The XX Factor

Who Wants to Be the “Cool Girl” When You Can Have Respect Instead?

In all the discourse about the “toxic” culture of online feminism, it’s really nice to get a ray of hope, courtesy of Sarah Ditum at the New Republic. In a piece titled “Feminism’s Un-Celebrated Weapon: Kindness,” Ditum writes about trying to be a “Cool Girl Feminist”:

The Cool Girl Feminist doesn’t insist that men and women should be equal. The Cool Girl doesn’t even suggest there’s anything wrong with the man-woman hierarchy as it stands. All the Cool Girl demands is that she be seen as an exception.

Ditum then goes on to describe the process of moving away from trying to be that Cool Girl. It started when she began to debate with other feminists online about pornography and prostitution. “[T]hese women treated my occupation of a tiny portion of the public sphere as a good in itself, regardless of whether they agreed with me on every point or not.” By making room at the table for a variety of opinions, they showed her how to question “an order in which women were reduced to scrapping over a tiny portion of the world,” and instead imagine a radical new order where women were allowed to have as much social space and respect as men.  

This matters, Ditum argues, because in our status quo, where women feel there are only so many “slots” for them, it’s tempting to try to “win” one of those slots by reserving your “sternest criticisms” for “the women who make sexist men uncomfortable.” It’s a dynamic that tends to come up the most during discussions about sexual harassment, in my experience. It’s the “I like being cat-called” argument, offered up by women whose enthusiasm for being praised and petted by men for being the “reasonable” feminist overrides considerations like intellectual honesty. As Ditum writes:

Being a Cool Girl can be liberating. There’s something splendidly freeing about announcing that you are not as other women are, and refusing to see yourself as victimized simply because you belong to the inferior class. It is, to use a despised word, empowering. But understanding how power works and using it to your own advantage is not the same thing as feminism. The Cool Girl Feminist appears to break boundaries as she breezes into the world of men, but her passport is a promise, written in lipstick and sealed with a handjob, that she won’t actually change anything.

Ditum says that when she finally set aside her desire to be praised as a “Cool Girl” by men and instead chose to engage other women honestly about the issues, she felt better about herself and much better about other women, particularly feminists. “Where being the Cool Girl is contingent on presenting the correct selection of individual attributes,” she writes, “feminism needs to be collective and flexible.” She ended up changing her mind on some major issues, but she also found that there is room for a lot of disagreement among feminists—and those disagreements aren’t as toxic as recent articles would suggest.

Here’s another awesome thing, which Ditum doesn’t mention, that happens after you let go of trying to please men/be the “Cool Girl”: You find there was no reason to fear that seriously challenging male power means losing the ability to connect with men. In fact, being willing to stand up for women tends to clear a lot of the flotsam away, making it easier to see which men sincerely like and respect women and are willing to listen to their ideas, even if those ideas are sometimes personally challenging. Not being afraid of male opinion doesn’t just make it easier to connect with women; it means you get to deal with a better class of men. Sounds like a good deal.