A few days ago I finally gave in and saw “Gone Girl.”

Julia Zarina

After weeks of observing my friends’ reactions of disgust and amazement and vows to never, ever get married, I decided to see if I would still have the same vaguely nonchalant reaction toward that particular interpretation as I did when I read the book a few years ago. I did. To me, the story has always been a cautionary tale about modeling yourself around an unrealistic ideal, of catering to the expectations of others to a fault and about the motivations that cause someone to become a Cool Girl, taken to their logical extreme.

A few often-cited paragraphs from the book were still the most relevant part of the story to me; the paragraphs that instantly turned a piece of fiction into a relatable, frighteningly cautionary tale where calculated, sociopathic murder previously had not.

“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, co-workers, 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’ve spent a long time thinking about Cool Girl without ever calling her by that name. Freshman year, my friends and boyfriend at the time discovered the “The League,” an FX show that chronicles the bro-ing out of a group of middle-aged man-children whose entire lives revolve around a fantasy football league. The wife of one of these men, the main recurring female character in the cast, is a classic Cool Girl, respected where other women are not due to the fact that her primary interests in the show appear to be, in no particular order: bro-ing out, eating meat while bro-ing out, drinking beer while bro-ing out and talking about football while looking hot while bro-ing out. Among my friends, a new standard for the ideal woman was instantly set.

I actually enjoy this show for the most part. I laugh at the jokes. It’s crude and immature in a way that I don’t even pretend to be above. The anxiety that this show caused me at the time was related to the fact that suddenly, there was a very clear-cut model of what I needed to be in order to be respected, admired, wanted and cool — and I couldn’t have been more opposite. I do not really enjoy watching football for days. I take serious issue with misogynistic attitudes. When people treat me poorly, they definitely hear about it. I’m a vegetarian. I am, at my essence, not a Cool Girl. I never have been.

Suddenly, however, at 19 years old, being a Cool Girl seemed very important. Like almost everyone in college around me, I was insecure and trying to make a name for myself by adopting an identity that set me apart from what I perceived to be boring and typical. I was a feminine girl and identified as a feminist, which meant I was like all the other girls. By denying these qualities I was somehow different and above the rest. I chugged beer and approached relationships like they were the world championships of trying to out-sociopath the other person. I always cared less. I memorized football trivia. I was “less of a girl than most boys.” I laughed at sexist jokes. I was cool.

Being in college and being in your twenties is a life lived in extremes. It’s a phase that results from recently being turned loose in a world that expects you to become a fully formed, fully functional, independent human being. You and everyone around you try on values and majors and styles and defining personal characteristics in the pursuit of something that fits. You’re pre-med one year and an English major the next. Your social views evolve rapidly. Faking it until you make it takes on a whole new meaning in job interviews, student clubs and social circles. Your identity in public is often a mirrored reflection of the characteristics that you believe to wholly define the certain kind of person you would like to be.

Identity in college can often resemble a prototype of a future existence. It’s like high fashion on a runway, an extreme version of something that gets distilled and diluted by designers who know how to adapt a vision to something appropriate for daily life before it is widely applied to clothes we see in the stores. Being in your twenties and assuming an identity can be like going straight from the runway to the streets — a phase where we try to make life duplicate art, rather than imitate aspects of it.

The issue with this, of course, is that art is not a fully representative, fully dimensional portrayal of the world around us. I realized that I spent a lot of time reflecting the values that I wanted to be associated with, rather than internalizing them, processing them and then embodying them as something integral to myself and my own personality.

The full result of this realization has been that I’m finally done. It’s been a long time coming, but I’m done with Cool Girl. Cool Girl is a trope. Cool Girl in her full, silver-screen glory is an affected personality put on out of insecurity and a need to be seen as something different than the rest. Cool Girl measures her self-worth by the men who say they love her because she’s not like other girls, even when she knows they have shallow love for an equally shallow façade.

Living as Cool Girl is a kind of performance art, and like any other artistic representation of a real thing, there are elements left out of the public presentation. Behind the scenes, when the rest of the cast goes home and the camera crew packs up for the night, Cool Girl cries when she is treated like shit. Cool Girl is not effortlessly a size two — for each joke about shotgunning a pizza, there are days spent skipping dinner and despising the way she looks. Cool Girl might not actually think those sexist jokes are funny, but she laughs because she dislikes the idea of immediately being categorized and discredited as “oversensitive” or “an angry feminist” even more.

For both the men who think they want her and the women who think they want to be her, so much of the appeal of the Cool Girl comes from the thrill of chasing an ideal. In a recent article, Tracy Moore of Jezebel concludes that men “who have never examined such tropes will willingly join this thrilling chase … because it is so unlike the cultural narrative (they) are taught to expect — that every woman around is trying to ensnare you long before you are ready to be snared.” If having a clingy girlfriend spells the end of bros everywhere, Cool Girl laughs in the face of death. She is distant and hot and possesses an absurd ability that can only come from some deep denial of human nature to shut down anything remotely resembling an emotion.

Cool Girl lets you do whatever you want and take everything and give nothing and has no needs of her own because she is not a real person. She is never unreasonable. She is mysterious. She is one-dimensional. Because she is literally not a real person.

Eventually, this performance gets tiring. Eventually, Cool Girl would prefer to be treated as a living, breathing, feeling human and not as a rare and prized commodity. Being a Cool Girl forever means denying feminism as a valuable bond, viewing relationships as a contest with a clear winner and seeing emotions as an inherent weakness. In short, it means missing out on some of the best elements of real life. In the immortal words of Lester Bangs, “the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”

I’m done with Cool Girl because I’m ready to grow up and become a real person, with faults and complexities and an identity that I develop, rather than adapt. I’m ready to be around people who think critically about who they are. Rejecting an unrealistic ideal — whatever that may be — is a critical step in becoming the person you will be for the rest of your life. I’m realizing in the process that, for all my “un-coolness,” I really like who that is.

Julia Zarina can be reached at jumilton@umich.edu.

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