How the seemingly forward Cool Girl Trope could actually be a step backwards for women
BY PULARI BASKAR
“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... 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.”
This is a quote from Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl, which was made into a film by David Fincher in 2014. At the start of the film, Amy Dunne (played piercingly by Rosamund Pike) is willing to bend over backwards to be the Cool Girl when she falls for Nick Dunne (the wondrously blithe Ben Affleck). However, there is one problem- the Cool Girl is nothing but a myth, an ideal woman constructed by an entirely male perspective that dictates what a man wants a woman to be without being challenged or engaging in conflict. In the pilot episode of Mad Men (2007), when asked why he was being obnoxiously open about his interest in the new secretary, Aaron Staton’s character replies “You got to let them know what kind of guy you are. Then they’ll know what kind of girl to be”- she likes what he likes. Unlike the Manic-Pixie Dream Girl trope which portrays outgoing, eccentric women who are paired with men who are their total opposite, the Cool Girl is practically “one of the guys”. The Cool Girl farce is put up initially by a woman to seem appealing to a man. But any realistic long-term relationship encounters several hurdles and hardships, trying circumstances which can force both its members to expose their vulnerable, true selves. How long can one pretend to be someone they are not?
Gillian Flynn Gillian Flynn’s novel is an exposé of the cool girl trope. Amy’s character completely unravels past breaking point when she realizes her husband loves the person she was pretending to be. He grows more distant from her when she tries to replace her Cool Girl persona with her authentic self. While initially, it may seem as though the Cool Girl persona is a pop feminist icon on screen who can do everything a man does, in reality, it is a trap women lure themselves into that incapacitates them from having an identity independent of the male gaze.
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly”.
The term “male gaze” was coined by British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her 1975 work, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.
The Cool Girl in Indian cinema is slightly more complex than the ones in Hollywood. Let’s take the example of Ritu Varma’s character, Meera, from the 2020 Tamizh film Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadithaal. In the first half of the movie, Meera is an innocent, reserved beautician. She dresses in salwaar kaamizes, occupies a harmless presence on screen and is very caring and obedient to her boyfriend, Siddharth (played by Dulquer Salman). She’s shown as being careful about money and claims that she sees no need for extravagance - both of which are qualities of a good homemaker. In the second half of the movie, it is revealed that she and her friend are actually con-women, who seduce men and steal their money. She’s then shown as an intelligent woman who wears Western clothing, is brave enough to earn a living via illegal activities and does not need a man to be secure in herself. In fact, she says that she never loved Siddharth - it was all part of the elaborate act. Unfortunately for her, Siddharth (who is also a thief) was not ready to let go of the love of his life without a confrontation and a fight. When he finally tracks her down, he tells her that they could plan a heist of their own and earn more than enough money to spend the rest of their lives without ever having to steal again. Of course, through the course of the mega-heist, Meera falls for Siddarth.
Here’s the catch: the traditional, kind, morally grounded girl who does not overstep her boundaries Siddarth knew before he found out she was a thief had left a lasting impression on him. He still dreams of that version of Meera ending up with him, and asserts that that girl is still hidden inside her somewhere. Her alternate, independent and assertive qualities are just facets of her life without him. Yes, she can dress in whatever way she likes and carry out robberies through manipulation as long as she never poses a challenge to him.
Here again, we see recurring patterns of the Cool Girl trope- non-confrontational, submissive, independent as long as she does not outshine the man, and good-looking. The 2008 hit Bollywood film Rock On! shows the character of Debbie as a passionate fashion design student in her college days, but then gives up her career to support Joe, her husband, who becomes a failed musician and their young son. Though she points out that being his wife has forced her to make a lot of sacrifices for her, at the end of the day, she sacrifices her desire for her family’s society time and time again so that Joe could live his dream. This is in line with practices in Indian society as well; women are expected to sacrifice their interests and put family first, while their husbands are more or less free to follow their passions.
