re facing is that one party sets the bar for interests to have, and the second party adapts to those interests or is deemed “lame.” This doesn’t account for the organic growth of personal taste in both men and women. I’ve met girls who like junk food, foul domestic beer, and violent video games, just as I’ve known guys who enjoy nice clothes, fine wine, and sharing their feelings. What’s preventing two birds of a feather from bumping into each other and falling in love?

But, for Amazing Amy’s sake, let’s take it a step further. Let’s say the couple in question has very little in common, other than compatible personalities. They enjoy spending time together, but their recreational interests couldn’t be further apart. Instinct may dictate that this is a doomed partnership. Reality proves otherwise. People need time apart to be themselves, to grow as an individual, just as any relationship requires teamwork to stay afloat. Having a shared hobby is really just a small bonus in the equation – you can do that activity alone or together, accomplishing both.

All these platitudes still don’t account for an underlying desire in most people to have your SO go along with you. We want them to back us up. Sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, we want an echo chamber for when we’re unsure of ourselves – certainly not a harridan breathing down our necks. “Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.” If we ignore the hyperbole, a conflict-free partnership seems like a reasonable expectation (or, perhaps, dream).

I’ve been guilty of trying to make this dream a reality. That’s probably why I treated K like the Borg – be assimilated, or be [emotionally] destroyed. That is one of the dark secrets about adult relationships. If you’re not dating a carbon copy of yourself, conflict is inevitable. It’s a hard truth pill to swallow, but a truth pill all the same. We’re going to disagree. We’re going to fight over miniscule shit. And you know what? That’s okay. Disagreeing is a sign that you’re still your own person. Have you ever hung out with a couple that agrees on literally everything? It’s not cool. It’s honestly kind of creepy. Sort of like those two girls from the Shining. Ugh.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that Amy Dunne’s little fire and brimstone sermon is inherently flawed (as you’d expect of a sociopath’s inner monologue). A “Cool Girl” or “Cool Guy” isn’t someone who blindly follows your lead. The cool comes from – here comes the shocker – confidence. We really don’t care that much if we don’t share the same pastimes as our SO. A healthy, happy relationship is with a person that you really enjoy being with in spite of the differences, not a clone of yourself with the proper set of genitalia. Asserting your dissimilarities is the best way to introduce your partner to something new, and help them grow as a human. These are the kind of relationships that we so often see blossom into cohabitation, marriage, and all that RomCom crap we secretly fantasize about.