Who is the Cool Girl? The evolution of coolness in a culture that thrives off impermanence.

We’ve all seen her, in some way or another, in some time or place. The illusive walk, the ethereal mystique, the silent charm that draws you in. The internet calls her the “cool girl”, but really, it seems to be increasingly more difficult to try and pin down the qualities that make her “cool”.


CW: discussions of misogyny.


We’ve all seen her, in some way or another, in some time or place. The illusive walk, the ethereal mystique, the silent charm that draws you in. The internet calls her the “cool girl”, but really, it seems to be increasingly more difficult to try and pin down the qualities that make her “cool”.

When I sat down to write this, I rapidly recalled all the “cool girls” I could think of, but when I started listing names, I realised that these girls were completely different. They didn’t look the same, dress the same, behave the same, or lean into the same aesthetic. What is more, they were only classed as certified “cool girls” by my own standard. Yes, coolness is a construct, much like most of the terms we use to define people – but when the culture we live in is so rapidly evolving, with opinions becoming increasingly fleeting (cue micro-trends), our concept of coolness becomes blurred.

In principle, being “cool” is the ability to be calm, collected and otherwise nonchalant in times of stress – but this definition has far transcended literal meaning and is now most often used to describe an energy, aura, or level of someone’s perceived status.

Throughout my life I’ve understood and witnessed many different definitions of “cool” that have evolved just as I have, yet now when I try to explain what cool is, no single definition comes to mind. So here is the multifaceted nature of cool as I have seen it:

The schoolgirl cool girl.

My first recognition of coolness as a concept emerged from a series of ritualistic, after-school Disney Channel viewings. Hannah Montana, Lizzy McGuire and Alex Russo (of Waverly Place) epitomised the “cool girl”, and I – like many others my age – strived to embody their effortless charm. Of course, the reward for coolness at that age was playground popularity, which throughout the rest of middle and high school, progressed to a more serious and seemingly life-defining common-room popularity - which at that level, also meant invites to parties, Facebook pokes by the footy boys and an invite to all the school formals.

The “cool girls” in school – in a traditional sense – are pretty, skinny and confident. They’re friends with boys (!!!), they’re probably really good at netball, and they often exist in a realm that is perceived as slightly above everyone else. No one knows how they get to their position, but once they are there, their label sticks till graduation day.

This high-school conceptualisation of coolness still exists, unmoving between the ages of 8-18, yet once I reached university, I realised that a different definition of coolness prevailed – one that existed beyond the American cheerleader-esque “cool girls” in the ‘people my age at school’ category.

The cool girl that’s “not like the other girls”.

Sometimes intertwined with that of the school-girl cool girl, is the easy-going, fun-loving yet mysterious (and hot) “cool girl” that – often lying in the centre of the male gaze – is most definitely not like the other girls.

Although a fair few seeds of internalised misogyny were planted within the schoolgirl cool girl hierarchy, the equivocation of coolness to a closeness to masculinity, is also present in this version of the “cool girl”.

Initially popularised by Gillian Flynn in her novel Gone Girl with an iconic, self-scathing monologue by protagonist Amy, this specific “cool girl” trope has served as a platform for a myriad of discourses from 2014 up until today. As described both in the book and many analyses that followed, this “cool girl” paradoxically embodies many stereotypically masculine qualities, hobbies, and behaviours – like beer, burgers, cars and raucousness – while maintaining the highest standard of careless, feminine, conventional attractiveness. Essentially, this (relatively mythical) “cool girl” exists solely for the male gaze, with on-screen depictions existing for pleasure of the male viewer who constructs - or more so expects - this unattainable standard for women in real life.

However, as reflected in Gone Girl, the “cool girl” trope has a time limit; eventually revealing itself as a toxic amalgamation of internalised misogyny, isolation, and low self-worth. Because the goal of being a “cool girl” is to be different from other women in the hopes that your irresistible uniqueness will compel men to fall in love with you (also a symptom of main-character syndrome), the “cool girl’s” self-worth is thus, often demarcated by their level of desirability.

What is more, the predictability of this “cool girl” trope, and the many criticisms against it, has paradoxically made it “uncool” to retain this persona. In fact, it calls into question whether the “cool girl” as defined in this way, was ever truly cool to other women, or whether it was the self-proclaimed cool factor that gave it the name. Either way, this version of the “cool girl” – most recently re-named the “pick-me girl” – has most definitely lost its allure.

Hyperreal individual cool girls

As of late, the “cool girl” has seemingly broken free of the static chains of what coolness was in high school and taken on a range of different personalities and aesthetics – on par with society’s recent fixation on uniqueness and micro-trends. 

Where Gen X and millennials used to seek out and curate interests, style (and subsequently coolness), through culture, music and art, Gen Z has access to an immediately accessible gateway to cultural coolness in social media. Although “cool girls” now begin as an authentic representation of uniqueness, personal style, and carelessness – this persona is often broadcasted to social media and thus, provides a lineage of consumers with a “cool girl” aesthetic to mimic.

However, inevitably ‘too many’ people will adopt the same “cool girl” energy, hairstyles, makeup, and outfits (more easily facilitated by fast-fashion behemoths), and thus render this fleeting micro-aesthetic no longer “cool” and at worst, “cheugy”.

With long-lasting uniqueness somewhat endangered in today’s climate – it has proven to be one of the paradoxically constant yet fleeting marks of the “cool girl”. Of course, the opposite of cool is ‘basic’, and though there are arguably an infinite number of ways to be unique, social media has unfortunately generated a slippery pipeline between the two, and in turn, giving people more intense motivations to find a niche.

This is further embodied in the emergence of the “weird girl aesthetic” - a style classified by essentially, wearing whatever you want. Broadly categorised by an amalgamation of  mismatched textures and patterns, the “weird girl aesthetic” is paradoxically, uniqueness aestheticised.

In an article for Vox, Safy Hallan-Farah defines this enthusiasm for uniqueness and rare aesthetics, as “hyperreal individualism”. She explains that “hyperreal individualism is where the original references [of an aesthetic] are largely illegible or incoherent, but the individual wishes to define themselves and create an identity around their own disparate tastes and styles anyway.”

Class also plays an important role, where when poorer consumers prioritise accessibility and practicality with their personal identities and style, their lack of choice is seen as authentic and thus, often “cool”. The subsequent copycatting of their style, ultimately contributes to another fleeting trend of performative coolness -  the aestheticization of poverty.

Now, with every aspiring “cool girl” trying to pin down a uniqueness that is palatable enough to be popular, but not basic enough to be copied, society is left in a tricky situation that questions if coolness itself is an accurate categorisation anymore, or rather, authenticity is what is desirable.

With our perceptions being increasingly influenced by social media, and micro-trends creating different categories of carbon-copied “fashion girlies”, coolness has arguably lost its inherent meaning. What was once a democratic perception of ethos, has become a competitive commodity, yet although she may not actually exist in our culture of comparison, the cool girl - to me - exists in the original definition: organically, and authentically, uncaring.

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