“The defining compliment”: The “Cool Girl” Label in Relation to Postfeminism, Femininity, and Star Image

Originally written in 2014.

On March 12th, 2012, the three main cast members of The Hunger Games franchise make an appearance at Westfield Century City in Los Angeles. Three minutes into the Q&A, the camera catches Jennifer Lawrence tell Josh Hutcherson, out of the corner of her mouth, that she forgot to shave her armpits, explaining why she has her arms pinned to her sides (WestfieldUS). Nearly a year later, on February 24th, 2013, Lawrence is being interviewed on the red carpet of the 85th annual Academy Awards and tells Ryan Seacrest that she is starving, desperately asking if there is food at the show. Seacrest laughs, assuring her that there is a 12-plate dinner when it is over. Later that night, Lawrence wins the award for Best Actress and trips on her way up the stairs.

These instances are just a few of many that have made Jennifer Lawrence one of the most talked about and well-liked actresses in the business today. People love her. They think she is funny, relatable, quirky–a Cool Girl. Because that is the way she comes off in interviews, on red carpets, and when giving acceptance speeches. Lawrence’s entire public persona is based around being as much of a Cool Girl as possible.

What do I mean by “Cool Girl”? It is a phrase that comes from Gillian Flynn’s novelGone Girl, which was released on June 5th, 2012, just a few months after Lawrence made her armpits remark. The book has been wildly successful, even being adapted into a David Fincher-helmed film released earlier this year, but the one thing that seems to have stood out the most to readers (and viewers) is Gone Girl’s so-called “Cool Girl rant.”

In the second half of the book, Amy Dunne, the “gone girl” of the title, goes on a spiel about the “cool girl,” an archetype of woman that Amy has been pretending to be for some time and whom she thinks many other women pretend to be as well. The passage reads as follows:

“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” (Flynn, 222).

It is not a kind portrayal of this type of women, but it does raise a few questions. Isthe Cool Girl simply a character, an act put on by women to please men, or can she truly exist? How might the concept of Cool Girl be applied to the star images of certain actresses? And what does it say about our society’s current perceptions of femininity that those actresses who might fit the Cool Girl profile are so well-received?

Those are the questions I intend to try to answer in this paper. Essentially, I will be arguing a few points. First, that the Cool Girl cannot truly exist. Second, that “she” is somewhat emblematic of a postfeminist media culture, as evidence by both “regular” women and certain actresses. And third, that the “Cool Girl” is a concept that can be tied directly to the star images of several popular actresses (such as Jennifer Lawrence, Mila Kunis, and Olivia Wilde), whose popularity therefore alludes to a societal stance on femininity that favors women who are not particularly “girly”–whatever that may mean–over those who are.

The Cool Girl as a Character

First things first: I agree with Amy Dunne. The Cool Girl, as she is described in Gone Girl, does not (truthfully, cannot) exist. As Bim Adewunmi writes in her critique of the Cool Girl label, “The cool girl trope does not describe a whole person. She is a collection of attributes, a list of someone’s favorite things” (Adewunmi, 1). I agree with this assessment and think that it reveals the true nature of the concept. The Cool Girl is a made-up character, who can only exist truly realized on movie screens and in book pages, though we do often see “her” being played out in the public personas of certain actresses, as well as people we may know in our lives.

That being said, we must consider where this Cool Girl character comes from. I argue that “she” springs from societal constraints, both patriarchal and postfeminist. As Adewunmi states, “Women live in societies that place approval from the opposite sex higher than most things” (Adewunmi, 1). Through that lens, it is obvious why the Cool Girl is a role some women try to play–“she” is a machinated character created specifically to garner approval from men. Gillian Flynn herself said that the original Cool Girl rant explained the pressure put upon women, in regards to the fact that many of them are so willing to consistently make themselves over or model themselves a certain way for male approval, when most men would surely not do the same (Vineyard, 1).

Celebrity images encourage this idea. Harkening back to Laura Mulvey’s well-known feminist theory of “the male gaze,” much of the way female stars portray themselves, as well as the attention–and subsequent scrutinization–they receive is based around whether they possess traits that men would approve of, as well as their relationship statuses (whether or not a man is presently approving of them). We see much less of this type of attention directed toward male stars.

I agree with Adewunmi and Flynn’s statements about the Cool Girl springing from patriarchal constraints, but as mentioned, I think that the Cool Girl also springs from the common positioning of our society as postfeminist. Postfeminism has a murky definition, but overall it can be thought of as a belief that the goals of second-wave feminists toward gender equality were achieved and therefore feminism is no longer necessary as an active part of our society. Scholars Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra claim that postfeminist debates began in the late 1990s, when an acknowledgment of feminism was required, yet that “such acknowledgement has frequently taken the form of a prepacked and highly commodifiable entity,” tying discourses of women’s issues and freedom to “individualism and consumerism” (Tasker and Negra, 1). Here is where I believe the issue of the Cool Girl comes into play.

The Cool Girl As An Emblem of Postfeminist Media Culture

To best explain how the Cool Girl character is connected to the postfeminism concept in this way, I will examine “her” connections, in general and via celebrity, to several prevailing themes of postfeminist media culture: the sexualization of culture, women as desiring sexual subjects, notions of female individualism/choice/empowerment, and femininity as a bodily property (Gill, 3).

In today’s supposedly postfeminist media culture, there has been a consistent sexualizing of culture, leading to a dominant understanding that women should feel the need to make themselves be seen as sexually desirable, typically in regard to heterosexual norms (Gill, 5). As mentioned previously, this ideal ties directly to the Cool Girl character. She is a male fantasy, comprised of a love of traditionally “male” activities (including certain sexual practices), but being “above all hot. Hot and understanding” (Flynn, 222). This is demonstrated in those actresses whose personas fall under the Cool Girl umbrella, like Lawrence. For all her goofy behavior and blunt remarks, she is still a shapely woman with a beautiful face. 

In direct relation to this is the Cool Girl’s connection to the postfeminist ideal of women as desiring sexual objects. This ideal says that not only should women be desirable to potential sexual partners, but that they themselves should be actively and enthusiastically seeking out sexual activity. Rosalind Gill mentions in her research that this ideal has been most obviously manifested in a figure created by advertisers to sell to young women: “the sexually autonomous heterosexual young woman who plays with her sexual power and is forever ‘up for it’” (Gill, 6). I say that this advertising figure and the Cool Girl have everything in common–the ease and utter “coolness” with which the Cool Girl operates indicates she would be this type of sexually autonomous woman, doing what (and who) she wants, when she wants to. Her aforementioned love of sexual activities typically favored more by men than women (“she loves threesomes and anal sex”; Flynn, 222) only adds to this image.

This ideal is clear in regards to Cool Girl celebrities, though less in their “real-life” personas than in the Cool Girl roles they play. Mila Kunis, for example, often plays explicitly sexually-active and desiring characters. In Friends With Benefits, for one, she plays a girl who enters into a sexual relationship with her close friend, under the guise that doing so will not complicate their friendship. Likewise, in Black Swan, one of the strongest differences between her character and Natalie Portman’s is that she is overtly sensual and uninhibited toward life (and, presumably, sex).

As for the third postfeminist ideal, that of female individualism, choice, or empowerment, the Cool Girl is again an example. Aside from the fact that we now know that the Cool Girl cannot truly exist and so any woman playing her is notactually being herself, the Cool Girl image itself conveys a sense of choice. She is a free-spirit, fun and adventurous, up for it all, as she wants it–nevermind the fact that it is all an act. These characteristics are highly applicable to the personas of Cool Girl actresses as well.

Finally, there is the postfeminist theme of femininity as a bodily property, rather than a social or psychological one. Gill states that “instead of nurturing or motherhood being regarded as central to femininity…in today’s media it is possession of a ‘sexy body’ that is presented as woman’s key (if not sole) source of identity” (Gill, 3). Again, I make the case that this theme applies directly to the Cool Girl. Arguably, the only traditionally feminine attribute that the Cool Girl–as she is described by Flynn–possesses is her body, her ability to eat all she wants and maintain a trim figure, going back to the claim that Cool Girls are “above all hot”. Once again, as mentioned with the first postfeminist theme, we see this in our Cool Girl actresses–Lawrence, Kunis, Wilde, and others are thin (but curvy), conventionally beautiful women.

All of this serves as evidence to my claim that the Cool Girl character can be seen as an emblem of postfeminist media culture. She represents the ideal that gender equality is no longer an issue by “being” a woman empowered by her own (non-feminine) choices and preferences. However, as someone who believes feminism is still very much necessary, she also serves to me as a specific example of how gender equality has not been achieved, simply through her existence (or, more accurately, lack thereof).

