People used to say there are three things people shouldn’t discuss in mixed company: politics, religion, and parenting. Opinions are too strong, and such conversations can only serve to make other people uncomfortable. This goes double for members of society who bear the greatest responsibility for politeness — marginalized groups often outnumbered in mixed company. Polite silence was the only acceptable option when to be vocal about injustice was to be “uppity,” or “willful.” Women especially have been trained to respond to hostility politely to avoid violence, of course, but also simply to avoid hurting men’s feelings — which we are taught to value above our own. We are taught, not necessarily explicitly, but through subtle policing throughout our lives, to be caretakers, and to be joyful in this role. Taking care of others is supposed to make us happy — and to speak out against misogyny makes other people uncomfortable.
The role of caretaker is not as explicit today as it once was. Just over 50 years ago, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, examining the trope of the “happy housewife.” Back then, a husband and children were supposed to fulfill women entirely. Of course, the life of the (white, educated, middle-class) ‘50s housewife that Friedan studied that was supposed to make all women happy was torture for many women who wanted a life outside of the home or didn’t see themselves as a caretaker. Today, we largely accept that there are multiple acceptable identities for a woman other than the housewife and mother, but we still want her to be happy in the status quo. We want her to take care of her man, and eventually her children as well as her co-workers and career responsibilities. We don’t want her to complain. So how is a young woman supposed to be all of these things, a modern woman, a silent caretaker, an almost partner? Enter, the “cool girl,” the pseudo-feminist middle ground.
You’ve probably heard of the “cool girl,” made famous in her current incarnation by Gillian Flynn’s wildly popular novel Gone Girl. Flynn describes her thusly:
“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, 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. 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.”
The features are her proximity to maleness, her beauty, and her utter passivity. The cool girl likes what the straight dude is supposed to like, and she never complains. She is the housewife and mother of the modern era, above all supporting typically assigned male wants and needs. She is a support figure and care taker. She likes what straight dudes are supposed to like: beer, football, etc. This is not to say that those things don’t make women happy. I for one love beer, video games, comic books and French fries. The key to the “cool girl,” is her beauty and her submission. She must also embrace more insidious goals: thinness, perfection, the absence of needs. She must be beautiful because to have such proximity to maleness in the absence of a distinctly feminine form of beauty is to edge towards queerness — anathema to the dudes she seeks to impress. She must maintain that size 2, even if it means throwing up those burgers and beers later on or abusing diet pills — whatever it takes. She is supposed to be a fantasy figure: beautiful, docile, and fun. Who wouldn’t want to be a fantasy figure? The reward is proximity to social power structures, to be “one of the boys,” the most powerful structure in Western society. She is “low-maintenance.” She accepts her 75 cents on the dollar without complaint. I won’t deny my own culpability in this. I’ve acted the “cool girl” in groups of male friends. I’ve avoided confronting sexist ideas in mixed company because I didn’t want to be seen as a shrew or nag — because I wanted to fit in and to be liked. Most women I know went through a “cool girl” phase in their 20s.
A woman who speaks out, who asks others around to face difficult truths, whether or not she eschews typical markers of femininity, is the “feminist killjoy.” The “feminist killjoy,” as articulated by feminist theorist Sarah Ahmed in her 2010 book, The Promise of Happiness, is a woman who is not happy with the objects or concepts that are supposed to make her happy. She recognizes and articulates injustice. She “brings everyone down.” Many of us can see the gendered, racial, and economic injustices that our cultural institutions and ideologies support, but do not wish to dwell on them. How depressing to watch every film considering how female characters, queer characters, black or brown characters, are marginalized? It doesn’t complement the flavor of popcorn. How exhausting to watch the news and listen to an elderly white man in a suit tell you that you are not a “real American.” It’s easier to turn off and pretend that our culture is something of a meritocracy — that these injustices are surmountable or at least temporary. The next generation will be better, we tell ourselves. Our children will face better odds. The feminist killjoy reminds us that progress is not inevitable. Ahmed articulates these ideas in terms of “happiness objects” — ideas, inanimate objects, concepts, that are supposed to make us happy or unhappy. A degree, a house, a husband — these signifiers that should make us whole. In Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, “a life, a lover.”
The objects of happiness are simply a system of control. If these objects don’t make you happy, it must be your fault. The killjoy finds her joy in the wrong objects. She is the “affect alien.” When she addresses tension she becomes its attributed source — as if nothing was wrong before she called it so. The women who crossed the line between the “cool girl” and the “feminist killjoy” found themselves the target of systemic harassment in the controversy known colloquially as “Gamergate.” Women like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, devotees of video games and gaming culture, could have been “cool girls” until they spoke out. Sarkeesian founded and operates the website “Feminist Frequency” that publishes commentary on women in popular culture. Her project “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” resulted in countless rape and death threats as well as her personal information being exposed and ultimately (known online as doxing), an FBI investigation into the targeted harassment against her. Meanwhile, Quinn, a video game developer was accused by an ex-boyfriend of garnering favorable reviews of her games due to a personal relationship with a critic at the popular gaming site Kotaku, essentially sleeping her way to the top. The fact that the critic in question had never written about Quinn was ignored — nor was there any evidence the relationship existed. She too became the target of ongoing harassment campaign. Recent pop-culture history is similarly instructive. Decades earlier, Jane Fonda stepped out of her persona as a sex-kitten and compliant star to speak out against the Vietnam War, racism and sexism. As recently and brilliantly chronicled by the Hollywood history podcast “You Must Remember This,” she almost lost her career as result of being branded “Hanoi Jane” before cleaning up her image alongside her then-husband Tom Hayden and returning to the mainstream as a fitness guru. Fonda too was subjected to violent threats and harassment, even without the convenience and omnipresence of the internet.
This is the price of stepping across that line. The minute the “cool girl” complains or even observes injustice or bias, she becomes the killjoy. And the killjoy becomes the target of sexually violent harassment with the goal of returning her to her place as a fun and willing sexual object. It is clearly a dangerous line to cross. These cultural tropes tend to be internalized by us all, without interrogation of own beliefs. Even those who find the events of Gamergate horrific can be guilty of policing gender in other ways, be it by encouraging girls to smile or teaching boys not to cry. A vocal minority makes a great deal of noise, especially when they threaten women’s lives for the crime of stepping outside the beautiful passivity they expect. But they are not the only guilty party — just the most brazen. The truth is that the happiness objects that are supposed to make us happy because of demographic characteristics sometimes make us happy and sometimes they do not. Sometimes we prefer a mix. Sometimes we need to speak up against injustice, and sometimes we just need to turn off and enjoy a dumb movie. That is an individual choice. It is ok not to be “on” all the time as a feminist, but we must not allow our lives and personas to be policed by the societal expectations of our culture. We don’t have to be complacent as “cool girls” or as “happy housewives.” We must complain, we must point out injustice. We must not be afraid to take our seat at the table and to speak our own truth. In the words of Ahmed, “there can be joy in killing joy.”