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.”)
But it feels like there’s something else going on.
Like the hate has something to do with Swift appearing too eager to please, too earnest, too put-together, and too successful.
For some reason, when we as a public see too much of someone like that, we want to tear her down.
We’ve seen it happen before.
Back in late 2012 and early 2013, Anne Hathaway — an eager-to-please, earnest, put-together actor — had a very bad few months.
In December 2012, she won a Golden Globe and gave a very awkward acceptance speech.
“Um, oh my gosh,” she began. Then, in a stage whisper she said, “This is happening.”
Social media had a field day with that one. It was so cheesy. What a theatre kid.
Then came the Oscars. Due to a last minute screw-up by her designer,
Hathaway had to find a dress at the last minute. She found one. But it
had some very unfortunate stitching. The social media feedback was
brutal. A hashtag, #hathahaters, gained steam.
“When I see Anne Hathaway out in the world, I’m not into it. She’s like…
too good. She’s too nice, too attractive, in too good of shape, too
humble, too talented. With all those things, I should be obsessed with
her. But instead I’m just not. I’m oddly disconnected.
I watch her beautiful face do its talented acting and go — my my,
what a large beautiful mouth. I don’t like it. Look at those dark
beautiful eyes. I don’t like them. Listen to her skinny beautiful words.
I don’t like them. Shut up. Shut up, Anne Hathaway. I honestly don’t
know what it is. Maybe I’m jealous, but I don’t feel jealousy. I watch
her in outtakes, and I feel like she’s not a real person. She’s always
putting on accents and flittering around apologizing for mistakes that
she didn’t make, and I just don’t get it. I don’t find her perfection
charming. I find it annoying.”
“I recently asked my 12-year-old cousin—the family member whose viewing tastes most closely match my own—what TV shows he’s watching. “Umm, The Flash, Arrow, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Supergirl,” he explained. “You know, all of the superhero shows.” I didn’t say anything in the moment for fear of seeming uncool (there’s nothing more intimidating than talking to a middle schooler), but I beamed with pride at how casually he added Supergirl to his list. Much has been made about the fact that Supergirl was the first TV show in decades with a superpowered female lead. But to my cousin, the “Woman of Steel” is just another epic crime fighter.
My cousin is growing up in a world where female protagonists are becoming more and more common, not only in entertainment aimed at girls, but in the massive blockbusters historically marketed to adolescent boys. Thanks in part to Jennifer Lawrence’s turn as Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games series was a top 10 box office earner four years in a row. Meanwhile Star Wars: The Force Awakens positioned Daisy Ridley’s Rey as its force-wielding protagonist. 2015 was one of the best years on record for (white) female protagonists.
When critics discuss this shift, they almost always describe it as a good thing for little girls. And there’s no doubt this is true. A 2012 study showed that while watching TV increased self-esteem among white boys (who are overrepresented) it decreased self-esteem for white girls and black children of both genders (who are underrepresented).
Yet I suspect that young girls have always been better than we give them credit for at finding fictional female role models. By the time I was 12 years old, I had already fallen in love with Hermione Granger, Arwen, Dr. Beverley Crusher, and Princess Leia—awesome female role models tucked away within male-heavy properties like Harry Potter, The Lord Of The Rings, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the original Star Wars trilogy.
But the sad fact is engaging with female characters has long been optional for boys, who are specifically discouraged—by society at large if not by their own parents—from seeking out material designed “for girls.” And the female characters they do see in mainstream entertainment are more likely to be sidekicks and love interests (not to mention outnumbered by male characters three to one).
And that’s what’s so cool about Rey, Katniss, and Supergirl: It’s impossible to ignore them. They are female protagonists in properties that boys are encouraged—expected, even—to watch. For the first time young boys are being asked to empathize with female leads the way girls have long been expected to empathize with male ones. After all, I may have loved Hermione, but I spent 3,000 plus pages inside Harry’s head.
And studies have shown that media has a concrete impact on how we relate to people who are different than us. As author Junot Díaz puts it, women have “spent their whole life being taught that men have a subjectivity.” Now we’re finally teaching boys a similar lesson by introducing them to female leads who are strong, smart, flawed, emotionally complex, and able to fight their own battles.”