This brings us to another point in my overall argument, which I have been mentioning throughout: that many of the popular actresses of today are acting the part of the Cool Girl, not only in the roles they play, but in their star images. 

Celebrity Cool Girls and What Their Popularity Says About Society’s Stance on Traditional Femininity

It should be noted that Cool Girl actresses are not limited to today–they have been around for decades, though the label has not. Anne Helen Petersen talks extensively of famous Cool Girls of old in her piece, “Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls,” referencing Clara Bow as the archetypal example of the 1920s “New Woman,” Carole Lombard as the 1930s “screwball heroine,” and Jane Fonda as the beauty turned activist in the 1960s and 70s–all “Cool Girls” long before Gone Girl was ever released (Petersen, 1).

Today, we see the Cool Girl represented in film all the time. Olivia Wilde’s character in Drinking Buddies works at a brewery, drinks all the time, and is best friends with a guy. Kate Hudson’s character in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days loves hamburgers and is great at card games (this character is actually a perfect Cool Girl example because to “lose the guy,” she takes on non-Cool Girl, traditionally feminine characteristics, indicating those characteristics are lesser than the alternative). And, as mentioned, Mila Kunis’s characters in Friends With Benefits and Black Swan are relaxed girls who prioritize fun over emotions and perfection, respectively (Kunis is a particularly interesting actress in terms of repeated Cool Girl roles, as her breakout role was Jackie Burkhart on That 70’s Show–a character who is absolutely not a Cool Girl). 

What is more interesting than these multiple cinematic Cool Girl representations, however, is the fact that some of today’s actresses–including Wilde and Kunis and represented better than no one else by girl of the moment, Jennifer Lawrence–appear to be Cool Girls in “real life,” despite the fact that we have already established the Cool Girl is a character.

Wilde is engaged to a comedian (Jason Sudeikis) and announced her due date on the Golden Globes red carpet by referencing Star Wars. Kunis has an endorsement with Jim Beam and infamously turned the tables on an interview during the promotional tour for Oz the Great and Powerful, by talking to the nervous young reporter about beer and soccer (BBC Radio 1). And no star fits the Cool Girl label more than Lawrence. If the Cool Girl could truly exist, Lawrence would be the epitome, with her off-handed red carpet remarks, her nonstop wisecracks about food and drinking (she got Doritos all over her American Hustle costumes, she takes shots before appearances, etc), and her seemingly uninhibited reactions to fellow celebrities. She seems “normal,” she seems fun and spontaneous, she seems cool–and everyone, from professional journalists to tweenage girls, loves her for it. (Interestingly, the one crack in Lawrence’s Cool Girl persona has come recently, with her upset reaction to her nude photo leak–true Cool Girls can never be angry, after all). 

It’s the world’s intense love for the Cool Girl personas of  Wilde, Kunis, and especially Lawrence, that brings to light another important piece of my thesis argument: the popularity of these Cool Girl celebrity says some very distinct things about today’s society’s stance on femininity and how women “should” act.

First of all, it enforces the idea that traditional femininity is somehow subpar to the alternative. As Petersen writes, we (general society) love Cool Girls–these actresses seemingly included–because “they seem to offer an alternative to the polished, performative femininity visible in both our stars and our peers” (Petersen, 1). The fact that so many people love Wilde, Kunis, and Lawrence for their carefree, “one of the dudes” personalities says that to act like them–to eschew feminine stereotypes, to prefer “manly” activities–is at least somewhat preferable to traditional femininity. 

It should be restated, however, that all of these supposedly less feminine women are still conventionally attractive. Lawrence, Wilde, and Kunis are all relatively thin, but curvy enough to never receive “too skinny” backlash and they have traditionally beautiful, perfectly symmetrical faces. There are no physiological idiosyncrasies here. This fact further complicates society’s feminine versus non-feminine stance–“we” desire that women to be more “masculine,” but only in personality. We still expect them to be (traditionally) beautiful. We still demand they be “above all hot.” 

