This piece by Julie DiCaro originally appeared on The Establishment, a new multimedia site funded and run by women.
I spent a good portion of my twenties as the “cool girl.” I don’t mean to say that I actually was cool or that other people found me to be cool, only that I was fixated on molding myself into the kind of woman I thought would serve me best, no matter the deleterious effect it had on me or the other women in my life. I decried feminism. I felt myself in constant competition with other women. Shamefully, I was quick to criticize and make fun of them, especially to men.
We all know the ‘cool girl,’ the one who goes out of her way to say that she gets along with men better than women. The one who considers herself “one of the guys.” She eschews “drama” but has no problem joining men in criticizing other women, individually and as a gender. Allegations of violence against women? She’ll be the first to point out that some women lie. The cool girl “gets it.” She doesn’t complain about casual misogyny or sexist jokes from the men in her life. She’s not “uptight.” She’d rather die than be called a “feminist.” She loves sports/gaming/hunting/beer/red meat/comics/dirty jokes/casual sex/giving blowjobs/wearing too-small sports jerseys.
“We all know the 'cool girl,' the one who goes out of her way to say that she gets along with men better than women.”
Not that many women don’t genuinely love such things. I’ve always loved sports, and now work in sports media, where pressure to be the cool girl can be overwhelming.
Women who work in sports are supposed to be hot, but not high maintenance; outspoken, but not political; knowledgeable, but not so much as to threaten the guys. The sports media landscape is littered with cool girls trying to master this high-wire act. Some are cool girls for career advancement, some are cool girls simply to survive. Either way, the cool girl is more accepted by fans than any other embodiment of woman in sports media. Women working in sports media who speak openly about equality and feminism are harder to sell to the public (as one man in the industry said to me, “No one wants a buzzkill on their TV”). And it’s probably not difficult to imagine how it goes over when a woman tells male colleagues that their sexist jokes and objectification of women in the workplace is inappropriate. And so the cool girl thrives, often leaving a trail of regular girl bodies in her wake.
And lest we think the pressure to be a cool girl in sports media is only felt by young women with nascent careers, consider established college football reporter Jeannine Edwards, who, five years after standing up to a colleague for calling her “Sweet Baby” while on the job, asked Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh why his team wasn’t getting to see more girls in bikinis while his team was in Florida for the Orange Bowl.
I started thinking about my past as a cool girl during the 2016 Election, when so many women aligned themselves with President Elect Donald Trump and the pussy-grabbing, woman-groping, slut-shaming allegations against him. Who were these women who were so quick to excuse Trump’s groping of other women? So ready to declare that Trump was welcome to grab their pussy? How can these women, many of whom spoke openly about their own experience with sexual harassment, be so nonchalant about voting for a man who behaves so boorishly around other women? What makes a woman turn away from issues that affect every single one of her sisters? What compels her to step across the void to side with Donald Trump and the kind of men who supported him?
“Women are socialized to be competitive to other women and we can’t deny how many of us carry that with us our entire lives,” says Canadian women’s rights advocate Julie S. Lalonde. “There’s this idea that if you distance yourself from other women and align yourself with men, not only will they ‘choose you’ over other women, but they will treat you with the same respect they show their friends. It’s a phenomenon known as ‘proximity to power’: the idea that aligning yourself with the person/group in power will give you access to said power.”
“Looking back, by cozying up to the guys and making my defection from the women’s side known, I was subconsciously trying to carve out a special circumstance for myself”
Writer and activist Yasmin Nair agrees that the cool girl is a creation of our society, rather than a phase some women go through. “I don’t think [women aligning themselves with men to the detriment of women] happens for psychological reasons as much as because this is how patriarchy works in its most insidious form: pitting women against each other to serve, directly or indirectly, to further the interests of men who are positioned as their caretakers and providers and, now, their presidents.”
Writer Jessica Luther once told me that there are many rewards for sexism in our society, no matter your gender. That was certainly true in my cool girl phase (or at least, I was under the impression that it was). Looking back, by cozying up to the guys and making my defection from the women’s side known, I was subconsciously trying to carve out a special circumstance for myself: one that would save me from the treatment I saw women getting from men all around me.
The downside to being “one of the guys” is that men don’t pull their punches when talking about other women in front of you. I heard women’s bodies evaluated and criticized in such excruciating minutiae, it affects the way I look at my body to this day. Once, I sat in a circle of men who were discussing another student, who probably could have modeled her way through law school. They discussed everything about her, from the tiny scar on her chin to the supposed cellulite on her seemingly perfect thighs to the way her vagina probably smelled. By the end of the conversation, they had reduced this smart, striking, funny girl to nothing more than a sexual depository. I said nothing.
While I’m not proud of my cool girl phase, at least I can console myself with platitudes about the folly of youth, lack of feminist role models, etc. For me, the cool girl was a phase.
But what about all the middle-aged women viciously attacking Hillary Clinton and the women who accused Trump of sexual assault during the campaign? What’s their excuse?
“One day, I began to realize that what I once thought was 'guys being guys' felt a lot more like the casual workplace sexism that was holding back my career.”
“They want to appear ‘chill’ and not like those humorless feminists who don’t allow men to be men,” says Lalonde. “But underpinning it all is 1) internalized misogyny and 2) a desire for power by association.”
Nair argues that the real issue lies in the evolution, or lack thereof, of feminism itself. “We’ve given into the idea that there are ‘multiple’ feminisms, and that these include supporting someone’s blatantly sexist attitudes because, I don’t know, feminists have the right to be sexists too, or something?” she posits. “I don’t think solidarity with women is a precondition of feminism, but solidarity with other humans in the interest of overthrowing capitalism and patriarchy certainly is.”
The problem with playing the role of the cool girl was that, eventually, I wound up hemmed in by my character. One day, I began to realize that what I once thought was “guys being guys” felt a lot more like the casual workplace sexism that was holding back my career. After years of letting all the inappropriate jokes slide, I found that my cool girl persona didn’t get me any additional street cred when I finally voiced an objection. It hit me that, for all my criticism of other women, men didn’t take me any more seriously than they would a strange woman off the street. In the end, being the cool girl got me nothing.
Lalonde is not surprised by my revelation. “Unfortunately, I think a lot of women have a patriarchal-come-to-Jesus moment when something awful happens to them,” she says. “Maybe they aligned themselves with men who sell them out, or they trust a man who abuses that trust. They feel a deep sense of betrayal because they bought into the idea that they were ‘safe’ (literally or figuratively), and so they feel robbed. ‘Proximity to power’ is a trap and it pains me that many women don’t see it that way until they fall into it.”
Now, 15 years out of my cool girl phase, I consider myself a strong advocate for feminism and equality. Whenever I see some 20-something on Twitter dragging feminism and stumping for the patriarchy, I thank God that Twitter didn’t exist to memorialize some of my earlier views for posterity. Despite my own history, I worry that internalized misogyny is so deep-seated in some of these young women that they will never come around.
Lalonde is more optimistic that cool girls of all ages can still be reached. “I am hopeful that pointing out that sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, etc. is systemic can help people see the light. Whether you’re talking about Tila Tequila being a proud Neo-nazi or women yelling ‘He can grab my pussy!,’ I firmly believe that the best way to combat this phenomenon is to keep pointing out that social justice movements are not here to frame all marginalized folks as victims or all white men as the enemy. We’re instead pointing out how the system is rigged. It’s not about individuals, but about systems.”
Other recent stories include: