Who is Cool Girl?

By Sadie Howard

‘Cool girl.’ Men always use that, don’t they? As their defining compliment. She’s a ‘cool girl.’ Cool girl is hot. Cool girl is game. Cool girl is fun. Cool girl never gets angry at her man.

The “cool girl”, coined by Amy Dunne’s monologue in Gone Girl is the personification of the expectations set upon women by the patriarchy. Always complacent, always happy, and always pretty. Amy spends the duration of the movie framing her husband Nick for her own muder for supposedly forcing her into the cool girl role. But despite her alleged liberation, Amy still embodies the cool girl; not within the universe of the story, but by fans of the movie, who adore her despite her villainy, calling her iconic and a girlboss. 

Amy’s novel “coolness” is the opposite of her description. Despite Amy being written as a villain, she is not regarded as such by many fans of the book. Why is it that such an awful woman is still beloved by so many? It’s because people love her for her crimes. 

Mental illness is an integral part of the cool girl identity. The fetishization of mental illness heavily contributes to this idea. Edgar Allan Poe said in his 1846 essay The Philosophy of Composition, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” There is something morbidly appealing about a woman who is intrinsically broken, whether it be within her mind or as Poe put it, her death.

The intersection of mental illness and beauty is crucial to understanding the formation of the cool girl. Generally, mental illness is not taken seriously in women who do not live up to conventional beauty standards. However, if a conventionally attractive girl does suffer from a mental illness, it contributes to her appeal to men. A notable example is the character of Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While not explicitly stated to be suffering from mental illness, she is characterized as such, being extremely temperamental which causes her to get into frequent fights with the protagonist, Joel. This leads to her erasing him from her memory, which is the conflict driving the movie. Joel spends the whole movie reminiscing on his relationship with Clementine where he idolizes her most destructive traits. While Clementine tries to separate herself from the role of the quirky love interest, she is still only portrayed through Joel’s perspective. The concept of on-screen women having little to no value besides their appeal to men is commonly referred to as the male gaze. 

The term “male gaze” was coined in 1975 by film theorist Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey claims the men write women in film as fantasies rather than people from the perspective of and to appeal to the eyes of the heterosexual male. This concept has become wildly popular, and even though Mulvey’s original essay was just in reference to film, it is often applied to real life. However, Mulvey failed to consider women of color in her theory. 

Janell Hobson, a professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Albany, discusses in her essay, Viewing in the Dark: Toward a Black Feminist Approach to Film, how black women fit into Mulvey’s theory. Hobson writes: “Because the black body poses such a threat to the white patriarchal system, it has been rendered invisible, for the fear that the visibility of a sexually desirable woman would disrupt the accepted conventions of whites as beautiful, as the norm.” Janell argues that there is a theme of invisibility of black women in film, because film is centered around what white men find palatable and anything that gets in the way of that is deemed unacceptable. How does this relate to cool girls? From the primarily white male perspective of Hollywood, the most appealing women to write about and portray as desirable are the ones they find attractive. For them, those are white women whose mental illness allows them to have a right balance of quirkiness and beauty by what is deemed acceptable by the patriarchy. A manic pixie dream girl, perhaps.

“Manic pixie dream girl” was coined by critic Nathan Rabin in reference to Kirsten Dunsts’ performance in Elizabethtown. He describes it as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Some popular examples include Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and any Zooey Deschanel character. 

However, in 2014, Rabin apologized for creating the concept, claiming that he had not realized the misogyny behind it. He said that he hopes to see more fleshed out female characters in the future, and that the film community can move on from the manic pixie dream girl. But recently, the manic pixie dream girl has taken on a more post-ironic meaning. This year, Rabin wrote about what it was like for him to see alt-pop singer Grimes refer to herself as a manic pixie dream girl: “My second impression was that Grimes was both the purest Manic Pixie Dream Girl in human existence but also an exhausting, ridiculously over-the-top parody of the MPDG.” Grimes does fit the 2007 definition of a manic pixie dream girl. She is known, and often ridiculed for, her extreme eccentrism and rejection of the norm, and was in a long-term relationship with one of the most painfully mediocre male celebrities of our time, Elon Musk. But contradictory to Rabin’s description, the modern manic pixie dream girl has a more positive connotation. Grimes’ adoption of the title shows how pop culture has evolved to value being a manic pixie dream girl as something women should embrace rather than shy away from.

Grimes calling herself a manic pixie dream girl is viewed as empowering more than anything. Rabin says it best himself: “If Grimes wants to reclaim the Manic Pixie Dream Girl I say more power to her.” However, this does not change that originally, manic pixie dream girl was conceptualized for the sake of putting down women that irritated Rabin for being too unconventional. While for Grimes, this is what makes it so “empowering” to reclaim, the trope has not been entirely eliminated from media and continues to affect how women are painted.

An example of this is the treatment of the 1963 novel by Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. The Bell Jar documents the progression of nineteen year old Esther Greenwood’s mental breakdown. The novel chronicles Esther’s mental health journey, including her multiple attempts to take her life, failed electroshock therapy, her sexual assault, and her eventual recovery after hospitalization. Plath specifically explores how gender relates to mental illness, as Esther also has to navigate the societal standards for women in the 50’s. This message is especially powerful considering Plath committed suicide only a few years after the publication of the novel. Despite the clear warning about the disregard of women’s mental health, the legacy of Esther is not a cautionary tale. 

Simply searching “the bell jar” on TikTok will yield endless captions and comments stating remarks such as “Esther Greenwood is a relatable girlboss.” Esther was not written as a cool girl; in fact, she was supposed to be the antithesis of her. What is interesting about this is that Esther herself is not the target of the teenage fascination with The Bell Jar – she is actually rarely mentioned in this kind of commentary. What’s “cool” is the actual act of owning and having read the book. The cool girl goes beyond just the character, and seeps into the lives and personas of teen girls. 

As  seen with the mistreatment of Esther, the cool girl of the 2020’s has found her place on TikTok. Like her ancestors, she’s a rejection of the norm. Her mental illness is what makes her pretty, while simultaneously, her beauty makes her mental illness palatable. She wouldn’t exist without TikTok’s highly accurate and customized algorithm, which creates an echo chamber of girls who all want to be the most “niche and  esoteric.” She’s not a manic pixie dream girl, she’s sad, like Lux Lisbon, Phoebe Bridgers, and Mitski, or crazy and misunderstood, like Fiona Apple, Jennifer Check, and Laura Palmer. Not unlike Esther Greenwood. She is all the characters whose tragedy is ignored, or artists who are stripped of their humanity. 

A TikTok account who makes such content to cater to this audience is @sean.iser. It’s not run by a woman, but has gained around 60K followers regardless. His entire account is his face with text such as “I wanna have a dramatic mysterious girl interrupted lanapilled effy stonem kinnie femcel amy dunne moment by disappearing on all social media” with “Doll Parts” by Hole playing in the background. While it is a funny gag, as he has had no online presence for a week after saying that, it summarizes the TikTok cool girl in eight seconds. Portraying severely mentally ill women as quirky for the sake of being relatable to teenage girls, but ultimately, it still caters to men.

To quote TikTok’s personification of mental illness, Mitski, “The sad girl thing was reductive and tired like five, ten years ago, and it still is today… Let’s retire the sad girl schtick, it’s over. Sad girl is over.” Rebranding sadness, brokenness, and mental illness as feminine and edgy is a tale as old as time, but one that reflects antiquated patriarchal ideals of  womanhood. It is harmful  to the young women who perpetuated this idea as they try to navigate the difficulties of adolescence and girlhood. Amy Dunne gets her revenge, but by becoming the housewife she resents. She has control over her husband, but she is ultimately submitting to the role she tried so hard to fight. The cool girl/sad girl/manic pixie dream girl will always be an integral part of media in one way or another, but we don’t have to misinterpret and romanticize her plight. It’s our job as consumers of media to not take away from otherwise powerful stories about women by reducing them to an aesthetic.