The Cool Girls of Television
When a beautiful actress appears laid back, charming, unpolished, and “just like us,” she becomes our new favorite person. But her seemingly effortless ability to win everybody’s hearts, it turns out, has an expiration date. And the way that expiration comes about says more about us than it does about her.
What is a Cool Girl?
A recent article by Anne Helen Peterson looks at Jennifer Lawrence as the current reigning “Cool Girl,” a category of celebrity that makes these celebs people women want to be best friends with and men desire. Cool Girls like Jennifer Lawrence are seen differently than other actresses, greatly described by Peterson.
“Her body, skin, face, and hair all look effortless and natural — the Cool Girl doesn’t even know what an elliptical machine would look like — and wears a uniform of jeans and tank tops, because trying hard isn’t Cool. The Cool Girl has a super-sexy ponytail. … She’s an ideal that matches the times — a mix of feminism and passivity, of confidence and femininity. She knows what she wants, and what she wants is to hang out with the guys.
A Cool Girl’s societal box may be roomier than those of the one-dimensional Hot Girl, but it still has the same number of tightly enclosed walls.
One takeaway from Peterson’s piece is that just because we like Cool Girls doesn’t mean we are good to them. And the expectations we place on them mirror those that we place on women everywhere: be beautiful and witty, don’t nag or make waves.
TV Cool Girls Break New Ground
On television, there are several Cool Girls, but perhaps because of the long-form nature of television storytelling, television Cool Girls can often push boundaries and have a stronger bite, which makes their work even better.
Tina Fey is one example. In “30 Rock,” she played a woman who was most passionate about her career but almost equally passionate about her sandwiches and nacho chips. She was nerdy and created new words, but Fey had stronger and more assertive viewpoints than Hollywood Cool Girls are often allowed to have. Some of the best episodes of the show relied on her point of view. Like many of television’s Cool Girls, she was not only the star of her show but writer and creator.
Lena Dunham, the creator and star of HBO’s “Girls,” is someone else who has pushed boundaries. She is frequently asked in interviews about her use of nudity on the show, including nudity of varying body types. But by being so explicitly sexual, Dunham’s character on the show proves to be sexually desired, and having sexual desires herself. Dunham is Cool because she acts like you or one of your friends, even if it’s the friend who is a little self-involved. But she also manages to raise important questions about beauty standards and express millennials experiences.
Zooey Deschanel is “New Girl’s” Cool Girl. On that show, Deschanel is both sexy and quirky, and she literally becomes “one of the guys” when she moves in with three men in the show’s pilot. But Deschanel’s goals are seemingly different from Fey’s or Dunham’s; her show is less interested in making statements and more interested in being both funny and sexy, something that fits nicely with Peterson’s definition. Perhaps as a result, Deschanel has experienced more backlash as some viewers have tired of her persona.
As Peterson shows through an examination of history, this tendency to spit out Cool Girls once we are done with them reflects deeply ingrained societal tendencies to marginalize even women we like. Their desirability is based on how easy they are to get along with, rather than on their complexity as people.
Mindy Kaling is perhaps the best example of the Jennifer Lawrence of television in her show “The Mindy Project.” She seems comfortable with herself, and her character is both Cool and feminine. The show itself has the structure of a girly romantic comedy, but she’s smart and accomplished. Also clumsy and romantic. Throughout the series, she always looks good, and several attractive men want to sleep with her, both facts speaking more loudly than all of her self-deprecating humor to establish her sex appeal.
It’s Not the Cool Girl’s Fault
It is important to point out that being a Cool Girl is not a sign of the actress doing anything wrong. Jennifer Lawrence told The Mirror last year that she worries about becoming annoying. That would be a shame, because it’s not just Jennifer Lawrence’s Cool factor that makes her great, but her continual hard work, and her sheer talent. If fans turn 180 degrees to decide that she is now annoying, that won’t be her fault, it will be ours. And it has happened before.
The role of Cool Girl is dangerous for women because it is inherently contradictory: we are more than happy to heap affection upon a woman who “acts real,” but not one who actually is real. Not everybody can be agreeable and beautiful and funny all the time, but as soon as a Cool Girl becomes too much or too little of any of those things, we start looking for a replacement. Fortunately, the Cool Girls of television have been successful so far at attempting to change that narrative. Being Cool and being assertive are not mutually exclusive.
Photo Courtesy of Autumn Dewilde/FOX