Let’s talk about a script I see folks falling into.
There are underlying, unwritten societal rules and scripts that govern our life below the surface. These scripts tell us how we “should” be, how we “should” feel, and conduct ourselves, and the things we should strive for and value, among other things. They change and develop over time, with the communities we are a part of, media we are exposed to, and larger shifts in cultural values. Accepting scripts and norms into our minds and values is a fairly passive process; making change in them for ourselves to align them better with our values, beliefs, and desired life is a process that is possible but might take time and conscious effort to begin to deprogram old scripts and welcome in new ones.
Historically, while scripts govern how all folks “should” act and feel, scripts dictating how women should conduct themselves have been particularly constricting and confusing. (Toxic masculinity is a script you’ve likely heard of and are familiar with to provide an example for the other side as well.) Despite the triumphs of feminism and movements for equality, cultural scripts are insidious, continuing to adapt with the times and still ensuring that folks feel guilty when going “off-script.” We’ve come from scripts that prescribed women to remain in the home and the kitchen, clean and cook dinner, not pursue higher education or work or independence, and take care of prescribed cis male partners and 2.5 kids; while the landscape is more broadened now (in certain areas and cultures), there are still prescriptive norms that persist that tell newly empowered and “freed” women how to conduct their lives.
This gets even more compounded and complex for women who are nonbinary or trans, women of color, women of size, women with chronic health conditions, women who are survivors of violence or trauma, and women who have faced systemic inequality. As identities and experiences intersect, the “allowable” or “permissible” box of behaviors and presentations for women narrows, narrows, narrows — until it almost can’t fit a woman inside anymore.
As I continually quote, Emily Nagoski in Come As You Are expands on sexual scripts that women face from our culture in three messages:
“The Moral Message: “You are Damaged Goods.” If you want or like sex, you’re a slut. Your virginity is your most valuable asset. If you’ve had too many partners (“too many” = more than your male partner has had), you should be ashamed. There is only one right way to behave and one right way to feel about sex—not to feel anything about it at all but to accommodate the man to whom your body belongs. Sex is not part of what makes a woman lovable; it can only be part of what makes a woman unlovable. It may make her “desirable”—and many women try to be desirable, but only as a lesser alternative to being lovable. If you are sexually desirable, you are, by definition, unlovable. And a slut…
The Medical Message: “You Are Diseased.” Sex can cause disease and pregnancy, which makes it dangerous. But if you’re ready to take that risk, sexual functioning should happen in a particular order—desire, then arousal, then orgasm during intercourse simultaneously with your partner—and when it doesn’t, there is a medical issue that you must address. Medically. Women’s sexual response is biologically analogous to men’s, though most women want sex less than men and take longer to achieve orgasm. To the extent that a woman’s sexual response differs from a man’s, she is diseased. Except for pregnancy, which is what sex is for…
The Media Message: “You Are Inadequate.” Spanking, food play, ménages à trois . . . you’ve done all these things, right? Well, you’ve at least had clitoral orgasms, vaginal orgasms, uterine orgasms, energy orgasms, extended orgasms, and multiple orgasms? And you’ve mastered at least thirty-five different positions for intercourse? If you don’t try all these things, you’re frigid. If you’ve had too few partners, don’t watch porn, and don’t have a collection of vibrators in your bedside table, you’re a prude. Also: You’re too fat and too thin; your breasts are too big and too small. Your body is wrong. If you’re not trying to change it, you’re lazy. If you’re satisfied with yourself as you are, you’re settling. And if you dare to actively like yourself, you’re a conceited bitch. In short, you are doing it wrong. Do it differently. No, that’s wrong too, try something else. Forever.”
While these familiar above scripts expand on how women are expected to behave sexually, in ways I’ve touched on before, there are also social scripts not mentioned above, one of which I hope to address in this writing, which I’ll refer to as The “Cool Girl” script.
Gillian Flynn expands on this trope in her novel, Gone Girl.
“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.”)”
While the context of this monologue is of course problematic and I certainly don’t side with the character’s actions or choices (I won’t spoil the great plot of this book and related movie for you here), it also allows readers to feel deep empathy for the character speaking at the time, as readers can likely relate to the pressure exerted by this “Cool Girl” script in the same way they can relate to Nagoski’s three messages. Despite the character’s failings and embedded misogyny, there’s a nugget of truth in there because Amy is a tragic character, damaged by a prescriptive society.
The “Cool Girl” is a fabrication and a script in that we can recognize it, or admire it, or feel pressure to embody it, but cannot really adequately articulate why or how this has come to be.