Speaking of women’s martyrdom, one need not travel back 12 years in Bollywood but can look at Taapsee Pannu’s latest film, Thappad (2020). Amrita (played by Taapsee) struggles to come to terms with her husband Vikram after he slaps her when he is in a fit of rage. Amrita makes no excuse for her husband’s slightly inebriated state and the external factors that put him in a bad mood- “Just a slap par nahi maar sakta!” (But he cannot slap me). While we cannot ignore the importance of the film’s salient message that even one ‘slip up’ cannot be viewed as anything less than domestic abuse, the film does create another impression on the audience alongside. In the film, Amrita is shown as the perfect wife- though she’s educated and a trained dancer, she chooses to become a full-time homemaker, catering to every single one of Vikram’s needs, as well as those of her mother-in-law’s. She’s kind, supportive and will engage with everything that Vikram enjoys, which is what makes the slap so much more of a shock for her. She would be the role model for the ideal Indian housewife. But this makes it seem like only the women who are closest to being perfect have the right to seek justice and assert their rights. Therefore, there is an additional quality she must possess- to be taken seriously, the Indian Cool Girl must maintain a cultural balance of Indian traditionalism and Western hypermodernism.
The point of this article is not to say that any woman engaging in behaviour that is typically deemed ‘masculine’ is serving the male gaze. Men do not have a monopoly over these fields, and women have every right to be equally passionate about football and cars and dress as they please. An Indian woman can wear a sari to work every day and smoke cigarettes if she pleases- she has every right to engage with Western and Indian practices. But the Cool Girl trope blurs the lines between freedom of expression and socially conditioned behaviour. It sets unmatchable standards for women off-screen to live up to, reinforcing a false promise that sacrificing oneself will provide them with the kind of relationship and lifestyle they are made to believe is ideal.
What makes the Cool Girl trope so attractive is that it’s a very flexible one- there can be a Cool Girl moulded to be a suitable fit for any hero. Hrithik Roshan’s 2014 film Bang Bang is the story of a thief, Rajveer, who steals the Kohinoor diamond but complicates life for himself when he falls for the beautiful Harleen (Katrina Kaif). Rajveer’s assertiveness and risky lifestyle is complemented by Harleen’s complying, non-questioning attitude. In Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), Hrithik’s character, Arjun is an arrogant, stuck up, workaholic- the opposite of fun. But when he meets Laila (played again by Katrina Kaif), beautiful, flawless, wanderlust scuba diver with a passion for living in the moment and appreciating the small things in life, he’s immediately changed for the better without really being challenged uncomfortably. Any type of man, from a thief to a boring businessman can be made likeable and shown to have depth, as long as there is a woman to enhance his good qualities accordingly.
At the same time, one can’t help contrast Katrina’s character in with that of Laila -Kalki Koechlin’s, who is more or less an Arjun in a female body. Of course, while her beau has the same taste for life as Laila, she doesn’t change her ways for anybody and her non-compromising ways are portrayed in an unfavourable manner. This is another aspect of the Cool Girl trope: to highlight the fact that she is “not like other girls”, the other female characters alongside the Cool Girl are made to seem unattractive as they are clingy, uptight, emotional and ‘girly’. This inhibits the Cool Girl and the Stereotypical Girl from realizing that they are still serving the interests of men- just in different or subtler ways. They’re still trying to tick the boxes for men, instead of identifying their own. These portrayals of women are most often directed by men, who thereby elect themselves as spokespersons for female interests. The conditioning of minds by these portrayals can cause women to write female characters similarly as well.
This is not to say that every single film has female characters that are actually oppressive of women. Ladybird (2017), Super Deluxe (2019), Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) and Queen (2013) all feature women who question the norms they are forced to abide by. But these films are all exceptions that prove the rule. The struggle isn’t between two types of girls who are diametrically opposite to each other but between all girls who feel they need to be a certain way to be liked and those who plant that belief in their heads. It’s time for filmmakers to realize whether they are unintentionally prolonging the dominance of male interests and ask what a woman really wants and can be.