“So you never went on actual dates?”
“No, I wanted to act like a Cool Girl. Have you watched the movie Gone Girl?” Reflecting on her past relationship at Yale, X introduced me to the David Fincher mystery, where the heroine fakes her death to escape a strained marriage, one where her husband only loved the persona she was putting forth—the “Cool Girl.”
Cool Girl is fun. Cool Girl is hot. Cool Girl is game. Cool Girl never gets angry at her man. She only smiles in a chagrined, loving manner. And then presents her mouth for fucking. She likes what he likes, so evidently he’s a vinyl hipster who loves fetish Manga. If he likes girls gone wild, she’s a mall babe who talks for football and endures buffalo wings at Hooters.
I reflected on my own memories of Yale’s dating scene. I was once yelled at by a guy friend’s ex-girlfriend for studying with him. She leaned across the long black desk in Bass Library, two lamps away, her eyes brimming with tears. To the other extreme, I once proudly called relationships “overrated,” my hair flying and tangling in the piercing New England wind. Somehow I felt the need to dismiss labels, fearing the potential casualties of commitment issues and unrequited love.
“I’ve never thought so little of myself,” recalled Y on her attachment to an ex-hookup. “One night, he asked if we could be something more than friends, but I didn’t know what exactly he meant. The next morning, when I wanted to talk it through, he said no. ‘This is not going to happen again.’” Yet things kept happening, repeatedly. Y admitted that she had “romanticized” her experience. She was trapped, believing that “he’ll get there one day,” and that she should wait for him to gain emotional maturity.
Cool Girl at Yale never gets attached after a night of fun in a frat basement. She smiles heedlessly at her friends’ morning-after gossip about post-party ventures. Then she marches into a bright new day with a colorfully-jammed G-Cal schedule, not bothering to glance at her phone for follow-up messages. She advises heartbroken friends in therapy sessions long into the night, with the word “chill” written at the top of her dating gospel.
This ‘Cool Girl’ archetype we subscribe to is a product of the patriarchy. As Ariel Levy writes in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, women internalize the male gaze and willingly participate in self-objectification, while falsely believing it to be a form of empowerment and sexual liberation. Cool Girl makes women complicit in heterosexual male fantasies.
* * *
W downloaded Tinder only upon graduation, when he finally got used to the rejections inherent to romance. “Heterosexual men have to be very proactive in the dating market, or else there’s no chance to date. You have to develop a thick skin,” commented W on the general preconception that men have to make the ‘first move.’ He learned to “play by the rules” and put himself out there only through understanding that “girls’ rejections mean nothing personal.”
This epiphany didn’t come so easily. W recalled the turning point to be the pandemic: more relaxed at home, he no longer relied on food as a coping mechanism. He started gaining confidence after losing some weight. “Back when I was at Yale, I was so afraid of potential rejections that I just rejected others first.”
What intrigues me in these interviews is how conventional heterosexual gender roles reflect underlying power dynamics. In Tom Wolfe’s 2000 essay collection, he introduces “hooking up” as a cultural spectacle, noting that women had recently started using “‘score’ as an active verb indicating sexual conquest,” even though the term was typically only used by men in the twentieth century. Twenty-three years later, this attitude of active pursuit is on its way out: “Cool Girl” is effortlessly passive in courting situations.
But it seems like the allure of garnering romantic attention still possesses power. Z told me that being hit on at a party offers her a sense of satisfaction, belonging even, that she had longed for when she first arrived at Yale. “Have you read The Stranger? I had such a strong resonance with it.” The Albert Camus story centers around an emotionally detached young man, who refuses to cry at his mother’s funeral and shoots a man for no clear reason. Absurd, existential, free of social norms, he resides in the eternal void of the meaningless of life.
Maybe Z’s recollection of her satisfaction while flirting in public points to universal experiences at Yale: the incessant journey of self-questioning; the inevitable FOMO from social life; the perpetual effort to put out a facade; the inconsolable anxiety confronting quarter-life crises.
* * *
My conceptions of the Yale dating scene crumbled on Valentine’s Day 2022, as an explosion of Instagram stories permeated my feed. Coming back from my gap year as a junior, I was shaken by the sheer number of couples popping up—what had happened? Were Yalies’ commitment issues magically healed during the pandemic? Did the tendency to seek stability accompany our growing age? What about the fact that Gen Z has social media carved into its skull?
One year later, an additional question has joined the pool: are we still pretending to look “cool”? Influenced by Instagram, an idealized image of ourselves has burrowed into our heads like a parasite, whispering at every moment that it could actually become real.
I don’t know if the Cool Girl phase will ever pass. I don’t know if humans can ever stop pretending, and if we could, whether or not it would be a good thing. What I do know, however, is that letting out a scream because your situationship ghosted you, or shedding a tear or five about your ex that you’re still not over, is healthy—even if it’s not cool.