The “Cool Girl” trope sounds great at first glance — she’s accepting, she’s cool, she’s fun and agreeable. She goes with the flow, has a good time, and we can picture her laughing and having fun, particularly as “one of the guys.” The “Cool Girl” is sexually open and explorative, curses, jokes around, is expressive and loud when it’s appropriate, and makes space for others when not.
There’s a dark side to this good sounding script however — the “Cool Girl” doesn’t take up space. She goes with the flow, inconveniencing no one. She’s “one of the guys” because she’s recognized that women can be catty and dramatic and I’m just not like that, you know. She’s in with the bros. She pushes limits. She’s down to do sexual things if it pleases a partner, with little to no regard if it’s painful or boring or not at all what she wants to do, because she doesn’t take up space. She’s cool with hardcore porn and choking on the first date which was Netflix and chill. She’s cool with casual sex because she isn’t like those other girls who might have a desire for a relationship, or be high maintenance or need a commitment. The “Cool Girl” doesn’t need autonomy, and exists to be on the arm of someone else, even though she’s “strong and independent.” She can be a “independent woman who ain’t need no man” but she really needs a man, deep down. Have I mentioned she’s straight but likes kissing girls for attention if her man approves? She’s feminine and attractive but effortlessly so she can’t be accused of being “high maintenance.” The “Cool Girl” can’t stray from this norm or she loses that status in an instant, and becomes at best “like other girls” and at worst, labeled crazy. The “Cool Girl” is down with casual misogyny because it’s funny and makes her fit in. The “Cool Girl” puts her desires aside to serve the male gaze and patriarchy, it seems.
Now, I understand the above makes me sound like I have a bunch of nose rings (tragically, I no longer do). I’m here referring to a restrictive, prescriptive stereotype, and this is not to say the above must happen or that one having a trait of the above is all bad or whatever. Like, I’m not here to say “casual sex bad,” among other things. I’m simply saying, the prescriptive norm that disallows women to not be allowed to want anything other than that lest they face consequences, vitriol, ridicule, or comparison is no bueno. Being told or prescribed to be something one is not, and facing pressure to do so, is the problematic standard being critiqued in this article. Hope this helps.
OK, with that being said, The “Cool Girl” is a woman as seen through the eyes of the male gaze, in a very r/menwritingwomen kind of way. In a very potentially problematic “strong female lead” kind of way, or a “manic pixie dreamgirl” kind of way: she’s a woman written for men.
And it can feel good to align oneself with this script, potentially creating a sense of safety and acceptance, as one is accepted into groups as “one of the guys” or “she can hang;” creating potentially positive body feelings as one is treated as desirable (read: potentially objectified); and approval as the woman in question might do things to “prove” her worth that are then looked upon positively — potentially similar to a fawn reaction.
Of course, this all can yield positive results. But as the above authors note, and author Margeret Atwood expounds in this excerpt from The Robber Bride below, it can also cultivate a sense of exhaustion:
“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
I’m tired. Aren’t you?
To be aware of these scripts and their occurrences is certainly also exhausting, that is for sure. With that being said, with awareness comes increased mobility and accountability: to ourselves, to others, and to our desired role in society. With this awareness we can claw ourselves out of prescribed scripts into something more real and authentic. We can even see what’s going on and decide that it actually is a good fit. Real empowerment and feminism is giving ourselves the opportunity to choose for us, individually.
The prescriptive norm paradigm is damaging: it robs us of our autonomy, and forces us into roles we might not otherwise want for ourselves.
Moreover, the trope of the “Cool Girl” is damaging in that it also damages women’s relationships with other women; the “Not like other girls” part of the script separates women from making real connections, and this inherent sexism enmeshed in cultural scripts divides and conquers women who may be culturally or socially disallowed from forming real connections with their peers. We are stronger together, accepting friends, colleagues, and partners regardless of gendered prescriptive scripts and norms, and on basis of more true measures of compatibility and shared values and desires.
Real feminism, empowerment of the genders, or equality, whatever floats your boat, is built atop the back of allowing folks to be into what they’re into, whether traditional “girly” shit or new interests and hobbies. Whether broing out or having a ladies night. It is not performative; it is genuine and authentic.
And that’s hard to find, or know when you’ve found it, in this very performative current culture we find ourselves nested in.
You are allowed to have boundaries. You are allowed to have interests that are your own. You are allowed to say “no” to things you don’t want or like. You are allowed to develop new interests, desires, or ways of being that are authentically you without having to hold fear of punishment or accusations at your “authenticity” or whatever.
Thanks for reading.