Play it cool. Keep it breezy. Treat ’em mean. Don’t reply straight away. Be aloof. Be distant. Be hard to get. These are the rules you need to follow in order to be “The Cool Girl” — a prevalent dating trope that many women feel pressured to conform to lest they be labelled clingy or desperate.
The cool girl started out as a stock character born out of male-authored literature and movies. But, the trope has since become so pervasive, the cool girl is now firmly cemented in dating culture, with no sign of disappearing anytime soon. The cool girl is no longer merely a character in a book — she is the acme of female desirability. She is the three-dimensional flesh and bone incarnation of the male fantasy. She is the rejection of the nadir of female behaviour — clinginess. And to many of us, she is a stifling behavioural standard that forces us to hide our true personalities.
Ever since I started dating as a teenager, I have internalised the notion that I need to to feign indifference and affect cool standoffishness in order to “Get The Guy,” so to speak. Unconsciously, I carried this rule into adulthood — it manifests in my behaviour at the start of relationships, it infiltrates the advice I give to friends, and it fuels my anxiety until the mask slips and my authentic self is exposed.
In the books I read, the films I watched, the most beguiling and intoxicating female characters were unobtainable and remote — their desirability being inextricably tethered to their silent disinterest and unattainability. Think of Eustacia Vye from Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, Cecilia Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Estella in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
“I kind of feel pressure from the world in general not to be who I am.”
Lately, I’ve begun questioning the suffocating pressure I feel to adopt this role whenever I start seeing someone new. Who told me I need to masquerade as someone else and to literally adopt a different personality in order to be desirable to the opposite sex?
Writer Katie Tamola, who dates men, told me the “cool girl” ideal has been drummed into her since she was a child. “I’ve just always had people close to me tell me I need to play it cool with dudes,” she tells me. Tamola says family members and teachers have told her to “stop being so emotional and expressive” — especially with men.
“I kind of feel pressure from the world in general not to be who I am,” Tamola says. “I’ve always been emotional and immensely passionate about things. I often find myself wishing I could be the calmer, cooler version of a girl that I see portrayed in media.”
Student Alex C. (who prefers not to disclose her full name) tells me that “attempting to be the “cool girl” doesn’t just apply to heterosexual dating.”
“I constantly feel this pressure as a gay woman dating women,” she says. “It definitely seems to be the case that the person who is the least interested and most aloof holds the most power, and will get hurt less if things go south.
“I believe some of the pressure also comes from trying to avoid the lesbian U-Haul stereotype where women get serious way too quickly because nobody is putting on the brakes,” she says.
Alex explains that she now tempers her expectations and holds herself back from expressing the full extent of her feelings. “It’s a shame dating has come to this because how can anybody feel really excited about a date or know if someone is really interested in them when we’re all suppressing those feelings?”
“The person who is the least interested and most aloof holds the most power.”
The cool girl is everywhere. She’s in the books we read, she’s on our TV and movie screens, she’s in the dating advice we give and receive. From every angle, the pop culture we consume solidifies the cool girl ideal as the zenith of feminine desirability. Perhaps one of the best descriptions of this trope can be found in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Flynn’s summation of this trope hits the nail bang on the head: “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.”
Dr. Stacy Gillis — senior Lecturer in 20th century literature and culture at Newcastle University —believes the cool girl is rooted in “how women are discursively positioned within patriarchal structures of power.” Gillis views this trope as related to a “predator-prey conquest model” whereby the cool girl is unobtainable until she’s conquered by the right man. “It’s about unattainability, but with the hint that you will be able to be attained,” says Gillis. “With the promise that with the right man, he will be able to break down this woman’s barriers.”
Research into the ways in which women present themselves on dating apps can also shed some light on the pressures women still face to conform to certain behavioural ideals. Siân Brooke, DPhil researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, has conducted research into how women present themselves on dating apps like Tinder and Bumble.
“‘Coolness’ or ‘being cool’ is a trope that is gendered and often racialised,” Brooke tells me over email. “When used to describe women, ‘coolness’ refers to the adoption of typically masculine ideals of behaviour, such as a liking football or gaming.” Brooke believes the cool girl is a rejection of an antithetical feminine dating stereotype: the clingy woman.
“A particularly prevalent idea is that women are ‘clingy,’ which was quite common in research I have conducted both on dating apps and memes,” says Brooke. Clinginess is, per Brooke, a gendered term which pertains to “excessive emotional dependence” — an “undesirable” behaviour in dating culture.
“Clingy is not just attachment but is specifically associated with men complaining about a woman’s behaviour and perceived excessive need for attention,” says Brooke. The negative connotations of being branded “clingy” may, according to Brooke, cause some women to choose to act “distant and removed” from a potential partner. “The negative association of feminine behaviour can lead women to adopt masculine traits that they see as making them more desirable in dating, where so-called feminine behaviour is often demonised.”
Brooke says during her research she found that women who use dating apps often choose to feature a selection of images that exhibit common cool girl attributes. “My research has shown that women will populate the images they have on their profiles with items they believe show ‘coolness,’ such as engaging in physical activities in photos where they aren’t ‘made up’ (i.e. hair and makeup),” she says.
So, where does this ideal actually come from? Male-authored female literary characters have historically embodied characteristics like aloofness and unattainability. They are often troubled and in need of taming. Gillis says this trope can be found in popular fiction at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, but it may well go further back than that.
“I can certainly think of a few instances of it appearing in 1860s sensation fiction, and this is a longstanding discursive structure,” says Gillis. “It’s very seductive, women are coercively interpellated into feeling that this is how they need to be in order to attract male attention.”
“It’s that distancing come hither look, you see this being written about in popular fiction in the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, and invariably those women in those narratives end up married,” says Gillis. “It’s an inversion of the Rochester-Darcy model except that there’s no agency for women behind it because it’s still located within patriarchal structures.”
“We become supplicants, we want the male gaze to come at us so we’ll do whatever it takes.”
Things have arguably moved on a little in society since the 19th century, so why is it that women still feel pressured to adhere to an outmoded concept of female attractiveness? Gillis believes this comes from a “desire to be desired within the patriarchy.”
“If there’s only certain ways in which you can be desired within the heteronormative patriarchy then you’re inculcated into this position,” says Gillis. “This is how we — as minorities in a patriarchy — are interpellated into these positions whereby we become supplicants, we want the male gaze to come at us so we’ll do whatever it takes.”
In my own infuriating experience, I feel a kind of damned-if-you-do predicament when faced with my desire to rail against this archetype. “The thing is, though,” a female friend recently said with a grimace. “Being the cool girl actually works.” She’s right, in a way. Women are continuously told that this behaviour model works, that it’s a tried and tested trick of the trade, one that you can deviate from at your own risk.
So, how do we go about dismantling this stereotype? Gillis hypothesises that queer popular culture has the power to upturn these stereotypes that are still a source of pressure for women. “[Queer popular culture’ is a space in which there’s a playfulness to these tropes and roles, they’re seen as something you can move in and out of.”
“Any stereotype can be dismantled, it doesn’t happen overnight. The challenges to this come from Young Adult and LGBTQ fiction which mocks these longstanding romance traditions,” she continues.
In the meantime, I’ve made a vow to avoid playing the cool girl when I’m dating. I can no longer pretend to be someone I’m not just so I can fulfil a rigid stereotype of female attractiveness. I am not the cool girl, nor will I ever be. Take it or leave it.