Second, the popularity of these Cool Girl actresses demonstrates a societal preference toward women who are “real”–the ultimate irony, as Cool Girls themselves are not real, nor can the perceived level of beauty “necessary” to be this type of woman be typically achieved authentically. We see this contradiction of loving “real” actresses and disliking “false” ones best in the fact that so many people love Jennifer Lawrence and so many are irritated by Anne Hathaway. Hathaway is enthusiastic about her own work, always appears put-together, and wants people to know how hard she works–making her nearly the opposite of Lawrence, with her self-depreciating humor, unkempt comments, and easygoing sensibility. Despite that the two actresses almost certainly work equally hard–they even won Academy Awards on the same night–and are similarly ambitious in the projects they take on, people like Lawrence more than they like Hathaway (Cadenas). This is arguably because society demands women, celebrity and otherwise, put out quality work, but does not want those women to show how hard it was to do so. Nor, the attitude toward Hathaway would suggest, to demonstrate that they are proud of what they have accomplished.

In addition to society’s desire to see a lack of ambition and pride tied to their “real” women, there also seems to be a certain expectation of approachability required. Everyone loves Lawrence and Kunis because they smile on red carpets and laugh a lot in interviews. We see these women as people we would like to befriend. However, on the other side, there has been a significant level of backlash against Kristen Stewart–whom I would say seems to be one of the most authentic actors in the business–simply because she rarely smiles. Interestingly, Stewart and Lawrence in particular have several things in common: they have both been the leading lady of independently-distributed film franchises adapted from YA novels and they are both often labeled “awkward” in regards to their public personas and personalities (though, importantly, this label is used endearingly in regards to Lawrence and negatively in regards to Stewart). These similarities seem to further point to the idea that Stewart’s audience and acclaim are smaller/lesser than that of Lawrence at least partly, if not mostly, because she comes across as less approachable than Lawrence. 

This desire for approachability in women ties to the notion of wanting women to be “real” because it says that society wants to believe women–Cool Girl actresses included–are not stressed by the personas they are projecting. We wish to believe these women are actually as relaxed and unperturbed as they appear, that the trappings of life (and in the case of the Cool Girl actresses, celebrity and fame) are not bothersome to them. It is a disjointed expectation, of course. The act of the Cool Girl is a multi-layered, difficult one to keep up. To expect these women to truly be all they appear to be is to expect the impossible.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, the “Cool Girl” label is a complicated concept. In this paper, I have argued that the label, as it is described in Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, cannot be truly realized, as “she” is not a three-dimensional person. Additionally, I claim that the character of the Cool Girl–as well as how we see that character played out in both everyday women and the star personas of certain actresses–is representative of several themes of postfeminist media culture. And finally, I state that the popularity of those actresses whose star personas are emblematic of the Cool Girl archetype speaks to an overall societal stance on traditional femininity and female behavior.

I think my research and this paper contribute to the field of star studies by showing the ways in which star personas can be constructed and what societal reactions to celebrities can say about the society as a whole. Additionally, I think looking at the Cool Girl label in-depth serves to shed light on both the current state of our media landscape in regards to women, as well as society’s opinion toward women of certain personality types.

Works Cited

1. Adewunmi, Bim. “I used to scorn ‘cool girls,’ but now see they don’t really exist.” 

    TheGuardian.com 17 Sept. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.

2. BBC Radio 1. “Mila Kunis talks to Chris Stark off the Scott Mils show on Radio 1.” Online 

    video clip. YouTube. Youtube, 4 Mar. 2013. Web. 8 Dec. 2014.

3. Cadenas, Kerensa. “The Happy Girl vs. The Cool Girl: Why People Don’t Like Anne 

    Hathaway.” IndieWire: Women and Hollywood. 6 Mar. 2013. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.

4. Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012. Print.

5. Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist media culture: elements of a sensibility.” European journal of 

    cultural studies. Volume 10. Issue 2 (2007): pages 147-166.

6. Petersen, Anne Helen. “Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls.” Buzzfeed Celeb. 28 

    Feb. 2014. Web. 30 Sept. 2014. 

7. Tasker, Yvonne and Diane Negra. “In Focus: Postfeminism and Contemporary Media 

    Studies.” Cinema Journal. Volume 44. No. 2 (Winter 2005): page 107. Web.

8. Vineyard, Jennifer. “Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn on Cool Girls and David Fincher.”Vulture 6 

    Oct. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.

9. WestfieldUS. “The Hunger Games - Cast Appearance 3/3/12 - Westfield Century City.”  

    Online video clip. YouTube. Youtube, 5 Mar. 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.